UCLA restricts speech
UCLA is planning to institute an unconstitutional speech code under the guise of a new, improved sexual harassment policy. Eugene Volokh has the details, along with some clarifying discussion of why and how the university's attempt to limit liability in one area (sexual harassment) comes into conflict with its legal and ethical obligation to adhere strictly to the First Amendment and to the principles of academic freedom. Volokh writes with pristine clarity on these issues, so click on his links to learn more about how the law works in this area. Among other things, his comments indirectly explain why and how FIRE's lawsuit against Shippensburg University is legally and philosophically sound.
Berkeley prices academic freedom
Last May, UC Berkeley professor Ignacio Chapela's tenure case won approval from his department and was forwarded on to the College of Natural Resources for final review. Chapela's case should have been decided in a matter of a few weeks to a couple of months. But no decision has been reached, and his case has been languishing in administrative limbo for a year now. Chapela's contract expires in June.
Today's Daily Cal reports that there is growing concern among Chapela's colleagues at Berkeley and beyond that political concerns are affecting his case. Chapela is an ardent and outspoken critic of biotechnology; specifically, he has been adamantly opposed to the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology's lucrative and controversial 1998 deal with biotech firm Novartis (now Syngenta). The five-year, $25 million dollar deal runs out this year and shows no signs of being renewed. Chapela and his supporters are concerned that his career may be the latest in a series of academic careers that have been sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed.
In recent years, corporations with vested interests in certain kinds of research and certain kinds of research outcomes have been forging huge research deals with universities (Stanford's new $225-million, 10-year Global Climate and Energy Project, for example, is sponsored by Exxon Mobil, while Princeton's 10-year, $20-million Carbon Mitigation Initiative is funded by BP and Ford). Not suprisingly, these deals have raised real concerns that corporations have not only effectively acquired the power to displace academic freedom, but have corrupted university research by turning it into an increasingly corporate venture. Among other things, this means that academic researchers with strong financial interests in the biotech industry have the power to strategically affect hiring and promotion decisions, and are apparently using it. A case in point: one of the nine faculty who make up the committee that has been sitting on Chapela's case for the past year is the founder of a biotech company. He is also a vocal critic of Chapela's work. The conflict of interest is palpable--but he has not recused himself.
The Nicholas de Genovas, Dennis Daileys and Lynn Webers of academe tend to shape the public debate about the merits and limits of academic freedom. The issue tends only to attract attention when someone on campus says something stupid or offensive and someone else responds by trying to punish said stupid expression. But it's worth remembering that for every noxious professorial comment and stupid pedagogical decision, there are necessary critiques that need the protection academic freedom provides. It's also worth reflecting on what happens to free expression in those parts of the university where there is major funding to be won and lost. The academic freedom debate--not to mention the tenure debate--has centered almost entirely on the irresponsible ideological antics of humanities professors and administrators. That's because those are the easiest, most accessible academics to monitor and to criticize. But the debate will neither be balanced nor wholly responsible until it takes the situation in the sciences into account as well.
April 29, 2003
Still trying to ban KU's sex class
Last week, Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius vetoed a budget amendment that would have cut state funding to all academic departments where sexually explicit material is used in the classroom. The amendment was the brainchild of state senator Susan Wagle, and was conceived with the express purpose of putting a stop to a University of Kansas human sexuality course that has been taught by social welfare professor Dennis Dailey for the better part of two decades. Governor Sibelius cited the sanctity of academic freedom in her explanation for the veto--but this has not stopped Senator Wagle, who is scheduled to appear on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor tonight.
Wagle will be joined by Jessica Zahn, the hitherto anonymous student who served as her informant. Zahn is a graduating senior who just happens to be interning for Wagle this semester. Wagle plans to use some of her air time to play tapes of Dailey teaching his class. She says they demonstrate not only the inappropriate nature of Dailey's pedagogy, but also show that he "continued to engage in sexually harassing behavior and talked about pedophilia in a socially unacceptable manner." There has been much back and forth in the comments on Critical Mass about whether a course such as Dailey's has any business being taught in a university setting (some say it is obscene, others that it has no academic value). A look at Wagle and Zahn in action, and a listen to Dailey's lecture patter, may help to clarify the exact nature of the problem out in Kansas. O'Reilly will be a friendly host and it doesn't sound like there will be guests present to offer an alternative perspective on Dailey's course--but that, too, could be very revealing in itself.
UPDATE, 4/30/03: The Lawrence Journal-World reports on the reactions of KU students to last night's broadcast. The ill-prepared O'Reilly drew laughter when he twice referred to Kansas governor Kathleen Sibelius as "he." Wagle's allegations drew more outraged responses: "It was all about slandering Dennis Dailey," said one senior. Dailey's supporters are planning to travel to the Capitol today to hand out fliers. Meanwhile, Susan Wagle has stepped up her efforts to pillory Dailey and to locate other courses like his: according to the above-cited article, she recently "sent KU officials an open records request for information about Dailey's background and qualifications. A copy of the request obtained by the Journal-World shows she also asks for information about the class curriculum and for KU to provide copies or access to all slides, videos and films shown in the class and their costs."
April 28, 2003
Speech code, smeech code
Last week, FIRE filed a lawsuit against Shippensburg University because the school's code of conduct violates students' First Amendment rights. Shippensburg's code of conduct essentially prohibits students from expressing opinions or beliefs that may cause offense to others ("others" is defined as both persons and groups). The code extends to the manner of expression as well as its content; it was bolstered last month by the establishment on campus of "free speech zones"--a patently unconstitutional measure by which a number of colleges and universities have historically sought to control and contain political expression on campus.
When the suit was filed last week, university president Anthony Ceddia issued the following statement of Shippensburg's commitment to free expression:
"Shippensburg University strongly and vigorously defends the right of free speech. As an institution of higher education we encourage and promote free speech among and between individuals and organizations. Through the exercise of this important right our students are able to see various aspects of an idea, analyze those ideas and form their own opinions on those ideas. The university is also committed to the principle that this discussion be conducted appropriately. We do have expectations that our students will conduct themselves in a civil manner that allows them to express their opinions without interfering with the rights of others."
The statement was a formality, but a necessary one nonetheless. Now the gloves are coming off. On Saturday, a university spokesman told the Shippensburg Sentinel that the lawsuit is entirely "frivolous." The article goes on to detail the nature of the suit's frivolity, citing as evidence one sociology professor's opinion that the suit is unwarranted ("Believe me, I would be the first one jumping up and down if I thought somebody's free speech was being violated," she said. "I'm a member of the ACLU"). The professor's argument appears to be that Shippensburg should not face legal challenge not because its code is constitutional, but because its unconstitutional code is not enforced: an anti-war student group with which she is affiliated, for example, has "been demonstrating outside the free speech zone since the first day. They have not been asked to move." The university spokesman employed similar logic, stating that the school's free speech zones were created at the students' request--as if a naively misguided demand on the part of students justified the university in creating policy that would then infringe on their rights.
So far, the folks at Shippensburg aren't looking like formidable opponents. And so far, their argument that the lawsuit is frivolous has only succeeded in making them look so.
Read all about FIRE's suit at www.thefire.org.
April 26, 2003
I've been posting for awhile now on the case of Frederick Lang, the Brooklyn College English professor who was forcibly removed from the classroom for refusing to inflate his grades. My most recent post has generated a lively discussion about a number of issues--among them the corporatization of the university, the pedagogical merits of MS Word's spelling and grammar checkers, and the therapeutic slant of contemporary educational theory (scroll down and keep reading). The discussion has also raised a number of particular questions about the precise nature of Lang's situation. Lang graciously responds below.
