Chris Bray Commentary: Do institutions learn?

Hand, Hot Stove, Repeat
Chris Bray
Monday, May 26, 2014

Do institutions learn?

In an extraordinary letter to the Boston Globe this weekend, Professor Emeritus Peter Weiler warns of a “crisis of governance” at Boston College. The crisis Weiler identifies relates to the university’s Belfast Project, oral history interviews with former IRA and UVF members that are now subject to federal subpoenas.

“To date,” Weiler writes, “nobody at the university has accepted responsibility for a project that has badly damaged the school’s reputation and harmed its prized relationship to both Ireland and Northern Ireland. Is nobody going to be held accountable? That seems a necessary first step to repairing the flawed administrative structures that allowed this train wreck to happen.”

Those flawed administrative structures are neatly elucidated in a May 5 public letter from several Boston College History Department chairs, past and present (including Peter Weiler). The department chairs reported that, with regard to the Belfast Project, they “had not been informed of the project, nor had they or the department been consulted on the merits of the effort or the appropriate procedures to be followed in carrying out such a fraught and potentially controversial venture.”

So the Belfast Project, conducted from 2001 to 2006, recklessly wandered into dangerous territory because it was sealed off from the institution that housed it, managed within the boundaries of isolated fiefdoms and run without formal oversight or informal professional advice. No one will tell this story better than Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Beth McMurtrie, whose long Jan. 26 report on the Belfast Project carefully documents a long series of institutional failures.

Today, eight years after the conclusion of the Belfast Project, and three years into an international legal and political battle over the project that shows no sign of ending in the foreseeable future, Boston College has had ample time to learn the lessons of its original failures. The project ran into danger because most faculty had no involvement in it and could offer no advice or oversight, and because the few critics who were given a look into the project were ignored when they expressed concerns. So the path to the least-bad potential outcome is a path that runs through the institution and its faculty. The cure for the failure of a project badly run in isolated fiefdoms is to bring it out of its isolated fiefdoms, integrating History Department and Irish Studies faculty into an institutional discussion about responses and solutions. The cure to a problem caused by not talking to faculty is to talk to faculty.

This medicine is not being applied at Boston College. No faculty committee has been established to examine and discuss the present crisis in the Belfast Project, formally or casually. Meetings on the possibility of new subpoenas are taking place in administrative enclaves, with lawyers and managers, behind doors that are closed even to senior faculty. If Boston College has a soul, it’s not being searched. The handful of people managing the crisis continue to do so in rigid isolation, institutionally and intellectually, pushing away their own internal critics. Having damaged the university by not listening to its faculty, they are not listening to their faculty.

This story of isolation and obstinacy is not simply the story of the Belfast Project; the limits of faculty governance at Boston College are well known, and a sore subject there.

William Leahy lives behind a moat, and he has drawn the Belfast Project inside the gates, with the flagrantly unhealthy Jack Dunn guarding all avenues of approach. Three years later, it’s clear that he’s not coming out to hold court with the rest of the institution.

The university’s trustees need to go in and drag him out.