Private First Class Vanessa Guillen was murdered in April. Her family says that Guillen had been sexually harassed by multiple superiors, and although the main suspect in the murder was not her superior, Guillen’s death has provoked anew calls to confront sexual assault and harassment in the military.
Enter Betsy Schoeller, a longtime senior lecturer at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin and a retired Air National Guard colonel. By her own account, Schoeller suffered sexual harassment in the military. In a Facebook group she thought was private, in response to a post about Guillen, Schoeller parodied an attitude she considers deplorable but prevalent: “You guys are kidding, right? Sexual harassment is the price of admission for women into the good ole boy club. If you’re gonna cry like a snowflake about it, you’re gonna pay the price.” Sarcasm can easily be misunderstood, and it’s true that we have only Schoeller’s say-so concerning her intent. But that “good ole boy club” is strong evidence that we’re dealing with a parody rather than an endorsement of a disgusting attitude toward women.
But the atmosphere being what it is, the petition to can Schoeller has over 144,000 signatures as of this writing.
As the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) promptly pointed out, they cannot legally fire Schoeller even if she condones sexual harassment or assault. But Schoeller evidently doesn’t, which makes it troubling that the university also says that her comments are “repugnant and terribly at odds with UWM’s values.” Emily Cruz, who organized the petition, is more honest about the possibility that she misread Schoeller’s comments. She just thinks that professors should be fired if their comments aren’t proof against uncharitable misinterpretation: “There’s a certain way to say things and there’s a way not to say it, and she chose to say it the way not to say it.”
Undergraduates, right? Wrong. As I noted, Schoeller’s comments have been denounced by her own administration. They have also been disowned by the Wisconsin Air National Guard. Most strikingly, UWM’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors has gotten into the fray not to defend Schoeller’s academic freedom, the traditional role of the AAUP, but to urge that Scholler be dealt with, albeit not fired. Shadow sections of her courses must be created, so that “no student will be forced to take a class from” her. An open-ended “review of any past behaviors or complaints that may indicate problematic behaviors on the issues of gender, race, and/or sexual harassment” should “be conducted.” Her grading, where it cannot be rendered double blind, must be checked by another faculty member. Dr. Scholler must undergo “in person training” to make sure she can be expected to abide by requirements to report sexual harassment.
That is to say, Betsy Scholler should be sanctioned and further humiliated because “no matter what Dr. Schoeller intended,” students who “interpret her statement” to mean the opposite of what the evidence suggests it meant must be mollified, rather than invited to read and consider her explanation and apology. Again, this is from the group charged with defending academic freedom at UWM. They should all turn in their badges.
Looking at cases akin to the one discussed here, in academics, journalism, and elsewhere, an all-star cast of artists and intellectuals of various political persuasions—from the novelist, Salman Rushdie, to the musician Wynton Marsalis, to the columnist David Brooks—have signed on to a letter, slated to appear in Harper’s Magazine, warning of “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments,” on the right and the left, “that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Although the letter suggests, wrongly, that this sort of attitude has grown strong on the left only recently, and despite the follow-up grumblings of some of the letter’s signatories, we should applaud the effort. It will be hard to dismiss.