The Singing College
Issue   |   Thu, 02/28/2013 - 16:24

After considering the responses to Professor Dumm’s piece, “The Elephant in the Room,” on-line and in The Student (Feb 13 and Feb 20 issues), I am struck that, for a “reading” college, so many students, administrators, faculty members and alumni seemed to have eschewed critical reading skills in order to excoriate sternly and emotionally the attitudes of a respected member of the community. We may not agree with our critics, but we should at least treat them honorably.

False analogies, character attacks, disingenuous expressions of “sadness” and “disappointment,” accusations of insensitivity, vituperation, selective analysis, questioning of motives: all of these are devices of rhetorical discourse that we try to teach our students to challenge. Yet, if one studies the responses to the article, it would seem that critical reading is not a skill as widely shared by the College community as I had thought.

Professor Dumm raises three key points in his article: why didn’t the SOCSM look more probingly into an aspect of our culture that may, just may, have a relationship with sexual violence? Why did the Committee apparently dismiss any further examination of that question? And, given that he had no ready answer, he offered a suggestion, one that many found offensive: is it perhaps because of the importance of athletics to the image of the College, especially among alumni?

That’s it. He does not attack athletes or their sports. He does not state or imply that athletes are bad students. He certainly does not suggest that student athletes are disreputable individuals. Nor does he criticize coaches or our athletic programs, including football. He simply raises questions.

Suppose that, in our classes, every time they brought up an unpleasant topic, our students were attacked this casually, with so much foggy misinformation, so much sarcasm and insult, and so much disdain. What kind of “teaching” college would we be then?

Can we not agree that to raise a sensitive and controversial issue does not imply a bad character, a prejudiced teacher or hidden motives?

Is there a safe haven where sensitive aspects of our campus culture can be freely discussed with frankness, yet good will?

At least, we can still call ourselves the “singing” college.

Alum '10 (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/28/2013 - 19:20

I mean, Glenn Beck "just asks questions" all the time; that doesn't mean he's not engaging in conspiracy theory. To say Dumm only asked questions isn't to say his article was defensible. As Professor Hunt so thoroughly demonstrated in her response article, Dumm had his facts wrong. The committee *did* look at whether athletes might be more prone to sexual assault, and they found that no credible studies have shown such a link and that, at Amherst itself, athletes have been accused of sexual assault no more frequently than non-athletes. What's more, Dumm mischaracterized the very studies he used in an attempt to justify "just asking questions."

alum (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/28/2013 - 19:34

I find it surprising that a tenured Amherst professor fails to see how "just asking questions" can be harmful and unjustified. Even if Dumm's questions were in fact harmless, it's hardly a valid defense of his article to point out that he was "just asking questions." And since Dumm's attempt to justify those questions appears to have consisted of a cursory Google search that resulted in an undergraduate thesis (that in fact undermined his point), it seems fair to question his motives.

Alum (not verified) says:
Sat, 03/02/2013 - 14:27

Great post!! Let's hope Margaret Hunt can manage to "read" this one

'14 (not verified) says:
Sun, 03/03/2013 - 13:40

This needed to be said. Thank you for having the courage to say it.

jh (not verified) says:
Mon, 03/04/2013 - 20:25

Let's remove ourselves from the particular argument of whether Dumm was right or wrong, justified or unjustified, and consider whether his question was a valid question or not.
We can question his motive, criticize the manner and tone with wich he wrote the article, but we cannot ignore the broader uncertainties raised about the athletic community in general.

The way we ask questions might be condemnable. But the question we ask cannot. Not even Glenn Beck's. If they are ridiculous questions then they will be treated as such and ignored. Dumm's questions are not ridiculous. Perhaps they could have been more artfully and diplomatically posed. But they are valid questions nonetheless.

