You might have mixed feelings if you heard the news from the Charleston Post and Courier the other day. Either a hero has exposed his feet o' clay, or a wronged man is getting his comeuppance.
Robert Dillon earned the admiration of the fuddy-duddy community last spring. He is—was—an associate professor of biology at the College of Charleston. Though tenured for many years, Dillon by his own testimony has never risen above the rank of associate professor owing to his general impatience with the pedagogical fads and bureaucratic argle-bargle that consume American higher education nowadays. On campus the fads and the argle-bargle are enforced by an army of mid-level bureaucrats, ever ready with a sympathetic word and a twinkly smile to decapitate anyone who makes the first sign of trouble. They are the good little Germans of political correctness in all its forms.
Dillon had grown used to crossing them. But this spring was different. Last September, administrators and department leaders insisted that Dillon make his course syllabus conform to new mandates from the CofC's regional accrediting organization. (Accrediting organizations, which bestow the seal of approval on colleges and make them eligible for federal aid, are another powerful villain in the decline of American higher education. But that's a story for another time.)
From now on Dillon's course syllabuses would have to include a section of bullet-points labeled "student learning outcomes." It's an amazing phrase. It reeks of the social science lab, where the chief aim is to complicate the uncomplicated and make the meaningless look profound. Modern education is full of 'em.
Dillon described the typically appalling process in a letter published in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
[W]e received a memo from the new [college administrator] with the subject line, "Assessment of assessment — quality improvement process." This document featured a five-item list of "modifications to the assessment template and rubric necessary for continuous improvement of the institution's assessment processes," followed by a three-step implementation plan, with a-b substeps and deadlines for each substep marked in bold.
Dillon had had enough. In place of the bullet points he tacked on to his syllabus a lengthy quote from Woodrow Wilson. It was a defense of the once widely accepted ideal of liberal learning.
"It is the business of a University [Wilson wrote] to impart to the rank and file of the men whom it trains the right thought of the world, the thought which it has tested and established, the principles which have stood through the seasons and become at length part of the immemorial wisdom of the race."
Race, we should note, refers here to the human race. You can never be sure with Wilson, who was a talented professor, a father of the Democratic party, and an arrant racist.
In refusing to "drill our students in bullet-point lists of banalities," as Dillon put it in his letter to the Chronicle, this spring he was declared "insubordinate," removed from his teaching responsibilities, barred from his classroom, and placed on unpaid leave. One educrat even called him "sanctimonious." Imagine a college administrator accusing someone else of sanctimony.
Now Dillon has made his separation from the college official, retiring over the summer. Undoubtedly the college doesn't know that it has lost one of its last holdouts for intellectual freedom and genuine diversity.
Unfortunately for those of us who cheer his doomed and pointless resistance to the rising tide of mediocrity, Dillon has also resorted to a more banal convention of modern life: he has filed a lawsuit against the school and its officers, accusing them of defaming him and denying him due process. The Post and Courier quoted the complaint: "The Defendants had no right to require Plaintiff to add trivial banalities to the wording of his syllabus."
At the moment Dillon is off hiking, according to acquaintances. He didn't respond to requests for an interview. So there's no comment from here on the merits of the case. It's worth registering disappointment, though, that a principled fight should descend into the grievance-mongering and victim-posing of the typical lawsuit. Dillon is still an admirable figure, no matter the outcome—if you'll excuse the expression—in court, and proudly stands as one of the last of a dying breed: a college professor who enjoys the unrutted play of the intellect (and who can quote Woodrow Wilson).