In a recent development in the athletic-academic scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill, Dr. Cynthia Schauer, an associate professor of chemistry, has circulated a statement commending the university administration for its handling of the matter, censuring the administration’s critics and asserting that it is time for the university to “move forward.” She has solicited signatures from active and retired faculty, and as I write it has attracted 135 of them.
There is an obvious and curious fact about those signers. Only nine are from humanities departments, while over 60 percent are from the physical sciences and mathematics (30), medicine and other “health affairs” schools (27) and the business school (26). Five of the others are from the Department of Exercise and Sports Science, and the rest are from other professional schools, the arts and social sciences.
Compare those figures to the affiliations of the 32 retired faculty members who signed a letter last year that criticized the administration’s response. Not one was from the business school. Only five were from the hard sciences and one from the School of Public Health, while fully half were from humanities departments (literature, languages and especially history). The composition of the university’s Athletic Reform Group, which comprises mostly working faculty, is similarly skewed toward the humanities.
True, the university has 3,600 currently employed faculty and hundreds more retired ones who remain active, so the vast majority have remained silent. There is no school or department in which anything near a majority of faculty signed either statement. Nevertheless, the imbalance is so large that it suggests an interesting possibility.
In an influential lecture titled “The Two Cultures,” the British novelist and scientist C.P. Snow emphasized differences in what scientists and humanists know. He pointed out, for instance, that a humanist who doesn’t understand the Second Law of Thermodynamics is like a scientist who has never read Shakespeare. Although Snow didn’t mention it, there are also differences in how the two groups work.
The history of science is not devoid of conflict and individual genius – quite the contrary – but day-to-day progress in medicine and the hard sciences is achieved by patient assault on the unknown, usually by teams of researchers. Cooperation is desirable and important (as in team sports). Humanists, on the other hand, more often work alone, and they believe that arguing and airing differences can be a path to understanding. They see debate and disagreement as what a university is for. These are caricatures, of course, but I believe they are rooted in real differences.
The business school doesn’t fit into this simplistic dichotomy, but it is true that most business enterprises reward team players and those who can organize and motivate them. It may be significant that there are no signatures from the journalism school and only one from the law school. Like scholars in the humanities, journalists and lawyers work more often by examining opposing views and weighing arguments than by putting them aside in order to move forward.
My point is not that one of these approaches is superior to the other; each is useful in its place and for its purpose. But they do tend to be found in different disciplines. Dr. Schauer’s statement characterizes the actions of some faculty critics of the administration as “divisive and counterproductive.” Most of those critics are humanists and “divisive” they might accept. But from their point of view, what’s counterproductive is telling those you disagree with to shut up and get with the program.
John Shelton Reed is Kenan Professor Emeritus in the sociology department at UNC-Chapel Hill.