A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Some thoughts on bias

And the comments keep pouring in! Well, okay, trickling is probably a more accurate evaluation, but what the hey. Are they comments about the really (no, really) spooky resemblence between Gloria Steinem and Ward Churchill? Nope. Commentary on the Terri Schiavo case which has ramifications across a veritable plethora of moral, judicial and political arenas? Nope. One is in regards to faculty bias (okay, I do talk about that a lot) and the other about my brief commentary on Bruce Pearl, coach of the UW-Milwaukee Panthers. Not what I would've expected, but hey, if that's what folks want to talk about it works for me.

Two new comments then, and they raise some interesting points, both directly and indirectly, on the importance of recognizing ones own biases, as well as those of others. Let's deal with the indirect point first, which is this comment in regards to Coach Pearl and my support for what he did 15 years ago:

Right. Bruce Pearl is principled--that's why the NCAA couldn't find anything--zero, zilch, NADA--to back up his spurious, lying claims. He's a RAT. Obviously the rest of the coaching fraternity realized this, as he was locked out of D-I for nine years.

The real story is

Pop quiz-- can anyone spot the bias here? Good work, good work. At least with this much bias it's not hard to see it, understand it, and factor it into your evaluation of what the person is saying. Clearly, this guy's feelings for the University of Illinois are strong, and he took what happened fifteen years ago very personally. Which I can understand to a point, I'm an avid fan myself and I'm no doubt biased in favor of UWM and Pearl, but the problem here is that his bias is making him believe that all that was wrong with the Illinois program was Pearl's fault. He has rationalized away any culpability for Illinois, its coaches and AD, and transferred that guilt to Pearl. Never underestimate the power of rationalization-- the human brain is quite adept at finding excuses and rationales when the subject is one the person cares deeply about.

As to the specifics, such as they are, of the comment. The NCAA did not specifically sanction Illinois regarding the taped conversation with Deon Thomas, true, but that does not mean there was nothing to be found there, nor that they were innocent. Just that it was insufficient to punish Illinois based on the tape. Rather like someone being charged with a crime and then not going to trial based on insufficient probable cause. It does not indicate guilt or innocence, merely lack of sufficient evidence. And the fact remains that Illinois WAS busted for a variety of violations separate from the Thomas affair. Violations that might never have come to light if Pearl's tape hadn't picqued the NCAA's curiousity. The fact also remains that Pearl was just a new assistant at Iowa at that time, and it was his bosses that asked him to tape the recruit. It was also his bosses that got him the equipment for the taping. But do Tom Davis or any of the others at Iowa in 1989 catch any flak? Not really, because Pearl was the guy with the recorder.

Okay, now onto the comment regarding direct bias. A reader turned my post on bias in academia on its head by inserting "military" and "conservative" for the words "faculty" and "liberal." The result is this interesting commentary:

No, bias is not inherently bad-- we all have them, and I appreciate knowing them ahead of time. There are two major problems with bias in the military these days.

The first is that the bias is far, far too heavily weighted to the right. A hugely disproportionate percentage of ranking officers/military members are republicans/conservatives, and much of that bias is now bleeding into the training, thus influencing recruits. Which would be okay if they received counter influences from the other side of the spectrum. But since there are few liberal voices in today's military, the ranking officer’s bias serves more as indoctrination than as one perspective on the world.

The second problem is that many ranking officers don't realize, or don't acknowledge, that they have this bias. This causes them to present their slanted viewpoints as "balanced and fair." Thus, any views that are more liberal than the ranking officer’s come to be seen as far-left or extreme. The whole spectrum of opinion winds up skewed way to the right, so that centrist positions seem radical, and extreme right-wing positions seem run-of-the-mill.

Which is a reasonable point, I think, and certainly somewhat true. I have little doubt that the military is skewed to the right, and articles like this October 21, 2004, one from the NY Times do lend it credence. Which is of concern. Yet, there is at least one difference between the two situations, and it's a pretty big one.

To my knowledge, and I feel pretty safe with this one, the military has never, ever claimed to be an institution dedicated to the free and open exchange of ideas. Quite to the contrary, those going into the military should have a pretty fair idea of what sort of culture to expect-- regimented, topdown structure with limited opportunities for those at the bottom to express themselves. This is one reason why, though I admire those who serve, I did not opt for joining the military. I do not believe that this is a good thing, nor do I believe that the military should be the near exclusive province of republicans (if it is), but there are no pretensions to the contrary.

