June 10, 2009
Dear Dr. Shepard,
I am writing an open letter to you today regarding Professor Perry Mills. I am deeply troubled and still somewhat ashamed by the University's conduct toward Professor Mills, and the vast misunderstanding that fuels his detractors' purpose. Their familiar refrain states that Professor Mills engages in slanderous, offensive behavior, cares little for his student population, and seeks self-affirmation through their abuse. Besides being baseless and hyper-reactionary, these emotional appeals cloud a broader, more important issue: what are the fiscal obligations of the university to its students, and why are these pseudo-issues employed to hide the fact that thousands of dollars in student funds were stolen and misappropriated? Must we all idly watch while a court ruling specifically cites the Theatre Department Chair for this action, even though the now-overturned judge erroneously stated that the university had not engaged in embezzlement because the records they kept of the stolen funds (!) were not falsified? Professor Mills opened himself to censure by insisting that the university uphold the trust of tuition-paying students. The more I read and hear of this escapade, the more saddened I am at Western's refusal to address the issue, thereby forgiving the perpetrators of this pathetic disgrace.
This meddlesome disgust pales in comparison to the largest question you must answer: the function of your university in the academic world. The course of a true college student is hazardous; every premise begotten to us by our parents in our most formative years is questioned and examined, and ethical questions are answered in ways that elementally change us as individuals. This is how it should be. True scholarship is not a sport or a pastime; it is a disciplined adherence to the practice of questioning ideas and beliefs (political, sociological, empirical or otherwise) until those ideas and beliefs are found to be true or false. Professor Mills' invective, which I rarely saw in the three years in which I insisted on attending at least one of his classes every quarter, was saved for those who would not engage the material, and who refused the tools of learning that Mills so ardently offered on a daily basis. To these people, Professor Mills offered a clear choice: think and create or disappear.
I have never witnessed a single event in which Professor Mills derided a student for being wrong as long as that student made an effort to think about the subject at hand. Even when presented with student-written plays that most people would find pathologically perverse, Mills questioned his students' motives within their work rather than impeaching their values. Mills also made certain that his students perform and test their work, and encouraged student works zealously while his colleagues bestowed leading roles in college plays upon themselves, thus preventing students from honing their tools through practice. These tools--inductive and deductive reasoning, avid passion for scholarship, practice, and ceaseless, pointed questioning--have proven invaluable to me as a man and as a member of society.
As a new legal and public hearing nears on this subject, you have a clear choice ahead of you as the President of WWU. Will you endorse your academic principles and demand that your students behave as scholars who engage the coursework and seek true higher learning, or will you adopt the position that your students be treated as fragile and that their feelings and comfort be given primary concern, even at the cost of scholarship?
I submit to you as a graduate of WWU that no scholar will find comfort in anything less than the pursuit of knowledge. Only a non-student--an anti-intellectual--will ask that their feelings be regarded above the development of their mind. Dorothy Sayers wrote: "For the sole true end of education is simply this; to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain." Professor Mills' teaching style exemplifies Ms. Sayers' concept of scholarship. To fulfill this aim, we need courageous, eager students and professors who do not dull their pedagogical methods to validate a student population that refuses to engage the scholastic method.
Nearly a decade later, the reason I happily pay installments on my student loan is that Professor Mills alone made my tuition worth every penny: he refused to teach me what to think, and taught me how to think instead.
WWU Class of 2000
Gov. Christine Gregoire
Perry F. Mills