Since a sizable community on campus seems to believe there is indeed a question to be answered, the question must then be answered. Only a thorough answer that addresses both sides of the dispute can dispel misconceptions or stereotypes or discriminatory categorization; ignoring the question will not. Professor Hunt's reply in the Student was sadly inadequate. It was merely defensive. The quality was characteristic of college first-years. In fact I probably know first-years who can write more thoughtful, reasoned and critical arguments than she did in that reply.

Alum (not verified) says:
Sun, 03/10/2013 - 14:02

One of the core drivers of the negative reaction to Professor Dumm's opinion was his refusal to accept that the Committee did look into athletics and its relationship with sexual violence and found that there was not adequate reason to single out athletics in taking the comprehensive set of steps and folow ups coming out of the Committee's recommendations. Apparently Professor Dumm, along with many others - perhaps including Professor Rosbottom - refuse to accept this conclusion, and do so without any inquiry or dialogue with members of the committee to gain a better understanding of what was done, what the facts are and what was behind the committee's recommendations. I hope I will not be characterized as being emotional or unfairly using devices of rhetorical discourse, but I too found Tom Dumm's piece both disturbing and disppointing, for many reasons. I was offended that he did not treat his coleagues with respect ...or honorably, as Professor Rosbottom advises. I think it is clear Tom Dumm has an agenda, and he chose to write a divisive and offensive piece in the Student to further that agenda, seemingly without regard to whether that was helpful to the broader issue of how to best prevent and address sexual misconduct. He did not accept that the committee did its work in responsible fashion and did not pick up the phone or walk over to his fellow members of the Amherst community and ask any questions. To me, it is clear he presumed to know the answer he wanted, and was not prepared to accept that a Committee could find otherwise. No one is suggesting that athletes be excluded from the committee's recommendations, just that athletes do not need to be singled out. Tom Dumm does not simply "raise questions" and his reputation with respect to athletics and athletes makes that statement naive if not disingenuous. I believe the Committee did look "probingly" into the athletic culture and did not reach their conclusions and recommendations lightly. I have spoken to members of the committee and have tried to read their report critically. I don't sing very well but I do know how to read and to recognize an author's bias when it is transparent and blatant. The Committee recommended further examination of the Amherst culture and into the factors which give rise to sexual misconduct, which will include all components of the culture on campus. I don't know what Tom Dumm hoped to accomplish since he did not add a specific set of suggested changes to the existing recommendations, other than the culture of athletics on campus needs to be looked at (again). Apart from what he hoped to accomplish, I do know what he did: Tom Dumm failed to treat his collegaues with respect; he abused his position on campus; he unnecessarily raised suspicions of a conspiracy among alumni donors and the committee's motivations thereby discrediting the legitimate recommendations of a very thougthful committee on an exceptionally important topic; he stereotyped and alienated a large segment of the student body and added to the existing anti-athletic feelings on campus; and he took the focus of the campus on working together to address the issues of sexual misconduct and moved it to his criticism of the "athletic complex", thereby harming Amherst. Tom Dumm's opinion was not about improving and healing but rather focused only on his own agenda. There are already many highly attractive students, potential applicants who might otherwise consider applying to Amherst, who find the anti-athlete culture and attitude to be too strong to live with. These are applicants in the highest rating of the Admissions Office, students who the College would want to pursue, students who then go to schools where Amherst still loses more applicants than it admits. There also are now many alumni who will pause before giving to Amherst, undermining a critical source of funding for the College. So I find Tom Dumm's actions worthy of broad reproach.

tom dumm (not verified) says:
Mon, 03/11/2013 - 00:05

(By the way, I am respoinding to anonymous alum by name. Among the many posts that have insulted me, no one has had the simple decency to make their accusations without the cover of anonymity.)