I want to thank Erin for her eloquent description of another injustice at Brooklyn College. I also want to thank everyone who has written a comment. The supportive comments have of course been gratifying, but the critical ones are of equal value since they have shown me what facts and issues I must clarify.›
First off, I never wrote in "red ink" (I think Erin is using the term metaphorically), but I did make extensive corrections and comments on a first draft. One revision was compulsory, and my students had the option of revising again. As for spelling, since even the first draft had been spell-checked, this was not an issue when it came to papers. It became an issue only when my students discovered that I meant what I had said in my syllabus: correct spelling is required to receive credit for an identification on a quiz or exam.›››
I'll allow one of my former students to explain--an English major in one of my electives who wrote a complaint about me, which, at my arbitration, BC used as evidence of my harshness:
When my paper was returned to me there was a D on the top of my quiz. At the end of class I approached Professor Lang about my quiz grade. The answers to number one and two were "sadist" and "masochist", respectively. I spelled them both wrong. . . . The next class I decided to put the whole thing behind me and continue on. From this point on I would look up any words he mentioned during class that I did not know how to spell.›
Ellen Tremper, chair of the BC English department, used such complaints as her rationale for suspending me from teaching. (I haven't taught since spring 2002. The arbitration I spoke of resulted from the grievance I filed against Brooklyn College for contractual violations; I won't know the verdict till the end of May.)
But I was suspended from teaching not because of my policy on spelling, but because, as Erin has pointed out, I refused to lower my academic standards and inflate grades. Had I done so, the "consumers," as the CUNY lawyer referred to my students at arbitration, would have been kept happy-deluded, but happy. And I would have continued teaching, rather than doing "non-teaching activities," which, as Provost Roberta Matthews recently informed me, I did not do properly. She added that I might face disciplinary charges as a result.
How do I know that my academic standards weren't unrealistic? Well, BC has never issued any grading guidelines, but I was a "reader," or grader, for the CUNY-wide writing assessment examination (the CWAT) from 1982 to its disappearance at the end of the last millennium. This exam was used both to establish minimum proficiency and to place students in composition courses.
When I was transferred to BC's English department, remediation was no longer offered at CUNY's senior colleges. But, partly because of the new "softer" entrance requirements, BC had students who needed remediation. Erin has explained that the NC (No Credit) grade allowed students to repeat composition without harm to their GPA. So, I thought that having weak writers take English 1 and English 2 more than once was the best the college could do for them in the absence of remedial courses.
But BC was being criticized for allowing students to take longer than four years to graduate, and students couldn't graduate in four years if they repeated courses. I was the last person BC wanted teaching composition.
I learned a great deal at my arbitration. Tremper had wanted to get rid of me since she became chair in fall 2000; in fall 2001, Matthews had given Tremper her full support. Both Tremper and Matthews testified against me. According to Matthews, any F or NC (No Credit) I ever gave indicated my failure to teach the student anything. Even if a student withdrew from my course, it was my fault. Then, she got to her main point: having students repeat a course is expensive for the college.
I have never given a dishonest grade, and I have given As and even A+s at BC as well as those NCs. I've never seen myself as a saint, and I certainly didn't want to become a martyr. It's just that I couldn't bring myself to betray my profession, my students, or myself.
On the last day of my arbitration hearing, I was allowed to read a closing argument. My next-to-last paragraph was this:
In deciding for [BC students] that they should be taught very little, Professor Tremper and Provost Matthews have made certain that they will learn far less than they ought to. In insisting that students receive academic credentials without benefit of a genuine college education, they have condemned them to a false sense of accomplishment, to ignorance they will continue to remain ignorant of.›
I've promised Erin that I'll let her know what the arbitrator thought.
Continued discussion and comment is of course most welcome. Meantime, today's New York Times has a highly relevant piece on how American schools teach--or do not teach--writing. A recent study found that
only about half of the nation's 12th graders report being regularly assigned papers of three or more pages in English class; about 4 in 10 say they never, or hardly ever, get such assignments. Part of the problem is that many high school teachers have 120 to 200 students, and so reading and grading even a weekly one-page paper per student would be a substantial task.
On the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, only about one in four students in Grades 4, 8 or 12 scored at the proficient level in writing in 1998, the most recent such results available. And only one in a hundred was graded "advanced."
Further, a 2002 study of California college students found that most freshmen could not analyze arguments, synthesize information or write papers that were reasonably free of language errors.
This is what Lang--not to mention an entire generation of kids--is up against.
April 23, 2003
Brooklyn College, contd.
As promised, here is the next installment of my series on Frederick Lang, the Brooklyn College English professor who has been forcibly removed from the classroom because he refused to inflate his grades.
Brooklyn College has a proud tradition of serving economically disadvantaged young adults. It has, over the years, earned a strong reputation for offering a rigorous, high-quality education to a largely working-class student population. Many of those students are the first in their families to go to college. Many have not had access to the best schools, and many arrive at BC with educational deficits that need remediation. It has been the mission of the college to make it possible for those students to improve their lot in life by providing them with a first-class education. Frederick Lang--who is himself from a background very like those of his students--believes that the best way to open doors for these students is to train them as well as it is possible to train them: even if it means hurting their feelings by giving them honest assessments, even if it means being the first person ever to tell them that their writing isn't up to snuff, even if it means slowing their time to degree by making them repeat a writing course that they should not pass. Brooklyn College administrators disagree with Lang: They say he is too harsh, too exacting, and that he harms his students' self-esteem. They cite as examples the fact that he counts off for poor spelling (instead of giving credit for spellings that get the general idea across), that he covers students' papers with red ink (instead of just pointing out one or two problems so that students won't get overwhelmed), and that he compels students who can't do the coursework to repeat the class (instead of just passing them on to the next level if they complete all the assignments and appear to try hard).
Brooklyn College policy allows students to take freshman composition three times with no damage to their transcripts: a grade of NC (no credit) compels the student to repeat the course while making no impact on the student's overall GPA. During his brief tenure teaching composition in the Brooklyn College English department, Lang doled out a lot of NCs, believing that it is better in the long run for a student to repeat a course than to receive an inflated passing grade. The only students who received actual grades of F were those who failed to complete the work for the course. So Lang wasn't actually harming his students' prospects by making them repeat composition. He was instead attempting to improve their prospects by making sure they had every opportunity to learn the essential reading and writing skills they needed for college and beyond. The college policy is an acknowledgement that many Brooklyn College students do not arrive at the school with adequate writing skills. It is also an acknowledgement that in the absence of a formal remedial writing program, the college must offer some way for underprepared students to acquire the skills they lack.
Before he was relieved of his teaching duties, Lang was using college policy in precisely the way it is meant to be used: and yet the chair of his department and the provost of the college are holding his conscientiousness against him. It is the considered opinion of Lang's departmental chair that in holding so many students back, Lang was showing not a principled attention to the truly dire underpreparation of many of his students, but a rank incompetence of his own. As English department chair Ellen Tremper explained during the recent arbitration hearings, this is the logic she employed when she decided to remove Lang from the classroom. While Lang was doing a great deal to damage students' egos, she argued, he was not doing much at all to teach them to write. To her mind, his extensive, detailed feedback and his willingness both to read drafts of student papers and to allow students to revise papers in light of that feedback are not themselves signs of committed, constructive teaching, but evidence of his inability to convey the skills his students need to learn. Presumably, Lang would, in Tremper's eyes, be a much finer teacher if he did a lot less substantive commenting on student writing and a lot more vacuous congratulating. Presumably, he would have done better to pass incompetent students along with a nod and a wink and an artificially inflated grade than to try to make them into competent writers with the traditional tools of rigorous writing pedagogy: extensive feedback; intensive, guided revision; and honest evaluation.
Lang's efforts to ensure that Brooklyn College students learn to write have thus been wilfully misinterpreted as proof of his own failure to teach writing. Anyone who has ever taught writing at any level will recognize immediately just how deeply disingenuous this rationale is: no one "learns to write" in a mere fifteen weeks; no teacher can turn functional illiterates into able college writers in the space of a semester. These things take time: twelve years of educational neglect are not going to be undone overnight. Provost Roberta Matthews herself acknowledged during Lang's recent arbitration hearings that many Brooklyn College students arrive at the school completely untutored in writing; that many have never received even the most basic guidance about how to express themselves clearly on paper or how to craft a written argument. It should come as no surprise then that many of these underprepared students need to spend longer than a semester learning the skills they should already have been learning and practising for years. This is not an indictment of the teacher who refuses to pass underqualified college writers. It is an indictment of the public school system that failed those students beforehand. That Lang has been punished for insisting that Brooklyn College do right by students that have for so many years been wronged speaks ugly volumes for the misplaced priorities of the administrators who have decided Lang's commitment, dedication, and principled expertise are problems to be solved rather than the rare blessings they are.
