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'Reading the Riot Act' to Truth-Tellers at UT San Antonio

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1952, Eve A. Browning received her Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, in 1979. After teaching for three years at Ohio State University and a year at the University of Denver, she spent three decades on the faculty of the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Three years ago she left Duluth for the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she now chairs the Department of Philosophy and Classics. She has two academic books to her name, both published in 1992: one, co-edited by her, is about “feminist ethics,” and the other, written by her, is about “feminist criticism.” She's published scholarly papers in such journals as the University of Dayton Review and reviewed books for the Women's Studies Review and Women's Review of Books.

It's not a stellar CV, to put it mildly. Then again, over the years Browning has participated in conferences with titles that include the words “ethics” and “moral complexity” and “extreme vice” and “liberty and virtue” and “liberty and moral decline” and “character formation” and “modern freedom.” So you might expect that she's actually devoted some serious thought to these topics.

In September of last year, however, Browning had a meeting with a graduate student that raises sobering questions about the extent and depth of her reflection on these matters. The student was Alfred MacDonald, who at the time of the meeting had been studying philosophy at UTSA for about two months; Browning, in her capacity as department chair (he wasn't taking a class with her), had summoned him to her office for a discussion. About what? She wouldn't say. Her caginess on this point, and her unwillingness to handle the matter by e-mail, raised MacDonald's suspicions, and so he clandestinely taped their conversation, which in the state of Texas is legal. He posted the tape on YouTube, which took it down after Browning complained; the complete tape is now available here, with a shorter version here. There's also an online transcript of their exchange.

These videos and transcript are representative documents of our times.

After mentioning that MacDonald had missed a couple of classes – an issue that he acknowledged and explained – Browning came round to what was plainly the real problem in her eyes: she'd been informed that in a conversation MacDonald had recently had between classes, “the topic of one student being engaged to a Muslim” had come up, “and it was alleged that you made offensive comments about Islam to that student.”

MacDonald admitted at once to having said to another student: “I don’t think highly of Islam because I am bisexual and could be legally put to death in about a dozen countries that use Islam for their legal system.” But not until he'd said this did his interlocutor reveal that her fiance was a Muslim. Whereupon, says MacDonald, “I repeatedly told the student 'I’m sure he’s a great guy.' She seemed pleasant as if nothing had gone wrong, and then reported this to the chair afterward.”