This is a thoughtful post, in some ways,but it accepts the defenses of the committee that fly in the face of its own intiial report, the chair of that committee's explanation for NOT looking into athletic culture (philosphical, tactical, and finally evidence based, though no evidence is to be found in the report) and moreover, ignores the fact that the community was being told, specificially the faculty in an informal meeting in Octobert, before the committee was even established, that it would be unwise to look into the role of athletics in a culture that contributes to sexual assault. But this post, and several public letters, presumes to know my motives, and also assumes, without asking, that I did indeed NOT make inquiries regarding this investigations. The alum should know that I DID, and that I was accused, long before the report was issued, and by highest levels of the administration of the college, of suggesting conspiracies, a claim I deny. Pointing out the issues of interest does not denote an accusation of conspiracy, it only suggests reasons why an issue won't be looked into. As a political scientist, I believe that interests are powerful in many ways, including issues concerning what will be examined versus what will not.

I was astonished, by the way, to learn that I am anti-athletic. (I truly love "well-known" as an accusation, especially when there is no follow-up, other than more accusations, especially the slander that I grade students differentially (here I would hope my athlete students would at least defend me on this count, and maybe point to the various ways I have tried to be supportive through the years, not because they are athletes, but because they are my students). My son is a college athlete, and was a standout member of both the Amherst High soccer team that almost went to the state finals two of the three years he played for them, and was a standout member of the number one ranked (nationally) Ultimate Frisbee team while at Amherst High (a high school team that, by the way, clobbered Amherst College's team the one time I was able to watch them play). I have devoted countless hours to working for his teams, and cheering them from the sideline.

But never mind. This entire episode has been eye-opening to me. Amherst is not immune to the disease afflicting the rest of our culture, and may, given its relatively small size, incubate its virus with more intensity, once one of its sacred cows has been scratched. To suggest that it might be a good time to look with a critical eye to the role of athletics at our college is to invite a level of vitriol and hate -- believe me, the thread of the Student is only a part of it -- that has made me realize that I may have spoken too late to be of any help. That is depressing.

Alum (not verified) says:
Thu, 03/14/2013 - 19:57

I am a different alum from the alum whose post Professor Dumm has responded to directly; however, I am in general agreement with the original alum's post and would like to respond directly to Professor Dumm concerning a few points that he raised in his response.

Professor Dumm writes that he is "astonished" to learn that he is seen as being "anti-athletic" and cites his support of his son as obvious proof that he supports scholar-athletes. I think his example - sincerely offered - is a powerful anecdote, but I would submit, regardless of his sincere feelings about athletes and his son, that Professor Dumm has a long-standing perception problem. I graduated from Amherst over a decade ago and during that time I think many of my fellow alums would agree that Professor Dumm was perceived - rightly or wrongly - as being anti-athlete. It is genuinely surprising for me to read that Professor Dumm is astonished to understand for the first time that he is perceived as being anti-athletic.

Years ago, when I attended Amherst, it was widely known and discussed among students (I was warned during my freshman year) that athletes should avoid Professor Dumm's class, particularly football players. If you were an athlete, you were told to at all costs avoid wearing any Amherst athletic apparel while attending Professor Dumm's class and that you should avoid referencing any connection that you had to Amherst athletics. To my knowledge, Professor Dumm was the only professor at Amherst who was warned about in this manner. Further, I was made to understand that one should never attempt to make an athletic-based excuse for missing a class. As to the last warning, I understood the importance of being a scholar-athlete and I did not take issue with Professor Dumm's legitimate demands to have his students adhere to the highest academic standards. That said, it was not unusual for Professor Dumm to make caustic remarks about athletes missing class and I have heard tales of his negative treatment of his athlete students years after I graduated from Amherst.

