An award-winning professor touted as the new face of Yeshiva University is leaving his post as head of the honors program at its men’s college following the discovery of his blog.
James Otteson, the former head of the Schottenstein Honors Program at Yeshiva College, will spend the coming academic year as a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
His departure, though rumored for months, was confirmed by a university statement Aug. 15 announcing that Otteson was “transitioning out” of his role as director of the program and taking a “leave” from the university.
Otteson arrived at Y.U. last year amid great fanfare, leaving a tenured position at the University of Alabama and moving his wife and children to New York to head the honors program. Within months he had been named a first-place winner of the Templeton Enterprise Awards, a $50,000 prize given annually to distinguished scholars under 40 — a feat the university played up in a news release.
A non-Jewish philosopher trained at Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, Otteson was widely seen as integral to Y.U. President Richard Joel’s efforts to boost the university’s academic standing and attract an additional 1,000 undergraduate students, including those who might have enrolled at an Ivy League college.
Spurred by Joel’s prodigious fund raising, the university has poured millions into new construction and faculty, the acquisition of real estate and the refurbishing of facilities. Questions have lingered, however, about his ability to unite the various factions at Y.U. and reach his academic goals.
Neither Otteson nor the university would elaborate on the reasons for his departure. His efforts to reform the honors program had provoked protests from the faculty.
But according to e-mail correspondence obtained by JTA, Otteson believes he was asked to resign because of objections to his blog, a collection of musings on topics as disparate as the rationality of speed limits, the qualities of a good husband and the placing of Braille type on drive-up ATMs.
The episode bears some similarity to the scandal that led to the departure of then-Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, who suggested at a conference in January 2005 that innate differences may account for the relative lack of women who succeed in science and math careers.
Summers, who was brought in to institute major reforms at Harvard, already had run afoul of several influential faculty members for his occasionally abrasive style, but the comment about women galvanized the opposition and led to his exit.
Otteson’s blog, Proportional Belief, started in 2005 and betrays evidence of the author’s conservative political leanings. Among the posts said to have roused the opposition was one in which, echoing the Summers controversy, he referred to “growing” evidence that women do less well in the sciences than men partly because of “differential abilities between men and women.”
In another post, in which he quotes an author as saying that “women, without male guidance, are illogical, frivolous, and incapable of making any decisions beyond what to make for dinner,” Otteson himself refers to “high-functioning women” — a term that was seen as disparaging.
Otteson amended the post to read “high-achieving women.” In a separate footnote added later, Otteson clarifies that he does not share the author’s view.
Some time in the past week, Otteson’s blog was put behind a password-protected wall.
In one of the e-mails obtained by JTA, Otteson quoted Joel as telling him directly that he had the Y.U. president’s support until he discovered the blog, some parts of which are deemed as offensive to women. Otteson also quoted Joel as calling him a “right-winger” and “not a suitable role model for students.”
Otteson even contemplated a lawsuit against the university for breach of contract but has since backed down, according to the e-mails.
“My integrity and honor have been questioned,” Otteson wrote. “And, more than that, what I believe are the most fundamental principles of education — the marketplace of ideas, mutual tolerance and civility, disinterested pursuit of the truth, and, not least, liberty and independence of thought — have been sacrificed to the altars of political correctness, intolerance, and bigotry. This is wrong and it must stop.”
Joel declined requests for comment. In an interview with JTA in March, he approvingly cited Otteson’s position on the faculty as evidence of the diversity in opinion students encounter at the college.
“The notion of right and left, the closer you get to a place like Yeshiva, the closer you realize that’s a bogus notion,” Joel said before citing several members of the school’s academic staff, including Otteson. “You can’t sit in a room with Jim Otteson and David Srolovitz, or if I had Moshe Dovid Tendler there, and think it’s simplistic.”
Just a month later, in April, Otteson was criticized in an open letter to the administration from fellow faculty for failing to consult them on planned changes to the honors program and for soliciting funding from outside organizations they feared might threaten the university’s academic integrity.
The letter was published later on Yeshiva Without Honor, a blog begun by a student to protest Otteson’s departure.
In an e-mail to JTA, Otteson said the university had “insisted” he not speak to the media about the terms of his departure, but he did confirm there were “significant policy differences” with respect to the future of the honors program.
University faculty contacted by JTA were divided on the question of whether the blog was ultimately what sealed Ottesson’s fate, though all denied having any firsthand knowledge of what unfolded behind the scenes.
A meeting between selected faculty and Srolovitz, the college dean, was called to discuss the Otteson matter, but participants would not divulge what transpired.
The university’s recent statement on Otteson’s leave said it looks forward to welcoming him back as a professor in the fall of 2009. But Otteson was noncommittal when asked by JTA about his future plans.
“I have the option to return after this year if I choose,” Otteson said. “The public statement reports the university administration’s desire to have me return. It says nothing about my own intentions.”