Uncomfortable Posting – Steven Miller, Associate Professor Of Mathematics

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on EphBlog. Here is a link to the original post, where there are responses to the post in the comments section below: http://ephblog.com/2015/10/30/uncomfortable-posting/

Greetings. I’m the faculty president of the Williams’ chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. As there has been a lot of discussion about speakers invited to campus by Uncomfortable Learning, I wanted to briefly post why PBK has decided to co-sponsor their next speakers.

PBK is dedicated to the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression. We do not necessarily support the views and opinions of the speakers, but we strongly support the calls made by President Falk,  William McGuire III ’17 and others on the importance and value of having civil discussions. There is a great opportunity in such debate, and we encourage all interested members of the community to come to these and other events and be heard. Many of the positions held by students and faculty on our campus today would not have found receptive audiences in the earlier days of Williams; ideas should be refuted by facts, not silenced.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
                     Because I was not a Socialist.

                     Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
                     Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

                     Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out 
                     Because I was not a Jew.

                    Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for
                    me. — Martin Niemoller

16 thoughts on “Uncomfortable Posting – Steven Miller, Associate Professor Of Mathematics

  1. Professor Miller,

    Histories of the Holocaust are constantly operationalized in political discourse, usually to forward particular ideologies and to demonize whatever political opponent is convenient. You probably know that this practice is usually disrespectful, misleading, and painful to say the least.

    In this case, it seems like you’re using the history of the genocide and murder of Jews, Roma, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities, and millions of others to vilify a group of students who objected to the content of a misogynistic speaker’s body of work and questioned the priorities of those who chose to invite her to speak at Williams.

    Since you’re very sensitive about free speech, I’d like to be clear: I respect your right to include this poem in your article, and I don’t demand that you remove it.

    But let me exercise my right to free speech and say that I think this is disgraceful. It hurts me to know that the violence my people endured would be trivialized in this way.

    I wish you had thought twice about linking a group of student activists to the nazis, especially as you are an apparently respected professor and a leader on campus.

    A Williams student

  2. (The following is a response to a similar post on another blog.)

    Thanks for your comments and critique. I thought long and hard about including that poem. I (obviously) decided to do so in the end, in part because I am not sure how familiar it is to all the readers on the site, and in part because the loss of freedom can be a slow process, and it’s important to be aware in the early stages when corrective action is relatively easy. The dialogue was non-civil before; I’m glad to see it has improved, and look forward to this event from Uncomfortable Learning, as well as many other events from other groups on campus.

    That said, as a Star Trek fan I’m happy to conclude with a different quote which expresses the same sentiment. It’s from Star Trek The Next Generation, Season 4, Episode 21, The Drumhead (Apr 27, 1991).

    Captain Jean-Luc Picard: You know, there are some words I’ve known since I was a schoolboy: “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” Those words were uttered by Judge Aaron Satie, as wisdom and warning. The first time any man’s freedom is trodden on, we’re all damaged. I fear that today… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fjJN08uqt70

  3. For me this is not an issue of left versus right (the second Uncomfortable Learning speaker is, I believe, a Democrat; in his talk he said he gave to both Obama presidential campaigns). It is an issue of free inquiry and civil discourse.

    Here is a very sad incident from my alma mater:

    If people would like to see the letter from the assistant master at Silliman College, please email me at sjm1@williams.edu.

  4. Now that Adam Falk has decided to censor John Derbyshire, I’d love to hear more about whether or not Steven Miller is still standing up for freedom of speech and the idea that “…ideas should be refuted by facts, not silenced.” Given Miller’s silence so far, I think the first line of the quote should be:

    First they came for John Derbyshire, and I did not speak out
    Because I was not a John Derbyshire.

    • I’m glad to know people care so much about my comments here; I can only hope people feel similarly about my recent work on zeros of L-functions, generalized Zeckendorf decompositions, theory and applications of Benford’s law, Lego bricks, sabermetrics, ….

      Seriously, though, this issue has generated enormous discussion on campus, among both students and faculty. This is great; it’s wonderful to see so many people thinking deeply on issues that matter. There are, however, several issues at play here and many items to be sorted out. I have posted a short response to a similar comment on this at EphBlog on some of what is happening; see
      http://ephblog.com/2016/03/02/first-they-came-for-the-fervent-liberals/ (my response is #4, and there is a great reply at #5).

