Belmont recently took the unusual step of holding a press conference to announce the hiring of a College of Law faculty member, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and the announcement has some other faculty members speaking out.
Gonzales was introduced Oct. 3 as the person who would fill the new Doyle Rogers Distinguished Chair of Law. At the on-campus press conference, something usually reserved for announcing a high-level administrative rather than faculty change, neither the university nor the media addressed the controversy in Gonzales’ tenure as White House counsel and attorney general in the Bush Administration.
Since the announcement of Gonzales’ hiring, an ongoing concern and conversation among current Belmont faculty led 45 of them to sign a statement they then presented to the administration. In the letter, they addressed human rights issues that brought Gonzales under fire during his five years’ service in the White House.
While the statement did not mention Gonzales’ name, talk on campus and in the community has suggested a link. Faculty members who signed the letter declined to comment when the letter was released Oct. 14, suggesting they wanted the letter to stand on its own; now a few are willing to speak out about the connection.
When asked about the rumors of the link between the letter and Gonzales, Dr. Robbie Pinter, a professor of English and a signer, said, “No question about that. It’s about him.”
The driving force behind the letter, Pinter said, has nothing to do with the actual hiring, but merely what Gonzales stands for.
“I really think he’s a symbol of something that’s happening in our culture, something I’m very against,” she said. “He may be a scapegoat, but he’s still a symbol.”
The human rights statements in the letter oppose torture, mistreatment of detainees, overzealous use of the death penalty, failure to uphold the United States Constitution and the provisions of several treaties the U.S. has signed, including the Geneva Conventions and the War Crimes Act.
Much of the controversy that still surrounds Gonzales stems from his service as Bush’s White House counsel from 2001-2005 before was appointed and confirmed as attorney general. As counsel, he was closely involved with the shaping the war on terror and the the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques on detainees at Guantanamo and at CIA prisons.
Gonzales was named attorney general in 2005 and stepped down under controversy over the dismissal of nine federal judges. There was widespread criticism that the firings were politically motivated, but after a long investigation, Gonzales was not charged with any wrongdoing.
Belmont history professor Dr. Dan Schafer, who was involved in drafting the faculty letter, expressed concern about Gonazales’ actions.
“I have no arguments that people in the Bush Administration believed they were protecting their country, don’t doubt their patriotism or that they believed it was the right thing to do,” Schafer said. “[It] seems to me, and there’ve been cases, investigations into this, that Mr. Gonzales was one of the lawyers that created the lessening of moral policies.”
Belmont’s president, Dr. Bob Fisher, and the College of Law’s dean, Dr. Jeffrey Kinsler, have not spoken publicly about the faculty letter released to the Vision Oct. 14. However, Dr. Thomas Burns, provost, responded on behalf of Belmont administration. Burns’s written response stated:
“The Belmont community includes 6,400 students and nearly 1,500 employees representing a wide spectrum of perspectives on issues. We value all of their opinions. The letter sent to the Belmont Vision by a small group of faculty represents their personal opinions on several topics. As a Christian university, Belmont is committed to providing both an academically engaging education and a caring campus environment. We support the free exchange of ideas, encourage thoughtful and respectful discussion, and believe that it would be best to address such issues through conversation and dialogue. As Provost, I hope that members of our community are willing to engage in conversations that promote both intellectual and spiritual growth.”
Members of the faculty that signed the letter are all full-time professors, and all but six out of the 45 signees are tenured. Belmont has 276 full-time professors, so approximately one out of six full-time professors signed the letter concerning human rights.
When Gonzales took a faculty position in the law school at Texas Tech University in 2009, 45 of that school’s faculty of more than 900 signed a petition that stated their opposition to the hire.
Belmont’s letter, on the other hand, was not released until almost two weeks after the announcement of Gonzales’s new position and did not address hiring or firing of faculty in any way.
“The letter went out to full faculty late in the game,” Schafer said. “[It] wasn’t meant to be a poll for the entire faculty.”
Signees listed reasons for signing that varied from personal experience to legal ideals.
“I did it because it’s who I am and … I want to be a witness to what I believe in and stand for as a human being,” said Dr. Annette Sisson, a professor of English.
In an interview with the Tennessean published Oct. 9, Gonzales responded to discontent over his hiring at Texas Tech and perhaps at Belmont.
“In terms of distraction and debate within the academic community, I think Belmont, like Texas Tech, is large enough and diverse enough where you can have competing views,” he was quoted as saying. “I think it benefits the students to have people who may have different views. And the students can hear those competing views, and hopefully those who oppose me have enough confidence in their views to lay out their position as opposed to my position, and we’ll see who has the better argument.”
Faculty members are quick to point out that the letter was meant for “free academic debate on these issues,” and not about Gonzales personally.
“No one that I’ve heard thinks that the university and the law school is in the wrong for hiring who they want,” Schafer said. “Some feel that the hiring is pointing the law school in a particular direction, issues that should be concerning for a Christian university.”