Is this the mountain you want to die on?

March is a time of renewal. My ski equipment is ready for storage and Spring is around the corner. This month’s story, “The mountain you want to die on?” is about planting a stake and standing by it. The story lays the foundation for this month’s Mainstreaming on Main Street® (MoMS) Connecters Table and Servant-Leader roundtable conversations.

The story is a quick read, with a little food for thought. Comments and sharing are always welcome.

In this post:


Story: The mountain you want to die on?

The story of Professor Elizabeth Bearden is about the University of Wisconsin Madison digging their heels in based on questionable motives. Dr. Bearden has requested to teach on-line courses during the Covid-19 pandemic because she does not see and does not feel she can take responsibility for her own health safety while teaching in-person classes. The university administration has determined that allowing Prof. Bearden to be one of many professors to teach an on-line course during the pandemic would be an undue hardship on the university. The case raises the question, “When is it time to dig in our heels and stand up for ourselves?”

The information on this situation comes from an article by Devi Shastri, published in the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel on December 20, 2021. According to the article, the Chair of Bearden’s (English) department is supportive of her request. The UW-Madison administration bases the undue hardship claim on their decision that classes that had been taught in person in the past should be taught in person starting in September 2021.

The article provides a variety of perspectives on the case. The situation has moved from being a reasonable request made of a (presumably) reasonable administration into a case to be adjudicated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Members of the UW-Madison administration chose not to respond to questions related to an on-going case.

The English department, like much of the university, is offering both on-line and in-person classes. The University Administration has suggested that Bearden could teach other on-line classes, as an alternative to those most closely aligned with her academic interests/experience. I am reminded of the old saying, “Is this the mountain you want to die on?” The article suggests that question was posed and met with an enthusiastic, “Hell yes” by the UW–Madison administration..

Lessons learned:

The UW-Madison administration’s justification, “Classes taught in person in the past should be taught in person” is logically equivalent to a parent’s, “Because I said so.” The fact that the EEOC case is unresolved does not eliminate it from having consequence. In this case, there are consequences to the administration’s actions that suggest clear messages even if the intent is unclear. Among the inferences available through Shastri’s article:

  • The University Administration appears to be comfortable with their position, even though it may appear arbitrary and irrational
  • Over-ruling the judgement of the department Chair makes a clear statement that her authority is advisory, at best
  • Suggesting Bearden could just teach another (on-line) course, sends the message academic excellence is not the highest priority of the UW-Madison Administration
  • The university’s statement, “Our goals: To promote shared values of diversity and inclusion, to engage campus leadership in this endeavor, and to improve institutional access and success through effective retention policies.” (Regents, 2022) appears to not be the case

Full disclosure: 1) as a person who is blind, I share Professor Bearden’s concerns; and 2) I am currently taking a course at UW-Milwaukee. I have no idea why the course is only offered on-line. I took it because I was interested in the subject first and delivery method second.

Applying the lessons

The UW-Madison administration has argued that allowing additional on-line courses would pose an undue hardship. Rather than to compromise the position it has taken; it is willing to appear arbitrary, controlling, soft on academic excellence, and indifferent to its stated values. Professor Bearden has taken the position that her personal safety is important enough to take her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The stakes are high for both parties.

The university administration appears to have started with a position with little regard for the consequences of that position. For those who identify as Servant-Leaders, this approach may not be optimal. The UW-Madison administration could have explored other options before planting their stake on the mountainside. Some ideas:

  • Walk-through likely scenarios. In this case, it wasn’t hard to foresee the path from denial of accommodation to litigation and news coverage.
  • Examine the organizational principles/values supporting the position. In this case, the university holds values in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Their position, not so much.
  • Ask, “How does this decision build community and how does the decision demonstrate stewardship of that community?”
  • Ask, “Is the undue hardship claim an excuse to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable/’slippery slope’ situation?”

As a person who regularly encounters functional/environmental barriers, I have had to advocate for myself as well as speaking on behalf of persons with disabilities (PWD). This experience has allowed me to examine my own motivations, as well as those of the people I have represented and those of the people/organizations I engage with. Some of the skills I find useful:

  • Start with the premise: I am a whole person, even if I am not like someone else.
  • Begin with the end in mind: In this case, Professor Bearden sought to ensure her personal safety considering a visual disability.
  • Collaborate with allies: Enlisting the support of peers/allies serves to validate reasonable requests and illuminate weaknesses in unjustified requests.
  • Ask: “Is this the mountain I want to die on?” If yes, let your principles/values be your guide.




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