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Friday, July 01, 2016

UofL Board and Debate

Earlier this week, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin picked a new Board of Trustees for the University of Louisville. As I blogged two weeks ago, Bevin recently disbanded the old Board in what appeared to be a brazen use of executive power given Kentucky statutes regulating the way Board members are supposed to be appointed and removed. Moreover, the committee that nominated the new Board members may itself be illegal because it lacks diversity. 

For those following from afar, I should note that the old Board's paralysis this year was initially triggered by a lack of diversity. It was not diverse and needed additional members to make lawful decisions. Governor Bevin could have fixed that problem any time since March simply by appointing new minority Board members. But he didn't. 

This post, however, isn't about the legal or political processes. Instead, it is about the nature of academic debate and the difference between faith and opinion on the one hand and knowledge on the other.

One of the newly appointed members, Douglas Cobb, has received special scrutiny for his controversial contributions to public discussion almost from the moment he was named to the Board. Cobb had an active twitter feed that was deleted shortly after he was named to the University's Board. However, the account feed survived long enough for various local reporters to notice that Cobb used it to deny mainstream climate science and evolution. He expressed anti-LGBT views and called for the firing of various University coaches and officials because of sports scandals (but not exactly these scandals). There's more:

Cobb, who is an elder at Louisville’s Southeast Christian Church, has also devoted attention on Twitter to issues involving Islam and terrorism, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, questioning fairness policies and quoting Bible verses.
In a tweet two years ago, Cobb said that when Nigerian-based terrorist group Boko Haram kidnapped as many as 200 school girls it was practicing a version of Islam that "is orthodox Islam." In another 2014 tweet, Cobb cited a biblical verse to say that being gay and Christian were “incompatible terms of identity.”
In various tweets referenced in the media stories, Cobb dubbed climate science a hoax "invented by the progressive left" and said it reflects a "socialist line."  He tweeted, that "the same people who are lying to you today about global warming have been lying to you for 150 years about evolution."

Perhaps because so many of Cobb's tweets reference the UofL athletic program, sports columnist Tim Sullivan wrote a piece today defending Cobb's contributions to debate about various issues, including controversial science and public policy positions Cobb staked out in his twitter feed. 
Still, debate is healthy. Public institutions warrant scrutiny from a wide range of vantage points. On some levels, appointing trustees whose points of view are likely to cause conflict is preferable to the intellectual lockstep of unquestioning cronies. Hard as it is look past Cobb's harsher opinions and judgmental attitude, his presence should prompt all constituencies to pay closer attention to board proceedings.
Given U of L's recent history, which has included federal charges of fraud, an FBI investigation into the misuse of funds, an NCAA probe of recruiting irregularities involving strippers and prostitutes, and disproportionate pay packages for administrators, it’s fair to ask whether the board should have been even more sharply divided and more inclined to challenge the status quo.
Plus, Cobb is bound to offer some dissenting opinions that will enliven local discourse and provide deserving pundits with fresh material on slow days.
What Sullivan ignores here is the difference between knowledge and rational debate on the one hand versus ideas grounded in faith and opinion. Cobb’s views on LGBT issues, Islam, and gender diversity apparently emanate from his faith. Fine. He’s entitled to his personal religious perspective, but should that faith play any role in influencing the future of a public University? Keep in mind that this same public University has been praised for being one of the most LGBT-friendly campuses in the South. Moreover, the University’s mission statement is committed firmly to diversity.

As for climate science and evolution, Cobb “debates” by referencing conspiracy theories and offering political slurs. The current mainstream scientific understandings are built on mountains of evidence, analysis, and peer-reviewed empirical research. Scientists can be wrong, but their errors should be identified through rigorous scientific processes. 

Oh, by the way, social science works in the same way and I’m quite confident our Middle East and Islamic Studies faculty could dismiss his dubious ideas about Boko Haram and Islam in less than 5 minutes of class time.

So far as I can see from the quoted tweets, Cobb has not contributed one meaningful idea to any active scientific debate in the wider public debate. It's not difficult to understand why this is so. Climate change, for example, has long been mainstream science with very little dissent in the scientific community. Journalists were partly to blame for any public perception of controversy because coverage was horribly misleading. Additionally, Exxon and other wealthy funders are also to blame as they invested substantial sums in propaganda to create public doubt about climate change. 

Oddly enough, Cobb’s business acumen, referenced by some supporters to defend his appointment to the Board, is supposedly tied to his work as an investment entrepreneur. Yet, I wonder if his right-wing politics cause him to miss some larger truths about green investment opportunities

Oh, and readers might want to know about a potential economic conflict of interest. UofL is invested in Cobb's firm, Chrysalis Ventures

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