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Letter to the Editor

By Michael Mitchell

To the editor:

Your article about Monday’s faculty discussion with William Deresiewicz—“In Heated Discussion, ‘Excellent Sheep’ Author Fields Criticism from Faculty, Students”—presents the conduct of some of our faculty and administrators toward Dr. Deresiewicz as fair contributions to a reasonable discussion; in fact, they were often unworthy of our values.

As the article reports, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana asked Deresiewicz what he “[missed] most about being an academic.” The article doesn’t put the question in context. Deresiewicz is no longer an academic because Yale denied him tenure. Dean Khurana could only have mocked a peer more uncharitably if he had asked his predecesor, Professor Evelynn Hammonds, what she missed most about being a dean.

Consider the article’s statement that one of Deresiewicz’s remarks “elicit[ed] a response” from Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, who spoke “when the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions of the panel.” That’s true, but it elides this: When the moderator asked the audience for questions—which, as I understand them, typically end in question marks and ask something—Dean Smith, one of our university’s highest academic administrators, made a polemical statement instead.

Moreover, the article omits the most disingenuous maneuver of the evening. In an attempt to set up a “gotcha” moment, Professor Diana Sorenson asked Deresiewicz why he thought students shouldn’t do internships. When Deresiewicz said he didn’t hold that view, Sorenson dramatically opened his book and read a line which seemed to confirm her account of his position—eliciting raucous laughter and applause from the crowd. Stunned, Deresiewicz asked her to read the entire paragraph the line came from, insisting that in context, the sentence in question addressed only students taking a gap year. Sorenson declined, and Deresiewicz was denied a chance to defend himself.

As a student, I’m embarrassed that administrators and faculty members would violate the basic norms of a panel discussion in order to score points against a thoughtful critic. In framing what happened as part of a constructive but “heated” discussion, the article legitimizes conduct that undermines our values and shields it from deserved scrutiny.

As a community ostensibly committed to reflection, dialogue, and the values that sustain them, we only do ourselves a disservice when we treat those we disagree with so unfairly—not to mention confirm some of Deresiewicz’s most biting critiques of who we are.

Michael Mitchell '15

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