Ah, New Hampshire. I am here in the White Mountains this weekend for a little work and a little fun. As always I am struck by both the incredible beauty of this state and also, well, I’ll just be honest, by how odd many of its inhabitants are. Maybe it’s the “Live Free or Die” license plates (really, are those our only choices?), but there is an independent spirit that is right on the edge of both danger and stupidity. They still sell candy cigarettes at the cute little general store in town, and I do not believe I’ve seen a single helmet on any of the hundreds of Harley riders who’ve zoomed by my car on the roads.
Perhaps it was this particularly New Hampshire spirit that led a University of New Hampshire professor to let it all hang out a couple of years ago while riding his own motorcycle.
On July 19, 2009, Edward T. Larkin, a professor of German at the University of New Hampshire, drove his motorcycle down Route 101 to the Market Basket in Milford. He pulled into the parking lot behind a car in which a 17-year-old girl was driving her mother. Larkin parked and dismounted.
As the woman and her daughter got out of their car, they looked over at Larkin, who was standing nearby in a black and yellow jacket. His zipper was down and his penis was hanging out.
Although the university administration and public opinion, as well as New Hampshire politicians, wanted to see Larkin fired, the arbiter in the case, Michael C. Ryan, did not believe the incident constituted ”grave moral delinquency.” This is the clause in many university contracts and one that the AAUP at UNH thought was worth defending. Note that the AAUP did not see themselves as defending Larkin per se, but the right of tenured professors to keep their jobs even when public and administrative opinion might prefer a tarring and feathering.
And here’s the thing. As gross as Larkin’s actions were, the AAUP and the arbiter were right to defend his job. The principle of tenure is easily undermined if troublemaker professors can be fired for “moral turpitude.” Imagine a party and a little marijuana between friends, or adultery, or a string of adulterous affairs? Are those reasons worthy of being fired for? Are professors required to be upstanding citizens or just good at their jobs?
And if we’re required to be upstanding citizens, who exactly will get to decide what that means? My guess is that it will not be the most ethical among us, but the most religiously and culturally chauvinistic among us. Consider for a moment the current political scene, where GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann signed “The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and the Family.” The vow, drawn up by an ultraconservative (do we have any other kind in this country anymore?) religious group in Iowa, requires the signees to
promise, among other things, to keep marital fidelity, support the Defense of Marriage Act and “robust childbearing and reproduction,” and oppose gay marriage, abortion, “Sharia Islam,” “intrusively intimate commingling among attracteds” in the military, and the abuse of women and children through human trafficking, pornography and prostitution.
Although I admit to not even understanding what most of the Marriage Vow means, I do understand that it is dangerous territory. If we start drawing up morality clauses in politics, can other spheres of life be far behind? Especially public universities funded by politicians? And like anti-communist pledges, these morality pledges will not represent the best and the brightest among us, but the angriest, most fearful, and quite honestly, most ignorant. Even less sensical than “I am not nor have I ever been a member of the Communist Party,” these pledges will require us to say things like “I am not nor have I ever been drunk, high, had sex with someone other than my legally wed and heterogendered spouse, had an abortion, masturbated to porn,” and so on and so forth, until we are all living lives as tightly scripted and uptight as Michele Bachmann’s.
But the pressure to sign in politics could easily spread to publicly funded enterprises, and soon even motorcycle-riding, penis-exposing academics will have to agree to oppose a whole host of imaginary bogeymen like ”Sharia Islam” and “intrusively intimate co-mingling among attracteds.”