The paradoxical and intellectually dishonest rationale used to remove Lang from the classroom gets us to the heart of the matter. The issue, ultimately, is not whether Lang is a good teacher or even whether his students are capable of doing the work in his class. The issue is that in refusing to simply pass them through with the obligatory A's, B's, and very occasional C's, Lang is pointing to a problem so huge that Brooklyn College cannot acknowledge it without also acknowledging that it has knowingly and even deliberately failed the students it claims to serve.
What Brooklyn College has not done in response to Lang's grading is as telling as what it has done. There has been no acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, students who are not prepared for college writing are being shuttled into college writing courses that are beyond their capabilities. There has been no acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, a well-meaning but misguided faculty has passed these students on to the next level instead of insisting that they stay put until they acquire the skills they need. There has been no acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, this abdication of responsibility at the introductory level has massive negative effects down the road, virtually ensuring that students across the college, in every major and every course, are not prepared for the written components of their coursework and ensuring, too, that many graduate without the solid writing skills they will need in order to succeed professionally. There has been no acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, in putting students' self-esteem and professors' convenience ahead of truthful assessment and the hard work of reclamation that would come with it, Brooklyn College has committed a deplorable crime against the very community it prides itself on serving.
As I mentioned above, Brooklyn College has a long and honorable tradition of educating students who come from working-class and underprivileged backgrounds; many of its students are the first in their family to go to college; many of them do not have the strongest educational grounding, as they have not had access to the best schools. What such students need is access to education, not to amelioration. What will serve them best in life is rigorous training and honest feedback, not low standards and ego-enhancing eduspeak. Lang is a problem at Brooklyn College because he is a whistle-blower. In casting him as a troublemaker, Ellen Tremper and her administrative cronies have merely added another layer of dishonesty to the already considerable mess they have made of the BC curriculum. Theirs amounts to a sort of class-based affirmative action grading program: Since students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds don't have the same preparation as more privileged students at other schools, the reasoning appears to go, they can't be held to the same standards; implicit in this logic is the dreadful insinuation that the reason Brooklyn College students can't be held to high standards is that they could never measure up to them.
More soon on Provost Matthews' elaborately anti-intellectual plan for curricular reform at Brooklyn College.
Deep throat exposed
After four years of work, University of Illinois journalism professor Bill Gaines and his students have uncovered the long-debated identity of Deep Throat. Yeah, I know: lots of people have claimed to know who Deep Throat is. But these guys say they can back up their claims entirely with evidence, that there is no guesswork involved. Gaines and two of his students made their announcement at a press conference yesterday, fingering Washington lawyer Fred Fielding as the Watergate scandal's notorious mole. The project began in 1999, as part of a classroom lesson in the techniques and issues involved in investigative journalism. Students became so interested that it grew from there. I don't know what's cooler: that the mystery is solved ( if indeed it is), or that Gaines--who has won two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative journalism at the Chicago Tribune-- worked so closely and respectfully with students to solve it.
UCLA profs deplore anti-war resolution
Last week, I wrote about how the UCLA faculty senate overstepped the bounds of decency and protocol when 187 members of the more-than-three-thousand-strong senate passed an anti-war resolution on behalf of the entire UCLA faculty. In particular, I noted that the attempt of a tiny number of UCLA professors not only to speak politically for their absent colleagues but to dictate an official faculty position on the war could and should be understood as a serious violation of the principle of academic freedom. There are UCLA professors who agree, and three of them published an op-ed in yesterday's L.A. Times saying so.
Here's what UCLA law professors Kenneth N. Klee, Daniel Lowenstein and Grant Nelson had to say about how the vote was arranged, and what it means that it took place at all:
We were mugged by about 200 of our faculty colleagues at UCLA. These colleagues condemn the liberation of Iraq and wanted to say so publicly. But they were not content to speak out in their own names, as they had every right to do. Instead, they insisted on speaking in our names ů and in the names of the more than 3,000 people on the UCLA faculty.
How did they do it? First, they circulated a petition to call a special meeting of the academic senate. Every UCLA faculty member with tenure or with prospects for tenure is a member of the senate, which represents the faculty in its dealing with the university administration. Because the academic senate does and should include people with widely divergent opinions on most public issues, it is of crucial importance that it confine itself to curriculum, academic standards, admissions and other matters within the mission of the university.
But apparently not everyone on the faculty sees it that way. According to the rules of the academic senate, 200 members can convene a special meeting by signing petitions. Two hundred members did so, and the meeting was held last week, at a time when many on the faculty were busy teaching or preparing for class.
By the time they voted, the 200-member quorum had apparently vanished, but they went ahead anyway: 180 for the resolution, seven against and nine abstaining.
The resolution they adopted puts the academic senate on record as saying "to our fellow citizens, to the president of the United States and to our senators and representatives" that we "deplore the administration's doctrine of preventive war and the U.S. invasion of Iraq."
The academic senate includes us. A rump group of our colleagues put these words ů words that we find loathsome ů into our mouths.
When our colleagues did that, they trampled on principles of academic freedom, which protect the rights of students and faculty to hold and express their own opinions, subject only to the requirements of reasoned discourse and respect for the same rights in others. They trampled on the crucial norm of collegiality in a university. And they struck a possibly fatal blow at the UCLA tradition of shared governance between administration and faculty, which is supposed to be the sole purpose of the academic senate.
Unless the academic senate is prohibited from taking political positions unrelated to the university, mandatory membership in it should be ended. It is unconscionable that we or anyone else should be required, as a condition of teaching at UCLA, to be a member of an organization that speaks in our name and against our views on such controversial issues.
True, legislatures speak on political issues in the name of all of us, whether we agree or not. But legislatures are intended to be political. If we don't like what legislators do, we can vote them out of office. Politicization of the academic senate is precisely what should be avoided.
The academic senate has made clear that it no longer represents the entire UCLA faculty. It therefore has no standing to participate in the system of shared governance. So either shared governance must be terminated or a new organization must be created that can represent the entire faculty.
In today's Daily Bruin, Nelson elaborates on why the resolution constitutes a blow to the academic freedom of students and faculty at UCLA:
Nelson said the resolution reflected UCLA faculty's desire to "institutionalize (their) private political views" through the "machinery of the faculty senate," a notion he rejects.
While Nelson himself is tenured, he fears that young, untenured faculty will feel pressure to adhere to the "official position" of the senate, since personnel decisions are often tied to the Academic Senate.
He also acknowledges all faculty are biased and that their opinions will occasionally find their way into teaching, but also is afraid tenured faculty will feed off the political backing of the senate and use their classrooms for indoctrination purposes.
As I noted last week, that's exactly the outcome that is being fostered by the proposed revisions to the University of California statement on academic freedom.
Thanks to reader Fred R. for the link.
April 22, 2003
Kansas governor vetoes sex ban
Yesterday, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sibelius vetoed a controversial amendment to the state budget that would cut state funding to all academic departments that use "obscene" materials in the classroom. State senator Susan Wagle proposed the amendment in an attempt to crack down on a popular University of Kansas course called "Human Sexuality." Taught by social welfare professor and sex therapist Dennis Dailey for over twenty years, the course has recently come under fire--largely at Wagle's instigation--for its use of explicit films and photographs. Wagle has also recently filed a formal complaint against Dailey himself with the KU chancellor, alleging improper and harassing conduct and urging the school to take steps to sanction him.
Wagle's proposed amendment sparked plenty of debate (some of it here on this blog--see the comments here and here), and even moved the University of Kansas' Board of Regents to urge the governor to protect academic freedom by line-vetoing the proposal. Yesterday, Sibelius did just that. Here is the accompanying text:
Human Sexuality Proviso
Section 67(i) has been line-item vetoed in its entirety.
In a democracy, academic freedom in higher education is essential. Nevertheless, every institution of higher learning in Kansas has an obligation to exercise its academic freedom responsibly. The Kansas Board of Regents has in place well-established policies and procedures to provide redress for students, parents, and taxpayers who question the educational value or appropriateness of any material used in the institutions of higher learning under the authority of the Board of Regents. Following such policies and procedures will resolve concerns within the appropriate exercise of academic freedom. Therefore, I veto the above proviso as an inappropriate use of legislative powers designed to impinge upon academic freedom in the State of Kansas.
KU's investigation of Dailey is still ongoing. The Kansas state legislature can override the veto with a 2/3 vote in both chambers.
