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Trading blows

Weeks after Paul Tudor Jones’ apology for sexist comments, the managing board reflects on lessons learned

A former welterweight boxing champion, hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones is no stranger to throwing punches. But his claim that mothers are unlikely to be successful traders was a low blow.

“You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men. Period. End of story,” Jones, a 1976 graduate who donated $12 million for the University’s Contemplative Sciences Center, pronounced at an April 26 symposium at the Commerce School.

The “emotional distraction” that sets in when a “baby’s lips” touch a “girl’s bosom” disrupts the razor-sharp focus macro trading requires, and prevents women from performing successfully at the financial industry’s higher levels, Jones said.

Jones’ comments did not spark public outcry until nearly a month after the event — because few who had not attended the symposium knew what he had said. To promote “candid discussion,” Commerce School Dean Carl Zeithaml had instructed audience members to keep their lips sealed.

“We must prohibit any discussion or description of the event in print or video, through electronic media or through Internet-based technologies including Web sites, blogs or social media, such as Twitter or Facebook,” Zeithaml said at the symposium.

Yet the Commerce School videotaped the event, making it part of the public record. The Washington Post stepped in with a Freedom of Information Act request, and Zeithaml’s request for confidentiality went unheeded. (To his credit, Zeithaml sent an email to the Commerce School’s students and staff a few days after the forum urging women to pursue careers in traditionally male-dominated fields.)

Despite the uproar that followed the comments’ May 23 release, what is most interesting is what has remained unsaid.

More than 80 faculty members signed a May 29 letter to University Provost John Simon asking the administration to respond to Jones’ “false and injurious” assertions. Simon told the group that neither he nor University President Teresa Sullivan agreed with Jones’ remarks. But he declined to publicly condemn the comments.

“At a university … freedom of expression is fundamental to our mission,” Simon wrote in a statement obtained by The Washington Post.

Two weeks have gone by, and it seems clear the University will not address Jones’ remarks. Should it have?

On the one hand, a guiding assumption of events such as the Commerce School symposium is that the speakers’ views are distinct from the views of the University’s leadership. An evolutionary psychologist with a firm belief in the rigidity of gender roles might make a similar claim in an academic presentation. Many of us would find his remarks offensive. But it is unlikely we would call on the University administration to condemn them.

Because Jones’ views do not equal the University’s views, and Jones has issued a public apology of his own, the administration is not committing a grave error by considering the matter settled. But by opting to remain silent, the administration missed an opportunity to do two things: first, affirm its commitment to fostering women’s potential in a range of fields; and second, show that the school is not unduly beholden to donors.

The Jones case differs in some ways from our scenario of a conservative academic. Jones is a public figure, profiled frequently in Forbes and other financial publications. He is also heavily associated with the University as an alumnus and donor. Jones’ fame means his remarks drew more attention than statements by a fringe academic would. The Jones case was impossible for the University to ignore. Silence does not equal endorsement, but the administration’s reluctance to enter the fray does not imply a particularly strong rejection of Jones’ views. Further, Jones’ public associations with the University might strengthen the case for the University to distinguish its views from Jones’ in the public eye. Finally, his record of gifts to the school caused some to conclude that the University’s decision to not condemn his remarks came from a fear that his generosity would suddenly end. By remaining silent, some held, the school was compromising itself for the sake of money.

Jones’ gender essentialism is far less grave than, say, the racial slur splashed across Beta Bridge at the beginning of May — which rightfully prompted a University-wide response from the administration. But the idea that having a family puts professional women at a disadvantage is, as the faculty’s letter says, injurious. Careers in emergency medicine or high-stakes diplomacy are likely as stressful, if not more, than macro trading. Does it follow that mothers are unlikely to excel in those fields? Given that gender trouble — from sexual violence to perceptions that the school caters to “good ol’ boys” — continues to plague Grounds, the administration would have shown courage and conviction by issuing a public statement affirming its support of female advancement.

One lesson from “bosom”-gate, however, has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with shifting landscapes of power at public universities. The incident is a reminder of the importance of academic freedom. The faculty who signed a letter protesting Jones’ remarks performed a function that the administration would not. They showed that Jones’ statements did not represent the University community’s opinions. To press back against remarks like Jones’ is a way of affirming what we value.

Faculty members, who are not enmeshed in the same delicate networks of relationships and donor-driven demands that administrators often are, provide an important counterbalance. They remind us that wealth does not guarantee immunity from criticism. And because faculty carry the University’s name, their criticisms hold more weight than private grumblings. At times when the administration feels it must bite its tongue, the faculty can say what needs to be said.

As public universities grow more reliant on donors, academic freedom and faculty autonomy become even more important — that is, if we are to preserve the freedom of expression Simon lauds as fundamental.


Published June 14, 2013 in Opinion

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