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Moral concerns deserve real response

January 24, 2020

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

In September, I wrote a few hundred words summarizing widely reported and easily accessible information about how some of this college’s wealth is generated. I am not an investigative journalist: what I wrote contained no revelations. I am not an expert in business: what I wrote contained no analysis or insight into the world of finance. But I am ethically bound to be wary of the compromises that come with wealth and power, and I have a professional mandate to the students of Bowdoin to guide them towards confronting the moral implications of what we do here, which I aimed to do in my short essay.

I wrote in the same naive way that I teach, counting on people’s goodness and curiosity to lead to a substantive exchange of ideas about some tricky topics. I have been stripped of my naivete by the public and institutional response to what I thought was a straightforward opinion piece. Students and faculty have commended me for my bravery, a response I found wildly out of proportion with compiling a summary of some news stories whose conclusion was essentially “perhaps we should think about this.” I had not understood the extent to which a culture of fear permeates this college, as I have learned from the numbers of my colleagues who have shared, in hushed tones, words of support they are unable or unwilling to express publicly.

When President Clayton Rose spoke during the October faculty meeting to criticize what I had written, he asked that his words be kept off the public record. When he was called upon to respond, in writing and on the record, he produced a letter to the faculty that failed to address what I had hoped it would.

President Rose was right to point out that I “used broad strokes” in my characterizations, and his charge of “innuendo” is justified. In trying to be brief, I succumbed to generalizations. He was also correct in pointing out that I misstated a pair of job titles, and misrepresented the corporate structure of Rubert Murdoch’s media holdings. I regret these errors, but not as much as I regret seeing a response that uses them to deflect attention from important moral questions, and which is satisfied to laud the “integrity” of the trustees without stating where such integrity might be found, or whether any of the apparent misdeeds I described have any bearing on that integrity.

But look, I’m just a gadfly of a German teacher. What do I know? I have never met any of the trustees, I have never spoken with President Rose beyond the odd ‘hello’ and my knowledge of finance is limited at best. So I would like to invite the administration to help me, the student body and the community as a whole, understand how integrity in governance is maintained. In September I painted in broad strokes; now let me pull out one of those little brushes with the finest tip I can find, and trace the ways President Rose seems to be evading a frank discussion.

I mentioned Paula Wardynski’s work with the Murdoch family. I genuinely do not understand what it means to be Senior Vice President for Finance with Foxcorps Holdings LLC, in which capacity it appears that Ms. Wardynski executed the purchase of real estate, and other high-value goods on behalf of the Murdoch family, while seeking to conceal her activities. President Rose could have taken the opportunity to explain why what looks to me like a money-laundering scheme on behalf of one of the world’s major architects of evil is, in fact, the behavior of a person of integrity, but instead, he ended the discussion by focusing on a technicality. This is an infuriating fallacy because Ms. Wardynski’s job title has no bearing on the actions she undertakes in that job, which is what matters here, and which, the President’s letter indicates, the administration does not want to talk about.

The second fallacy President Rose used, in the only sentence of his letter pertaining to his work on the board of directors of Bank of America, is called the “half-truth fallacy.”  He is correct in stating that the bank “announced over a decade ago that it would no longer fund mountaintop removal coal mining.” The bank began its gradual phaseout of support for that most egregious of practices 11 years ago last month. But it is also a perfect example of how a fact without context can be misleading. Because of course Bank of America is still deep in the fossil fuel industry—they have merely pivoted to more profitable pockets of the extraction economy. In 2015, they announced a reduction in “financial exposure to coal companies,” in a statement that made it pretty clear that they were still going to invest in fossil fuels. And then there’s the matter of their ongoing investment in multiple oil and gas pipelines.

Similarly, the President’s statement about Bank of America’s recent decision not to extend further financing to Caliburn, the corporation responsible for much of last year’s headline-grabbing cruelty against immigrants, glosses over some important points. For instance, that Bank of America will still be financing Caliburn, and other for-profit prison conglomerates, under existing agreements, through at least 2024, per a negotiation completed barely a week before announcing their separation. Or that the decision to withdraw financing came only after a wave of public pressure that left the bank little choice, or that it was the last major bank in the country to take this step. It’s like when I get caught wolfing cookies in the kitchen, and instantly reach for the biggest handful I can manage, saying, “Okay, no more after these.”

As president, Rose has called for intellectual fearlessness, but in this case, he is demonstrating the very opposite. As a member of Bank of America’s board of directors, he should be prepared to publicly defend the bank’s position, or articulate his internal opposition. He should not dismiss criticism, even when it comes from a pesky professor at the bottom of the academic food chain. And if he tries, we shouldn’t let him get away with it.

I don’t have any answers here, all I have are the plain facts and a sense that we are owed a response from our leadership. Will you join me in demanding one?

Andrew Hamilton is a Visiting Assistant Professor of German.

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3 comments:

  1. Lisa Savage '77 says:

    I read with interest this follow up to Hamilton’s original article. I appreciate the author’s focus on ethical conduct and his willingness to parse disinformation generated in response to his first piece. He writes almost as if the future of life on Earth depended upon real information and honest appraisal of our own role in hastening climate emergency.

  2. Class of '04 says:

    Prof. Hamilton —

    What would you like to see happen? Where do you want this to end? What does your perfectly moral and just Bowdoin look like?

    Also, Professors seem to be making more and more contributions to the Orient opinion pages. Every one of them is highly critical of the administration. This, combined with the regular student outcries about systemic oppression, and outside observers are left thinking that the place is falling apart at the seems.

    Is it? Is the school, the campus, the atmosphere, the polices — are they all as bad as what the school newspaper of record would have us think?

  3. Concerned alum says:

    There have been a number of professors that have levied serious criticisms against the school, its institutions, and even individuals within the administration, including President Rose. At what point does the administration respond? The level of vitriol that regularly appears in the Orient is a troubling trend to see as an alum. And it cannot be good for the school’s reputation.


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