As Professor Dumm alludes, I am confident that he would have plenty of athlete students who would gladly assume the role of defending him as a fair-minded professor; however, he should also be aware that there are many alums and students who believed long before the current debate at Amherst that Professor Dumm harbored anti-athlete feelings and that he treated his athlete students disproportionately poorly. Perhaps Professor Dumm feels that he is the victim of "tall tales" and that there are powerful institutional forces at play which have long waged a false defamation campaign against him. There are perceptions and there is the truth. Because I believe in a civil, mature discourse, I take Professor Dumm at his word and respect his sincerely offered feelings concerning his impartiality; however, I do think he should question at some level whether the well-known perceptions that he is anti-athlete are grounded in concerns that have been validly expressed. And I do wonder whether he wouuld admit, on some level, whether he knows he was already a polarizing figure on campus. Is it more likely that he is the innocent victim of widespread misperceptions or has he actually contributed to such perceptions by his actual treatment of his students? I would suggest based on my own direct experiences and the stories I have heard from others I consider to be credible (and who do not bear Professor Dumm and ill will) that there is a great amount of truth to the allegations against Professor Dumm and his ability to be impartial toward his students.

In a similar vein, I would offer that there was also widespread feeling that Professor Dumm did not respect students who held conservative viewpoints and that he would often make vitriolic comments toward those who brought forth opinions that he did not share. I experienced such poor treatment directly from Professor Dumm and such treatment was unique to any interaction that I have had with any Professor since that time. And, the unfair treatment I faced from Professor Dumm was acknowledged by students who were my friends and those who were not my friends, including people who held very different political views than I did.

I found Professor Dumm - despite his clear, animating intelligence - to have a condescending manner in class; he had a tendency to resort to rhetorically impressive demagoguery. I would submit that the Amherst political science department - compared with other departments such as the history department - has long experienced this particular issue from professors whose classes more resemble ideological-based performances rather than professors who see themselves as fostering critical thinking and being responsible for promoting a free, genuine exchange of ideas (I include Professor Arkes with this brush). Further, Professor Dumm, as with others in the political science department, treat students poorly if those students take positions in papers that are disagreeable to those professors, regardless of whether those students right cogently and persuasively in support of their positions. Professor Dumm appears to hold the view that when he is called out for his dissenting opinions, his dissent and freedom to voice his opinions are being stifled; however, it is my experience and the experience of many others that he attempted to stifle the opinions of his own students. He may not see this point because he believes that he represents a minority viewpoint; however, from the standpoint of a student, he does wield real power and does have the ability to intimidate and to bully.

One reason why I choose to remain anyonmous - even though I would like to use my name in the spirit of honorable discourse - is because of the very poor and unfair treatment that I received by Professor Dumm. I did feel personally bullied by him and I have no wish to perpetuate such past events, even if perhaps his ability to do so is limited by the fact that I am far removed from student life. I understand that my reluctance to give my name likely undermines the points I am making. I submit that whatever I lose on the merits by not revealing my name, that many other Amherst alumni share my views and that Professor Dumm should not dismiss these observations as being (a) false on their face because I am anonymous, (b) leveled against him by alums who wish to support athletes at Amherst at all costs or (c) any other nefarious institutional forces that he attributes to those who critize him. Instead, my overarching point is that Professor Dumm has a perception problem in that he is widely perceived as being overly ideological and a demagogue. And, by Professor Hunt's letter, it is not just politically different-minded students and athletes who feels this way.

As a last point, I would cite Professor Hunt's letter - and in particular, her critiques of Professor Dumm's sources and his reliance on an undergraduate thesis - as evidence for his ideological approach to the current debate. I think the approach that he takes is damaging for the reasons stated in the original Alum's post. The point of my post is to argue that his same tactics and approach to the current debate is also to be found in his treatment of his former students. That is truly depressing and regrettable. Last, I want to emphasize that while I recognize what I have written is highly critical of Professor Dumm, I believe that he is someone of great intelligence and that he possesses many positive attributes. I believe he is a man of conscience and I respect that he is a caring father. I also respect his right to argue zealously on behalf of his opinions, no matter how unpopular they may be and to ask probing questions, no matter where the answers to those questions may lead. I simply do not believe; however, that as a matter of practice he accords the same respect to others with whom he disagrees.