A LETTER TO THE DEAN OF THE UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN LAW SCHOOL

Posted in Rants on August 17th, 2009 by Ed

August 17, 2009

Kenneth Davis, J.D.
Dean, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Law
975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706

Dean Davis,

As an academic with a rather active and classroom-inappropriate website, I want to preface my remarks by stating emphatically that I support the right of faculty to express themselves outside of the confines of their professional lives. The UW-Madison Law School should be commended for its willingness to support Bascom Professor of Law Ann Althouse as she maintains an active presence on the internet as a political commentator. From the tone of this introductory statement you are no doubt expecting that this is where one would begin the complaint; on this count I will be utterly predictable.

Prof. Althouse's ideology and opinions are not the subject of my complaint as the University and the School are no doubt comfortable with her right to say what she pleases, although the costs to the Law School's professional reputation when she makes statements such as "but I doubt if any blogger will disagree with my assertion that, coming from Bill Clinton, the "O" of an onion ring is a vagina symbol. Hillary says no to that, driving the symbolism home" (6/19/07) as the ex-President attempts to eat an appetizer cannot be measured. I must wonder, however, what effect Prof. Althouse's disregard for or ignorance of the basics of formal logic and argumentation have on her ability to effectively teach attorneys-in-training.

In her promotion of the broadly discredited conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in a foreign country, Prof. Althouse recently said the following: "If Obama can't convincingly prove he's not a Muslim/not born in Kenya, it only means the rumors might be true." (8/14/09) I urge you to overlook the politically controversial and factually dubious basis of her statement and consider the fact that this is an exceptionally basic logical fallacy, the argument from ignorance. The individuals who teach formal logic classes to freshmen on your campus – and I was one of them a decade ago – cover such elementary forms of illogic in the first few weeks of class. I am not unused to encountering fallacious arguments from students, media commentators, political figures, and strangers. Seeing a professor at a highly-ranked law school routinely embarrass herself with her inability to construct arguments that are logically consistent is less common.

Academics-turned-bloggers (or in my case, vice-versa) must live with the effects of their private lives on the perceptions of their colleagues and students. I regularly risk students concluding, "My professor is an offensive asshole, and he swears too much." What I do not risk, but Prof. Althouse does, is having students conclude, "My professor is an intellectual lightweight who couldn't pass a freshman logic course and can't construct a basic argument." I won't suggest that my bewilderment at her poor rhetorical skills means that she cannot teach well (i.e., argument from incredulity) but her consistent inability to adhere to the basic rules of logical argument of which I have cited but one recent example raises the question.

Whether the issue is Prof. Althouse's promotion of far-right conspiracy theories or Kevin Barrett's public involvement in the 9/11 "Truth Movement," UW-Madison has proven that it can provide an outstanding education despite the unconventional personal beliefs of its faculty members. I question whether the same can be said of daily public displays by a faculty member of a very basic inability to perform the most fundamental intellectual task of an academic.

Regards,

(name and affiliation redacted, but included in the hard copy I sent)

PS: Note in advance the inadequacy of Prof. Althouse's predictable and clever (in her opinion) response that she merely said the theories "might be" true, which represents a legalistic attempt to cover her backside but is every bit the logical fallacy that a solid assertion would be.

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