      I agree completely that this is an important issue that needs to be discussed, and thank you for helping to keep this in people’s eyes. That said, frequently it does take some time for people to reach consensus, and I can report that many of us are engaged in constructive dialogue to move us forward.

  5. In this article, you indicate that Phi Beta Kappa “…has decided to co-sponsor..” Uncomfortable Learning’s next speakers. Since you wrote those lines in November 2015, am I correct in assuming that Phi Beta Kappa co-sponsored the appearance of John Derbyshire in February 2016?

  6. As Uncomfortable Learning has not asked Phi Beta Kappa to co-sponsor any additional speakers, we have not. If they or another organization want to co-sponsor an event with Phi Beta Kappa, they are welcome to contact us and the membership is happy to discuss.

  7. Steve, no need to respond to this. Just for fun, I looked into the Phi Beta Kappa website. It turns out that Phi Beta Kappa was founded at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, in 1776. Consistent with those revolutionary times, it was meant to preserve academic freedom and liberal arts education. As they say:

    At the time of induction into The Phi Beta Kappa Society, one joins the nation’s oldest and most prestigious honor society for life. Phi Beta Kappa membership shows commitment to the liberal arts and sciences, and to freedom of inquiry and expression—and it provides a competitive edge in the marketplace.

    See, https://www.pbk.org/WEB/PBK_Member/About_PBK/PBK_Member/About____.aspx?hkey=7b14c826-1a07-4148-a627-2c1a6b1ed3a6

    Under the leadership of the hard left, however, I don’t think the that members of Phi Beta Kappa will be doing much to defend freedom of inquiry and expression. If they do, they will quickly be marginalized by those who think it is more important to spare others from feeling unwelcome or having their tender feelings hurt.

  8. I have seen people who are on the right and the left step up and support free speech and free inquiry on this campus. For many of us this is not a right vs left issue, but a right vs wrong. What complicates the matter greatly, however, is that there are frequently many issues competing for attention, from the nature of the talk to the mechanics of how it is done. While it is too late to undo past actions, it is never to late to learn from them, and to work towards consensus and civility for the future. Many people are pursuing this, on a variety of fronts, and I hope to report on these in the future. Now, I need to return to NSF grant reports, letters of rec, school committee business, interviewing house coordinator candidates (if you’re reading this and you bring me a cookie at the interview I’ll vote for you), writing a book for a class I’m teaching in the fall, ….

  9. Hi Steve:

    Too bad there isn’t room on your busy schedule to rally all the current and former Williams College students who are members of Phi Beta Kappa and ask them to petition the Board of Directors to reverse Adam Falk’s decision to censor John Derbyshire.

    Otherwise, there really isn’t an inspiring reason to have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa on campus anymore, is there?

    As they say on their website: “Since our founding in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa has celebrated excellence in the liberal arts and sciences and championed freedom of thought. As America’s most prestigious academic honor society, we are uniquely equipped to advocate for the value and benefits of liberal arts and sciences education.”

    At the very least, if you are no longer willing to set a brave example by defending the principles of freedom of inquiry and expression, then maybe you should resign as the faculty adviser for Phi Beta Kappa. This way you’ll have a lot more time to co-author, or edit, books that make mathematics easily accessible to undergraduates.

    FYI: I’d share this on Ephblog too, but Williams Alternative has about three times the audience.

    Regards, John

  10. I saw your post on EphBlog first, but as these are similar I’ll paste my comments from there to here. I cannot tell if you are trying to be confrontational or if you are not aware that your words can have that effect. I will continue to believe it is the latter, and hope that this reply will alert you to the fact that your tone can be misunderstood. I am happy to have you and others keeping our attention focused, am open to useful suggestions, and will continue working with colleagues on campus on the important issue of free inquiry. May all of our endeavors succeed.

  11. I’m having similar problems. I’m having a hard time deciding if you are a weak person unable to take a risk and stand up for what is right, or if you are a crafty person hatching a secret plot to remove Adam Falk from office. As far as I can tell, you fought hard for freedom of speech when you thought Falk favored it, but now you are laying low after he betrayed your heartfelt principles. Please say something that makes me think you are crafty…

  12. [[I responded to the EphBlog post first, and as your comments are similar I will just paste my reply to that one here.]] I’m not in the real world. I’m in academia, where rather than being confrontational I work for consensus. I applaud your desire to find facts (as Mr Spock warned his captain, “Insufficient facts always invites danger.”). I encourage you to read my previous posts, but I have said what I wish at this time, in this forum. I wish you well: Live long and prosper.

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