William Stewart doesn’t spend lunch alone in his office. He doesn’t dine in a quiet lounge designated specifically for San Diego City College faculty. Stewart eats his lunch in the student cafeteria where his students join him to discuss philosophy, grades, and childhood experiences.
It was only two years ago that Stewart’s time was split between teaching philosophy at City College and serving as a trustee on the Southwestern College board. Stewart made waves in March 2013 when he resigned in protest from Southwestern College after only serving for four months.
According to Stewart, he was elected to the first seat of the Southwestern board of trustees because of his background in business, but it was his background in philosophy that would largely influence his exit.
Disagreement quickly arose between Stewart and Steve Crow, Southwestern’s former Vice President of Business and Financial Affairs, over differences in budget projections, said Stewart. He projected a more liberal budget than Crow, whose conservative budget would have meant layoffs for many employees, according to Stewart.
“Once we butted heads, I was left the lone man standing,” Stewart said.
Crow no longer works at Southwestern College, and he could not be reached for comment.
According to Stewart, he was quite certain that Crow’s projected budget was inaccurate, and he didn’t feel comfortable using what he saw as unrealistic numbers to make decisions that would negatively impact the lives of many people – faculty and students alike.
“You should never treat a person as a means to an end, but only treat them as an end in themselves,” Stewart said, paraphrasing Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher.
The decision to proceed with Crow’s budget was going to mean treating people as objects and not as humans of infinite importance, according to Stewart, and the influence of Kant’s philosophy meant there wasn’t room for him to say, “Okay, screw people’s lives.”
But according to Stewart, it didn’t matter if he voted against the proposed budget. “They were going to roll over me and authorize it,” he said.
After losing many nights of sleep over the prospect of being a part of something that he thought would hurt people’s lives, he decided the only way to have his voice heard was to take a stand on ethical grounds and resign.
“You are just a terminal romantic,” Stewart’s sister told him when he explained to her his moral dilemma.
Stewart only agreed to run for the trustee position out of a passion for community service and not any political agenda, according to him. He thought of Plato, who writes that a society should be governed by a philosopher-king. Plato believed that a philosopher would never want to be a political leader, but the philosopher would agree to be king in order to prevent someone with nefarious objectives from ruling instead.
Stewart described his foray into politics as very disenchanting, because he didn’t think that such harsh political decisions would be made on a community service level. According to Stewart, politics should never be divorced from ethics, and as a philosophy professor specializing in ethics it would have been incoherent for him not to take a stand.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a philosopher that I think that way,” he said.
Brandon Manderson, one of Stewart’s students, echoed this sentiment by noting his tendency to apply class topics to everyday life.
Stewart’s resignation created such public attention that the board of trustees at Southwestern withdrew their support for Crow’s original budget, said Stewart. In the end, Stewart claimed, Southwestern ended up having the liberal budget that he projected in the first place.
This spring will mark 30 years of teaching at City College for Stewart, who has been teaching since he was 21-years-old. Though his preferences change depending on what philosopher he is teaching, moral philosophy is ultimately what is most meaningful to him. As such, of all the philosophers he teaches, the Buddha is his favorite because of his central focus on human suffering.
According to Asian philosophy student Waldo Chavez, “He’ll teach you all about morality, in every way possible.”