Thanks to reader Dakota L. for the tip.
April 21, 2003
UC may ban faculty-student relationships
Michelle Locke of the Associated Press reports that the UC faculty is about to vote on whether or not to ban faculty-student relationships:
University of California professors are contemplating a different academic question this spring: Does dating your student flunk the ethics test?
Faculty members are scheduled to vote on new rules this spring, the culmination of a process that began well before the dean of UC's top law school left amid a sex scandal last fall.
The policy, which would make UC the latest in a line of universities to ban classroom courtships, highlights a topic often hush-hush in higher education -- the murky sexual politics of teacher-student liaisons.
"This subject has been shelved, back-burnered and ignored," said Laura Stevens, attorney for the student in the law school case. "It was necessary to have a public furor."
Thus does the notorious Boalt case rear its manipulative little head again. Last December and January, I wrote at length about how former Boalt law student Jennifer Reisch's anonymous and unsubstantiated accusations of sexual harassment destroyed the career of Boalt dean John Dwyer. Of particular interest at the time was how both Reisch's lawyer and a former woman law professor were openly exploiting the case, soliciting the sympathetic and largely uncritical attentions of a scandal-happy, politically correct media in order to promote controversial policy changes at Berkeley and in the UC system as a whole. Things cooled down after mid-January or so, but it was just a matter of time before they heated up again. Now's the time. This will be one to watch.
For background on the Boalt case itself, and for a detailed analysis of how one student's belated complaint against one professor has been turned into the basis for an entire program of institutional change, go here. My posts are in reverse chronological order, so you can start at the beginning by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.
To give a B or not to give a B: grading at Brooklyn College
Mike Adams' satirical call for affirmative action grading policies is deliberately over the top. As a statement about racial and gender preferences, it's basically a pedagogical version of the affirmative action bake sales held this winter by college Republicans at UCLA and Berkeley (the sales priced cookies based on the buyer's race and gender: at UCLA, black, Latina and Indian women paid 25 cents for cookies that cost minority males 50 cents, white women one dollar, and two dollars for white men and Asian males). As such, Adams' provocative announcement has achieved its goal: to trigger debate and maybe even to jar proponents of preferences into re-thinking their position. There is, for example, quite a debate taking place in the comments to my post (scroll down and keep reading).
But Adams' point about how gerrymandering standards in college admissions leads--both logically and practically--to a gerrymandering of standards within college need not be seen as a satirical hypothetical, or even as a gross caricature. Colleges and universities across the country are feeling the pressure to graduate the students they admit--and when they are in the business of admitting students who either do not meet the institution's admissions requirements (but are admitted anyway, via preferences) or who arguably should not be in college at all (as is the case at schools that have lowered their admissions standards so drastically that they are virtually nonexistent), all hell breaks loose.
Recall Frederick Lang, the Brooklyn College English professor who has been "reassigned" to non-teaching duties for refusing to inflate his grades. Lang wasn't handing out the easy A's and B's. And he was handing out plenty of NC's (a "no credit" mark that compels students to repeat the course but does not harm the GPA the way an "F" would). The dispute between Lang and BC administrators boils down to a difference of opinion about whether, once admitted to college, students should receive honest feedback (even though that feedback may be painful to hear) or whether they should be "encouraged" with grades that may not assess their performance, but do stroke their egos and do keep them moving steadily along toward graduation. Lang's argument is that it is disrespectful to students--whatever their race, class, or gender--to refuse them the honest, thorough evaluations he gives them when they take his freshman composition courses. The College's argument is that Lang's approach to teaching is--in the words of the English department chair-- "spiritually damaging" to students who may not be very confident about their ability to succeed in college, and who are overwhelmed and humiliated by the thorough way he marks up their papers and by the honest grades he gives.
Lang and BC admins have been at an impasse for over a year now. He has not taught a class since last spring, and is not slated to return to the classroom next year. He has filed grievances and complaints, and has even taken his case to arbitration (a judgement is expected later this spring). Meanwhile, BC admins are escalating. It is no longer enough to have Lang safely removed from the classroom and assigned to various research projects that keep him far away from the fragile egos of BC students. Now he must be removed from the school itself. Last week, as Lang's arbitration hearings drew to a close, Provost Roberta Matthews informed Lang in writing that he would most likely be facing disciplinary charges for his failure to complete his research assignments in a timely manner (no matter that the fall project is now nearly completed, no matter that the project was make-work to begin with, no matter that the projects for both fall and spring were not suited to Lang and required him to learn new fields and acquire new technological skills). Lang feels that this notice is writing on the wall: It's hard to fire a tenured professor, but one way you can do it is to prove that he is not able to perform his duties in a timely and competent manner. By removing Lang from the classroom--where he wants to be, and where he has taught college writing effectively for twenty years--and assigning him to tasks he is not prepared to undertake, Brooklyn College administrators are creating the paper trail they will need to terminate him, if indeed they aspire to do so.
It's an awful mess, and it doesn't look like Lang is going to be getting any justice any time soon--not if the administrative scions of Brooklyn College have anything to say about it. And it is all ultimately owing to Lang's refusal to abandon his principles and his standards in the face of overwhelming institutional pressure.
More on Lang's case tomorrow, with special attention paid to how Brooklyn College is essentially attempting to impose an affirmative action grading policy on Lang, and how his refusal to countenance such an imposition may cost him his career.
April 18, 2003
UNCW prof adopts affirmative action grading
Mike Adams, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, has informed his students that his longtime opposition to affirmative action was wrong, that the University of Michigan's lawyers have convinced him that public universities must abandon strict and uniform standards because of their "compelling interest in diversity," and that, to demonstrate his newfound commitment to replacing meritocratic ideals with social engineering, he has devised a new and improved affirmative action grading policy.
In an open letter to his students published by Agape Press, Adams writes that:
I have decided to abandon my long-standing opposition to affirmative action after listening to the oral arguments in the recent U.S. Supreme Court case challenging admissions policies at the University of Michigan.› While listening to these recorded arguments,›I learned that public universities have a ''compelling interest in diversity'' which supersedes simplistic notions of reverse discrimination.› Now, because my views have changed, I am forced to alter my classroom grading policies.
››››››› Students in my classes will continue to have their final grades based principally on test performance.› Students will also continue to have a portion of their grade determined by class participation and/or a final paper depending on the class in which they are enrolled (please consult your course syllabus if you are one of my students).
››››››› After I compute final averages, I will then implement the new aspect of the grading process which is modeled after existing affirmative action policies at the university.› Specifically, I will be computing a class average which I will then compare to the individual performance of all white males enrolled in my classes.› All white males who exceed the class average will have points deducted and added to the final averages of women and minorities.› A student need not have ever engaged in discrimination in order to have points deducted.› Nor must a student have ever been a victim of discrimination in order to receive additional points.
››››››› I expect that my new policy will be well received by some, and poorly received by others.› For those in the latter category, please contact Human Resources for further elaboration on the concept of affirmative action.› You may also contact the Office of Campus Diversity for additional guidance.
››››› ›I understand that many of you may consider my new position to be unprincipled. Please understand, however, that the university has long abandoned antiquated principles of ''fairness'' in favor of identity politics.› Also understand that my job as a university professor is to prepare you for the real world.
›››››› After all, no one promised that life would always be fair.
Read the full text of Adams' letter here.
Professor Adams is known as something of a provocateur, and he has been in the politically incorrect spotlight before, most memorably during the fall of 2001. On September 15, 2001, Adams received an email that a UNCW undergraduate had addressed to all UNCW students and faculty. The email argued that the U.S. brought the 9/11 attacks on itself, and quoted the "World Socialist Website" in order to claim that "The American ruling elite, in its insolence and cynicism, acts as if it can carry out its violent enterprises around the world without creating the political conditions for violent acts of retribution." The email closed by inviting recipients to forward it in the interest of "open, unbiased, democratic discussion." Adams wrote a short reply to the student (scroll down), and forwarded her email along as she had herself encouraged recipients to do. Some of the people who got the email from Adams wrote stinging replies to her--at which point she decided that she was not so interested in "open, unbiased, democratic discussion after all." She accused Adams of intimidation, defamation, and false representation (in writing, to the university's general counsel), and she demanded that she be allowed to see his email records so that she could sue him for libel. The University capitulated, and agreed to her outrageous demand that it examine Professor Adams' private emails for evidence to support her claims. UNCW officials only backed down after FIRE got involved and national embarassment ensued.