U.S. universities, by contrast, pride themselves on their diversity, their openness, and their dedication to the quest for knowledge of all types. Except when it comes to conservative thought and priniciple. It's an important distinction from my perspective, because I think the biggest danger of biased reporting/viewpoints/discussions or whatever is when it purports to be absent any bias, fair and representative. As an example, when Ward Churchill spoke at UW-Whitewater not long ago, many complained and Whitewater chancellor Jack Miller responded:

"Regardless of the opinions of others, I believe that the academy is at its best when it serves as a forum to exchange ideas," Miller said. "I do not share the same fear of words that has apparently become more prevalent in today’s society."

Which is fine, except that Whitewater is only serving as an exchange for liberal ideas, based on their line-up of speakers. Now, I have nothing against any of these folks individually, but would anybody seriously consider any of them to be a conservative? Not a chance. Why not invite Sean Hannity, or David Horowitz or any of those other members of the vast right-wing conspiracy? Let the students compare and contrast. Instead, the university continues to present itself as an institution that advocates the free exchange of all viewpoints while clearly presenting only one perspective. I don't mean to pick on UW-Whitewater, which is a fine school (I worked there briefly), but it does illustrate the point, I think.

What was that point again? Oh yeah. Beware of bias, and particularly of folks who like to be pundits but claim to be impartial or neutral. To my mind, the biggest offenders in this area are the mainstream media and academia. I do not claim to be impartial, but I do try to examine issues from both sides. For whatever that's worth.

Keep the comments coming, folks. This is fun!


Me again. I will not claim to be without bias. No reasonable person can. I'm an Illinois fan, and that influences my thinking. Yet I can still make rational arguments and I can still cite objective sources, as I do liberally in my piece.

He has rationalized away any culpability for Illinois, its coaches and AD, and transferred that guilt to Pearl. Never underestimate the power of rationalization-- the human brain is quite adept at finding excuses and rationales when the subject is one the person cares deeply about.

Illinois was in a vulnerable situation because of recruiting violations from its football program. We must be careful not to paint with broad strokes here and talk just about "Illinois." No is denying the football program's problems.

Bruce Pearl saw the situation at Illinois as an opportunity to bring down a competitor. The NCAA did his dirty work and cited the "lack of institutional control," even though the minor transgressions for which the basketball team was punished largely resulted from the fact that the NCAA was mad about previous problems with the football program. It's quite easy to glean this from their infraction report.

It's still important to examine BP's motivations and the fact that the NCAA couldn't find a shred of evidence to prove that his edited-and-spliced-together-taped-conversation-at-2am-after-6-previous-phone-calls -to-a-17-year-old was true. Bruce Pearl was wrong. Bruce Pearl lied. But the NCAA was still willing to undertake a full investigation of the Illinois bball program and punish it way beyond the pale because of the past transgressions of the football program.

Does the NCAA deserve some of the blame? Yes. Iowa? Yes. Tom Davis? Yes. Illinois' football program? Absolutely. But the fact of the matter is that the cunning, conniving, lying Bruce Pearl saw a vulnerable opponent, lied about them, and got them investigated. For that, he should be despised.
Well, thanks for the continued dialogue, and I think you make a much better case this time around. I still disagree with you, however, because I think you are making Pearl the scapegoat for other people's failings. But essentially it boils down to a "he said-he said" situation. You believe Thomas and Collins when they say that Pearl was vindictive and a liar, and I believe Pearl, when he says he was trying to do the right thing.

I base my opinion on the fact that the Illinois basketball program was dirty, and that Pearl has been an excellent coach and community member during his time in Milwaukee. I have seen no evidence to lead me to believe that he is a lying, scheming rat, and much to the contrary.

But it is what it is. There is no way to know for sure if you are not Pearl, Collins or Thomas. I think an unfortunate side effect of the whole mess, and one of the reasons I wish Illinois fans would let it go, is that it is detracting from two talented groups of young men who will tip it off tomorrow night in what I hope is a great game. The odds of UWM winning are pretty slim-- I think Illinois is the best team in the country-- but on any given Thursday....

Good luck to you and the Illini-- if they do beat UWM, they better win it all. I have them going all the way in my Not-Office-Pool, and if they do win it all, I have an excellent chance of winning the thing.

Dang, once again you’ve left me without anything to argue about. Your point about the military being an institution vastly different from a center of higher learning is well made.

A university is *supposed* to prepare people for the challenges of earning a living in the real world. The military is *supposed* to kill people and break things.

You can’t run a military on “diversity” or “openness”.
And since universities preach, but do not practice, “openness” and “diversity”, the military has the greater moral standing.
Looked what happened to Pearl at TN.
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