Editorial: Learning from Moore, in earnest

In his Monday all-campus e-mail update on the case of Ernest B. Moore, a.k.a. Bernard Moore, now former W. Ford Schumann ’50 Visiting Assistant Professor in Democratic Studies, Interim President Wagner said that the College has “found no evidence of serious misuse on his part of College resources.” The statement offers the implicit hope that Moore’s involvement with the College can be cleanly and quickly obscured following his sudden dismissal; indeed, already Moore’s information has been removed from the political science department’s Web site; he has been erased from the College’s online list of faculty experts on black leadership; and his nameplate is gone from his office in Schapiro Hall. However, before we close the book on this unsettling series of events, the College should readily assess the degree to which the disclosure of Moore’s fraud only solidified the already abstractly known fact that Moore was an embarrassment to the integrity of our intellectual community well before he submitted his guilty plea to a federal court last week.

The College is one victim among many institutions that believed they could trust Moore. At Williams, no administrators, professors or students are individually at fault for accepting his supposed academic credentials and taking him seriously as a professor at the get-go. Nonetheless, Moore’s excessively slipshod teaching, unregulated by his department and not loudly decried by his students, demonstrates that the College has collective culpability for condoning negligent behavior. The revelation of Moore’s con-artistry and $820,000 fraud is in some ways a twisted blessing because it forced us finally to recognize the writing on the wall: This person was operating at a new level of bad as a professor, and no one at the College seemed to be doing anything about it.

Hiring a professor who is slated to bring little relative experience as a scholar but rather, in its place, real-world political experience and ties is not inherently a problem. But if the College is hiring people as visiting professors to bring their unique experiences to the classroom, then departments should have methods to ensure that these professors’ teaching capabilities are valuable and practiced in good faith. At very least the College should mandate conducting student interviews before rehiring visiting professors, a practice not common enough.

Admittedly, many visiting professors may not have the classroom practice to make their lessons outstanding, but bad teaching can also extend from other, less excusable factors than inexperience. A plethora of anecdotal evidence suggests that Moore’s academic integrity in the classroom was uniquely wanting: he fell asleep in class, routinely walked out of the room to take calls during student presentations and was widely suspected of not reading papers before assigning them a grade. He forced students to make ethically dubious decisions when he requested they write him recommendations before he had given them their grade for the class, and assigned book reports instead of critical papers. Moore was an example of dishonorable teaching that was characterized by inattentiveness, and he slipped through the cracks of the floorboards designed only to hold the misguided but well-intentioned efforts of new professors.

Moore’s ostensible worth as a civic leader ultimately paved the way for him to attain an endowed visiting professorship despite his persistent undermining of the integrity of the classroom space. A non-trivial number of students were able to use Moore’s connections for their benefit, but most of his pupils just suffered from having an academic experience as ethically and intellectually reprehensible as this. Even before the scandal broke, Moore’s actions directly undercut the College’s stated liberal arts values and integrity.

The College emphasizes the difference in its standards for tenure-track and visiting professors, and Moore was an exceptional example of the potential perils of doing so. The College condones its lack of rigor in selecting and watching over visiting professors by saying that they are only visiting, but for students the distinction is meaningless. A professor “visiting” the College is not “visiting” a classroom; they are in charge of it, and if they do so poorly, it is students’ academic experience that suffers.

The fact that Moore secured two meetings of Congressional Black Caucus members on campus and aided a handful of students in getting summer internships on Capitol Hill seem at first gloss the only bits of luster that haven’t rubbed off since the revelation of his fraud last Tuesday evening.
However, the ways the College and students stood to benefit from Moore do not represent the primary manner in which a Williams education should be seen as valuable. The ways in which Moore seemingly used the College as a badge of power to secure his own, unpardonable ends should make us assess the degree to which we, as a College, are implicated in this same questionable business of garnering political connections at the expense of our high standard of intellectual rigor and integrity. By analyzing the evaluative systems we have in place that allowed Moore’s reprehensible academic behavior to slip by, the College can wash its hands clean of him and ensure that the same lack of integrity doesn’t inhabit a Williams classroom again.