There will be those at UNCW who consider Adams' letter to be outside the bounds of academic freedom: they will say it is racist and sexist, that it creates a hostile environment for his students, that it may in itself constitute a form of harassment. But the odds that they will be able to convince a UNCW administrator to act on their claims are long indeed. UNCW officials have been burned before for trying to punish Adams for engaging in fair, if politically incorrect, expression. They won't get near the FIRE again.
FIRE-ing De Genova
Columbia anthropology professor Nicholas De Genova's "million Mogadishus" comment prompted many to call for his job (and even his life). Columbia President Lee Bollinger's subsequent announcement that De Genova absolutely would not be fired or otherwise punished for his statements--despite pressure from citizens, students, alumni, and even from some members of Congress--sparked a national debate about what exactly academic freedom is, what its relationship to the First Amendment is, and whether a comment such as De Genova's could ever reasonably considered to be "protected speech." Yesterday, Alan Charles Kors (founder and president of FIRE) and Thor Halvorssen (FIRE's CEO) addressed these issues and many more in a live online colloquy hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read the transcript here.
April 17, 2003
Truth at SVSU
I just received the following email, in response to my post about the efforts of certain Saginaw Valley State University professors to intimidate students into taking down their controversial website, SVSUTruth:
Saginaw Valley State University wishes to inform you that Dr. Janice Wolff's personal comments were not made in an official capacity nor on behalf of the University. The University does not contemplate any legal action in the matter of the student website SVSUTruth.
Carlos Ramet, Ph.D.
Executive Assistant to the President
Saginaw Valley State University
This is very good news, since the last we heard Dr. Janice Wolff was threatening the students who run the site with a libel suit, and was explictly doing so from her position as Chair of the SVSU English department.
Now the question is: Does the University contemplate any action in the matter of the threats, misrepresentations, and abuse of authority perpetrated by Dr. Janice Wolff?
Read all about recent events at SVSU here.
Kansas investigates sex class
Last month, Kansas state senator Susan Wagle convinced the state legislature to adopt a budget amendment requiring state-funded schools to ban the purchase and display of "obscene" materials. The amendment stated that academic departments that defy the ban risk losing their state funding, and its immediate target was a popular human sexuality course at the University of Kansas. For the past twenty years, the course has been taught by social welfare professor and sex therapist Dennis Dailey, and it regularly enrolls 500 students. Wagle contended that the course was crossing the line with its use of sexually explicit films and photographs, and further argued that Dailey himself regularly engaged in behavior that amounted to sexual harassment. The budget amendment was step one in her campaign to shut down Dailey's class. Now she has taken step two, filing a formal complaint against Dailey with the university's Chancellor.
The full text of Wagle's letter of complaint is available on line. It alleges, among other things, that Dailey has been known to give students the finger, that he uses deliberately provocative language (f---, buttf----ing) to "shock" students out of their complacency and into greater acceptance, that he abuses his authority by encouraging his students to consult with him about their personal sexual problems, that he continually embellishes his lectures with lewd asides about women's bodies, that he has instructed women students to masturbate for homework, and that he once said he thought that in order to graduate, women students should have to prove they are capable of having orgasms (this requirement, he allegedly suggested, could be fulfilled by submitting a videotape). It's quite a document, and it has inspired the university to open an investigation into Dailey.
Dailey's supporters--many of them former students--say Wagle is taking just about everything out of context. Wagle for her part has not revealed where she got her information. In her letter, she sidesteps that question by adopting the passive voice, announcing her intent to outline "the concerns I have and the allegations that have been expressed to me about the Human Sexuality class being taught by Professor Dennis Dailey," and later indicates vaguely that she has spoken with "students who have taken the class in the past, and students who are currently taking the class." In earlier coverage of proposed budget amendment, Wagle indicated that she was basing her campaign on information given to her by one of Dailey's students. It would be interesting indeed to uncover who this individual is, and whether he or she has any ulterior motives for initiating what has quickly become a well-organized, state-sponsored witch hunt. As Daphne Patai demonstrates in her devastating book Heterophobia: Sexual Harassment and the Future of Feminism, universities have developed a nasty habit of encouraging students to file trumped-up sexual harassment charges--charges that in turn destroy the careers of the men (and sometimes women) they falsely accuse.
If Dailey's behavior really fits the account Wagle gives in her complaint, then he certainly has crossed the line on more than one occasion. But Dailey has taught the same course for years, using the same methods, to thousands upon thousands of students. The vast majority of those students are very far from seeing him as the sort of professorial pervert Wagle makes him out to be--so far, indeed, that they have lobbied successfully to have Dailey teach the course twice a year instead of once; so far that Dailey has won numerous teaching awards over the years. Dailey's student supporters argue that some of Wagle's claims are not true (or, at least, that they cannot themselves corroborate some of the things she alleges he has said or done in class), and that other claims wilfully misconstrue Dailey's pedagogy by taking events and comments out of context.
It's a messy business all around, one that will be well worth watching closely in the weeks to come. The academic freedom of professors teaching in Kansas' public colleges and universities is on the line, as is one man's reputation and career. Kansas administrators will have to resist the political pressure Wagle is putting on them to move into witch-hunt mode if they hope to conduct a fair and reasonable investigation of her charges and if they want to avoid placing decisions about what gets taught and how it gets taught entirely in the hands of state politicians.
The good news
Iowa State is raising awareness of individual rights by hosting a First Amendment Day (I am crossing my fingers that Iowa State follows Duke's lead, and hands out free "free speech? fine by me" t-shirts).
And an M.A. student at the University of Kentucky has defied overwhelming odds to produce a dissertation in English that actually makes an important and original contribution to knowledge (one that may turn out to be of use as efforts to recover and restore Iraq's looted heritage begin). You go girl!
April 16, 2003
UCLA passes antiwar resolution
On Monday, the UCLA faculty passed an antiwar resolution--and became the first university faculty to do so since the war began. In a closed meeting, assembled faculty first debated whether enough of UCLA's thousands of faculty members were present for a vote to be valid (they determined that just enough were). Then they voted 180 to 7 to pass a resolution condemning the war, thus indicating utter contempt for debate, total disregard for the potential validity of differing viewpoints, stunning imperviousness to the fact of the war's success thus far, and pure arrogance about their own moral and intellectual superiority to, well, everyone else.
Some priceless out-takes:
"There's a terrible irony here," said Michael Rodriguez, a professor of family medicine who offered a medical professional's perspective on health implications of the war.
"The U.S. claims military measures are preventative, so (it) deploys weapons of mass destruction that will lead to disease and hunger on a massive scale," he said.
Some speakers opposed to the idea of the Academic Senate making a statement about the war were received by sparse applause and even booing.
"These are people who arrogantly purport to speak for me when I am unable to unjoin my organization," law school professor Grant Nelson said to the assembly.
The strongest applause of the afternoon was for physics professor Karoly Holczer, who took issue with those denouncing the senate's authority to make a statement about the war.
"The few academic senates in the country are the only organizations who should take a stand on human morals. It's more than our right, it's our obligation," he said.
While this high-minded exercise in self-congratulation was going on behind closed doors, a group of Bruin Republicans stood outside with signs, encouraging those who entered to vote against the resolution. "This isn't about our position on the war, it's about the purpose of the Academic Senate," said Mark Sato, director of faculty/staff relations for the group. "I think the faculty has embarrassed themselves today."
Yes, they did make themselves look like a pack of grandiose fools. But even more to the point, they've also effectively voted to chill academic freedom on campus. If the UCLA faculty's official political position is anti-war, what does that say to students who support the war--particularly those whose courses touch on the issues involved? What does it say to the (probably very few) untenured faculty who support the war--particularly those whose scholarship touches on the issues involved?
As the University of California works to revise its statement on academic freedom with the express purpose of validating politicized instruction and ideologically motivated scholarship, such measures as the one taken by the UCLA faculty stand to become the norm rather than the exception.
Thanks to Fred R. for the link.
April 15, 2003
Johnny can't read, and Susie can't do long division. But who cares whether their schools teach the basics, as long as they are both learning to stamp out heterosexism and to explore--or at least endorse--queer sexuality? Marjorie King's new City Journal article, "Queering the Schools," is a chilling and thought-provoking account of how gay activists are hijacking the curriculum and even the culture of American public schools. You don't have to think that homosexuality is wrong to have a problem with what's happening in the schools: so don't skip this piece if it sounds on the surface like so much reactionary gay-bashing. It's quite the opposite, and the trends it exposes concern us all.
"The Most Hated Professor in America"
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an exclusive interview with Columbia University anthropology professor Nicholas De Genova. I take this to mean that Playboy didn't call.
When De Genova expressed his wish for a "million Mogadishus" at a campus teach-in last month, he made national news, received death threats, went into hiding, and even inspired an exceptionally opportunistic group of Congressmen to demand that he be fired. Now he shares with Chronicle writer Thomas Bartlett the story of how he was misunderstood and how the public reaction against him is a slur on the entire anti-war movement. Highlights:
Q. Were you surprised by the reaction to your speech?
A. I certainly was not expecting anything on the scale of this controversy. ... It so happens that a single journalist from a tabloid newspaper who was interested in scandalmongering was present at the event. In a way that was fairly devious, he tried to solicit comments from me the following day, and in a manner calculated to generate the most inflammatory possible effect, quoted me out of context. ...
Q. But many of those present have condemned your comments. One organizer of the teach-in called what you said "idiotic."
A. I certainly would never deny that my perspective is controversial. My intervention was intended as a challenge among people who share a certain set of basic premises concerning the fact that this war is unjust. Unfortunately, there has been no dialogue concerning the substance of my speech and its meaning for the antiwar movement. To defensively denounce what I said as "idiotic" merely contributes to the pro-war campaign of vilification. There are people with a very vested interest in exploiting this issue and manipulating it for their own ends, and attacks against me are therefore attacks against the entire antiwar movement.
Q. If that's the case, then didn't you play right into their hands?
A. I think that it's healthy to generate debate and controversy if there is the possibility of clarifying positions, elucidating and elaborating positions in order to provoke more critical thinking. ...
Q. So you would argue that your comments have been healthy and helpful?
A. There is an impulse to jingoistic, patriotic hysteria during wartime that will seek to discredit the antiwar movement. And that is to be expected. Those of us in the antiwar movement need to confront the really concerted power, money, and resources that have been devoted to trying to narrow the range of possible speech. The real discussion of the substantive issues that I raised has yet to begin and is long overdue. In that sense, I don't think that there's any conclusive way to judge what the effect has been at this point, either for the antiwar movement or for the forces that would be invested in silencing us.
Q. Just so we're clear: Do you welcome or wish for the deaths of American soldiers?
A. No, precisely not. That's one of the reasons I am against the war. I am against the war because people like George Bush and his war cabinet are invested in needlessly wasting the lives of people who have absolutely no interest in perpetrating this war and should not be there. And any responsibility for the loss of their lives will rest in the hands of the warmakers on the side of the U.S.
Q. There are millions of people in this country and elsewhere who share that point of view. Why did you choose to express it in those terms?
A. Because I was interested in contesting the notion that an effective strategy for the antiwar movement is to capitulate to the patriotic pro-war pressure that demands that one must affirm support for the troops. It really is a disguised form of pressuring people who are antiwar to support the war.
There is an important and growing movement to defend me and to affirm the important role I play at this university for the students who have had contact with me, and to support my right to free speech and the invaluable place of critical perspectives like mine in the larger debate and dialogue.
Q. If you had it to do over again, would you make the same remarks?
A. There is a lesson here for all of us, far and wide, beyond my immediate circle of colleagues and this particular university. There is a message for all people who affirm the importance of free speech and the freedom of thought and expression. ...
Q. I guess my question is, would you have attempted to be clearer?
A. Had I known that there was a devious yellow journalist from a tabloid newspaper among the audience, I certainly would have selected my words somewhat more carefully. But I would not have changed the message. Unfortunately, that message has been largely lost on people who were not at the event.
I think this interview--which De Genova knows will be read by thousands--is going to do more to confirm the public's opinion of him than to change it. De Genova's attempt to "clarify" his position here is painfully self-serving, grandiose, rhetorically hyperbolic, and logically thin. Bartlett does nothing in the way of "yellow journalism" to make this happen--he just gives De Genova lots and lots of rope with which to hang himself.
About that growing movement to support De Genova: One such supporter has begun making posts to the comments on Critical Mass. You can read examples of his work here and here (scroll down and look for the comments by Chris Wright).
You can read more commentary on the De Genova exclusive at the Volokh Conspiracy, Daniel Drezner,, and the Filibuster (n.b.: there's a small factual error in the Filibuster post--De Genova was not invited to speak at the teach-in, but instead showed up, speech in hand, and invited himself to fill in for a scheduled speaker who could not come).
UC rewrites academic freedom
A newsflash from Luann Wright, founder and president of NoIndoctrination.org, alerts us to some disturbing changes that may be made to the University of California's Statement on Academic Freedom:
University of California President Richard Atkinson and UC Berkeley Law School Professor Robert Post are proposing a new statement on Academic Freedom for the University of California - one that NoIndoctrination.org believes will undermine the academic freedom rights of students. President Atkinson claims that the current statement is "outdated": "I believe the University's stance on academic freedom should reflect the modern university and its faculty."(1) NoIndoctrination.org finds no justification for the proposed changes.
The following statements are part of the current UC document on Academic Freedom, but these will be eliminated if the Atkinson/Post proposal is adopted:
* "To convert, or to make converts, is alien and hostile to this dispassionate duty. Where it becomes necessary, in performing this function of a university, to consider political, social, or sectarian movements, they are dissected and examined - not taught, and the conclusion left, with no tipping of the scales, to the logic of the facts."
* "Essentially the freedom of a university is the freedom of competent persons in the classroom. In order to protect this freedom, the University assumes the right to prevent exploitation of its prestige by unqualified persons or by those who would use it as a platform for propaganda."
* "Its high function - and its high privilege, the University will steadily continue to fulfill, serving the people by providing facilities for investigation and teaching free from domination by parties, sects, or selfish interests."
The proposal claims that APM-015 (the UC Faculty Code of Conduct)(2) covers such issues. While APM-015 does have a few statements that protect students' rights, it is extremely limited, and NoIndoctrination.org finds in them no adequate replacement for the statements quoted above. As far as the academic freedom rights of students are concerned, the new proposal eliminates everything of substance. Just when NoIndoctrination.org is mounting a campaign to insist that UC honors its proclamations about academic freedom and responsibility, President Atkinson has decided it is time to change the ground rules.
Apparently Atkinson and Post find it "outdated" for modern faculty members to avoid using their courses as "stages for propaganda." Apparently they see no reason why modern faculty should provide a balanced view when discussing political and social movements. Apparently they see no reason why modern faculty should provide teaching "free from domination by parties, sects, or selfish interests."
Weakening the University of California's statement on Academic Freedom will only serve to perpetuate the kinds of abuses documented on NoIndoctrination.org.
President and Founder
1. UC President Atkinson's letter justifying the proposal, the current and proposed UC Academic Freedom statements as well as other university statements (http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu/senate/underreview/apm010prop.pdf)
2. UC Faculty Code of Conduct (http://www.ucop.edu/acadadv/acadpers/apm/apm-015.pdf)
What you can do (also from NoIndoctrination.org):
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
(Anyone can help, not just Californians!)
Concerned citizens (students, parents, taxpayers, academics) may register their opinion on this proposed change with the UC Regents (c/o the Secretary of the Regents Leigh Trivette (email@example.com) and with the UC Academic Council Chair Gayle Binion (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Vice Chair Lawrence Pitts (email@example.com). These individuals are not accustomed to hearing from the public; therefore, your emails or letters can have a significant impact! Feel free to forward this message on to others who may share our concerns about the eroding rights of students and the increasing toleration of classroom abuse.
UPDATE: Stanley Kurtz points out that the proposed revisions to UC's statement on academic freedom are almost certainly motivated by NoIndoctrination.org, which has used the original version to explain and justify its efforts to hold professors who politicize their classrooms accountable for their abuse of authority. Tangled webs indeed: How awful for the University of California, to have its statement on academic freedom held up as the exemplary standard to which all colleges and universities should aspire! Clearly NoIndoctrination.org's abuse of UC's academic freedom statement must be stopped. And obviously the best way to do this is to gut the statement--along with the ideal it expresses.
April 14, 2003
More professorial malpractice at Columbia
Columbia anthropology professor Nicholas "Million Mogadishus" De Genova is not the only member of that illustrious faculty who has been abusing his professorial authority by making outlandish, incendiary, and irresponsible commentary about the Middle East. Dissident Middle East scholar Martin Kramer takes the head of Columbia's Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) to task today on his blog Sandstorm. Kramer has much to say about Hamid Dabashi, and is particularly eloquent on Dabashi's own contribution to the teach-in that his colleague De Genova made so famous.
Dabashi's comment at the teach-in:
Because there are no answers to our questions about this war, we just get angrier and angrier. But this is where the blessed thing called "teach-in" comes in handy. Tonight, we think for ourselves. Revenge of the nerdy "A" students against the stupid "C" students with their stupid fingers on the trigger.
Kramer's comment on Dabashi's comment:
...one is left wondering just what Dabashi is talking about. And just what are Columbia students to conclude from such a quote in their campus newspaper? That a pro-war position might drop them to a "C"? That's why professors (especially departmental chairs) have no business suggesting even the most tenuous correlation between grades and politics. It's just one more example of Dabashi's egregiously flawed judgment.
Touche. And there is much, much more besides, including this comment from the well-known composer John Corigliano, who recently had a run-in with Professor Dabashi:
Students deserve real self-discipline from their professors. I miss evidence of this quality in the illiberalism, sloppy research, and near-hysterical tone of these statements Dabashi has written for publication. It's deeply disturbing to me thatůat this time, of all timesůsuch a person chairs the department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia.
I do hope the administration has the courageůfor it will take a lot of courageůto stand up to demagoguery of this nature. Columbia has done so in the past, and, if it is still the institution I remember, I expect it will do so in the future.
The more we look under academic rocks, the more we find. The more we air what we find, the more we can do to compel academe to police itself far more rigorously than it currently does.
Water buffalo revisited
From today's Daily Pennsylvanian:
On January 13, 1993, a College freshman's cry of "water buffalo" became a shout that echoed throughout the University -- eventually spawning what would become the infamous Water Buffalo affair.
That April, an entire press run of the Daily Pennsylvanian was stolen by a group of students in order to protest the publication of a controversial columnist's work.
Now, ten years later, the DP has decided to take a weeklong, in-depth look at that tense year, its participants, causes and effects.
From the start, 1993 was an atypical year. Then-University President Sheldon Hackney had just been nominated to head the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Clinton administration and was on his way out. The school was about to resettle itself after his 12-year term.
The scandal began when Eden Jacobowitz, then a first-year resident of High Rise East, became frustrated by the clamorous Founders' Day celebrations of 15 Delta Sigma Theta sisters outside his room. He and other students began yelling out their windows, urging the girls to quiet down.
"Shut up, you water buffalo -- if you want to party go to the zoo," Jacobowitz famously yelled, after a period of frustration at what he claimed was incessant noise.
He was not the only student to scream out to the sisters. Still, Jacobowitz was the only one who came forward when Penn Police, spurred on by five infuriated sisters of the traditionally black sorority, who felt the shouts had violated the University's racial harassment codes, searched the dorm for perpetrators of the offense.
Jacobowitz was also the only student who admitted that he had seen that the sisters were black when he was questioned by the police the following day.
It was an easy choice, then, for Penn's administrative judicial inquiry officer Robin Read, to charge him with having violated Penn's newly rewritten harassment codes.
Read the whole thing, and stay tuned for the follow-up pieces to be printed in the DP this week. Penn made headlines for its reprehensible conduct during the water buffalo affair. But good things have come from a rotten time. Judith Rodin, the current Penn president, was hired, and has since been an exemplary proponent of academic freedom and the value of open, unfettered expression on campus. Penn history professor Alan Kors, who defended Jacobowitz, collaborated with civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate to write the pathbreaking The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. And the response to the The Shadow University spurred Kors and Silverglate to found the invaluable non-profit organization, FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). As many Critical Mass readers know, FIRE is at the forefront of the fight to protect the often-violated rights of students and faculty on America's campuses.
If you are interested in the history of campus PC, in the mechanics of administrative repression in higher ed, and in the measures a highly motivated few have taken to protect civil liberties on our increasingly illiberal campuses, the DP's series is one you won't want to miss.
Thought experiment: If you had student fees to burn, what sort of speaker would you bring to campus, a racist, anti-Semitic ideologue who poses as a poet or a sex therapist with her own TV show?
New Jersey Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka read from his "poems" at a Princeton cultural festival last week (thanks to Fred R. for alerting me). His performance included a reading of his controversial "Somebody Blew Up America," a stunning exercise in ignorance and tone-deafness that contains the following stanza: "Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed/Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers to stay home that day/Why did Sharon stay away?" (Baraka's illiterate defense of the poem is posted on his web site). Baraka also spent some time discussing his complex political views, informing the audience that "Bush, Cheney, they're the great anti-Semites of our age," that "Homeland Security is the Gestapo headquarters," that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is another Holocaust, and that Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and black Americans all deserve monetary reparations for the exploitation they have undergone at the hands of white Americans. Baraka's visit was paid for by the Princeton Justice Project, a student advocacy group dedicated to the causes of civil rights and social justice.
Nebraska's Residence Hall Association is spending $4000 to bring Sue Johanson, hostess of the Oxygen Network's Sunday Night Sex Show, to campus later this month. Johanson is a nurse who has been actively involved in sex education for decades. In 1970, she founded the first birth control clinic in a North American high school, and for the last thirteen years she has been running the popular Canadian call-in show. The Oxygen Network picked the show up last fall, and since then Johanson has also been hosting an American version of the Sunday Night Sex Show.
Baraka's and Johanson's campus visits are all in the name of intellectual stimulation, of course. Nebraska student coordinators say Johanson's presentation will be "educational" (they also admit that she is likely to draw a big crowd). Likewise, the Princeton students who organized Baraka's visit defended their decision to by citing their commitment to intellectual inquiry: "We have a responsibility to hear ideas that we don't like and ideas that we do like," one said. "We're not here to endorse his political views," another said. "The intent is that it would generate an open and honest dialogue" about race and reparations. Neither group of students seems to recognize the intellectual dishonesty of their own rationales.
Johanson's appearance will no doubt be "educational"--but universities are supposed to educate the mind, not the libido. The type of education Johanson provides--how to pick a birth control method, how to avoid transmitting STDs, and even which sex toys to use when--differs absolutely in substance and kind from the type of intellectual education that universities are supposedly in the business of providing. Many Nebraska undergrads may well want to learn more about sex on the school's dime--but the students who are using school funds to import a celebrity sex therapist may well be pushing the bounds of ethics when they characterize the event as "educational." To be clear, I say this not from a stance of prudery, but from a stance of prudence: I was myself a "peer sexuality educator" while in college (their term, not mine); my fellow "educators" and I delivered informational talks at dorms, explaining the different methods of birth control and talking, too, about what STDs are and how to prevent their spread. We were never paid a penny, and that was fine by us. There are a lot of students who want and need that information, and making it available to them is a good deed. But dropping $4000 to bring in the Frasier Crane of sex talk is more a publicity stunt than a smart decision; it is more likely to cause a sensation than it is to enhance students' education.
Likewise, Amira Baraka is not the speaker to invite to campus if you are truly interested in stimulating dialogue about the extraordinarily sensitive issues of race and reparations. The man is an intellectual bulldozer, an uninformed and painfully deluded provocateur who has been publicly discredited so many times that we have lost count. Inviting Baraka to campus is a way of sparking controversy--not of encouraging informed and reasoned debate. To pretend otherwise is to participate in the same self-serving sort of lying for which Baraka himself is notorious. It is to insist that blind assertion is as valid as informed argument, and it is to equate the politically motivated propagation of half- and un-truths with historically nuanced commentary. Princeton students should know better. We have their professors to thank for the evident fact that so many do not.
April 13, 2003
Mental masturbation, Ivy-style
"I thought that their speeches were crafted very carefully to draw whimsical chuckles from jaded leftists in the crowd. It was long on wit, short on wisdom. It was rhetoric without content, opinion without foundation, but worst of all, it was above all an ego enhancement session for a group of smug intellectuals. In short, [it was] a session of group intellectual onanism." --Yale undergraduate David Goldenberg, assessing the presentations of the six distinguished Yale professors who participated in a recent anti-war faculty forum
Thanks as ever to the indefatigable Fred R. for the link.
Stop the student presses
At the University of Wisconsin, Madison County, students expressed their outrage at the school paper's satirical bent--which some regard as tasteless and offensive--by setting part of the press run on fire and by stuffing another fifty copies or so down a toilet in a campus men's room.
Newspaper theft is illegal, but hey. Who cares about the law--or about the First Amendment--when there are offensive newspapers that need to be destroyed?
Things are even worse at Stetson University, where the entire staff of the school paper, The Reporter, was fired after the April Fool's edition (known as The Distorter) "went too far." The paper will not be published for the duration of the school year, and the staff were given 15 minutes to remove their belongings from the offices before school administrators changed the locks. The offending material? A school lecture series centered on promoting racial dialogue was spoofed with an article about "a racist Civil War enthusiast drinking beer at a podium. The weekly sex column was written in Ebonics. And the phony advertisements included one for a spray that 'Kills townies dead' and another featuring profanity in giant block letters, 'Because we are allowed to print it.'"
For this, the entire enterprise was summarily shut down--even staff members who had no editorial control over the paper's content were let go. But protecting the tender morals of youth--and donors--from the corrosive effects of tasteless parody matters more than either fairness or a free press. "There's not much in this year's Distorter that you can laugh about," said Michelle Espinosa, the dean of students. "We believe very strongly in students' need for autonomy. But the students do assume responsibility for their editorial decisions."
Espinosa seems not to have realized that censorship is not an effective means of encouraging students to "assume responsibility" for their editorial decisions, and that it is in fact the perfect way to deny students the "autonomy" she acknowledges they "need." The April Fool's issue attracted a lot of complaints from students, faculty, and alumni; had Espinosa truly been concerned with respecting the autonomy of the student paper, she would simply have allowed the staff to deal with the fallout from its editorial choices on its own. But it seems clear enough that Espinosa was more interested in swiftly and definitively silencing a set of voices that she found administratively inconvenient. (One wonders what she would have done if Nicholas De Genova made his "Million Mogadishu" comment on her watch.)
In fairness to the censorious Espinosa, she is not alone: recall the recent cases at Reed, Maryland, and Miami, where student journalists incurred administrative wrath for writing and printing material that either made faculty look bad or mocked academe's sacred cows. And in fairness to the thieves at Wisconsin, they are not alone, either: newspaper theft is a cornerstone of PC campus culture, where all bets are off when something or someone offends.
I wrote Friday that more and more college students are learning more about aggression than they are about reasoned, informed exchange, that in the sloganeering climate of politicized campus culture, too many of today's students are getting educations in the techniques of organized hostility and too few are learning to think rigorously, to articulate their thoughts precisely, and to respect the rights of others to do the same. Watching what happens when college newspapers get on the wrong side of campus orthodoxies provides another window on a huge and growing problem.
Recollecting De Genova
Terrence Moore shares his memories of going to college alongside Nicholas De Genova, and offers some thoughts on what De Genova's career path can tell us about the present state of higher education in America. Along the way he shreds De Genova's work on Chicago's Hispanic communities, suggests that ideological indoctrination has replaced rigorous training in both undergraduate and graduate education, and points out that the De Genovas of the academy are the product of an intellectual culture that snickers at the notion that a scholar's purpose should be "the pursuit of truth" while at the same time glorifying the mass production of "scholarship." If you haven't yet had your fill of L'Affaire De Genova, this one is worth reading.
Thanks to reader Fred R. for the link.
April 11, 2003
War-related animosities are running high on campuses across the country.
At Yale, a string of incidents aimed at anti-war protesters has prompted Dean Richard Brodhead to issue a campus-wide email reminding students of Yale's commitment to free expression and tolerance. First there was the case of Katherine Lo, who said a group of men bearing a wooden plank tried to break into her room after she hung an upside-down flag out her window. When they failed to break into her room, they left a threatening message containing anti-Muslim slurs on her message board (there is skepticism among some bloggers about this event, but others claim to have verified its credibility).
Then there was the student who said he was spat on for participating in an anti-war vigil in a Yale dining hall.
Then there was the student who tore down the upside-down flag hung by a group of protesters because it offended him.
And there was the threatening note found on the ground outside Yale's Afro-American Cultural Center Wednesday night: "I hope you protesters and your children are killed in the next terrorist attack," it read. The note was scrawled on an anti-war flyer, and was signed "F--- you." Though it may sound like a stretch to read the flyer's threatening message as a racist one simply because of its physical proximity to the Afro-American Cultural Center, some are doing just that: "It's very clear this is the same tactic of using hate speech or hate crime to try to silence people," Afro-American Cultural Center staff member Christopher Jordan '04 said. "It's targeting a specific group based on their race, ethnicity and religion."
At Berkeley, there have been similar outbreaks of hostility against protesters. On Wednesday, a group of students were conducting a die-in on Sproul Plaza as part of the annual Students for Justice in Palestine rally. A woman who is also a member of the pro-Israel student group DAFKA arrived on the scene dressed in a Muslim headscarf and wearing fake dynamite strapped to her body. Chanting "Free Palestine" in a mocking way, she attempted to walk through the prone students participating in the die-in. One of them spread his arms to prevent her--at which point she spat in his face. Police told her to leave campus for the rest of the day; she said she only spat because she felt threatened by the man who had spread his arms. Police are trying to determine if this is a hate crime, and if so, who committed it (the woman claims her headscarf was pulled off by another student).
Yesterday also marked the first episode of "hate graffiti" on Berkeley's campus. On the outside of the campus gym, the following messages were scrawled in thick black marker: "Mohammed is an asshole!" and "All people named Mohammed need to die!" This one is being treated as a hate crime.
Last week at Berkeley, a Sikh student was attacked as he walked to class. Students are demanding that the student code of conduct be amended to say that it is not acceptable for students to commit hate crimes. Such an amendment would in turn require the school to define what constitutes a hate crime.
These are just a few examples from just two campuses. And the unsolved episodes among them should all be taken with grains of salt: faking hate crimes is a popular pastime on campuses, where self-appointed victims can garner loads of attention and sympathy for the oppression they have allegedly experienced and where activists are so eager for the validation such crimes give to their causes that they have been known both to fake such crimes themselves and to argue, when faked crimes are exposed, that they nonetheless prove that hate is a terrible and defining problem on campus (I've provided some examples and discussion here).
Regardless of the ambiguity that inevitably surrounds such events, it's clear that something is going desperately wrong on campuses across the country. The students involved are some of the most intelligent in the world, getting some of the best education that the world has to offer--or so conventional wisdom would have us believe. Moreover, the schools these students attend are among the most vocal, active supporters of diversity and multiculturalism around. These students are wise to the ways of tolerance and inclusion, proud celebrants of difference all--or so the conventional wisdom would have us believe. But they are also wise in the ways of victimhood, and very, very savvy politicians. They know how to exploit situations and how to promote themselves. At the same time, they don't know much at all about settling differences in a civil way: We don't have to determine which hate crimes are real and which are faked to be able to determine this much. We can also learn from these otherwise ambiguous events a great deal about how some of America's most elite college students think about conflict and personal expression. With all the emphasis on today's campuses on protesting, demonstrating, rallying, taking sides, making signs, and holding vigils, there is comparatively little emphasis on learning to move beyond melodramatic theatrics, beyond shock and sound bites, and toward reasoned, measured, articulate self-expression and its interactive corollaries, reasoned, measured, articulate debate and the mutual respect and tolerance that arises from it.
These are the students of the Nicholas De Genova school of civic engagement. To call what is happening on Berkeley's and Yale's campuses a "rash of hate crimes" is to mask a far more central truth: what we see on both coasts is the sad and frightening spectacle of students putting theory into practice, of young adults applying the ideological lessons of the politicized classroom to their daily lives.
April 10, 2003
De Genova goes back to work
Columbia University anthropology professor Nicholas "Million Mogadishus" De Genova returned to his teaching duties Tuesday, accompanied by two campus guards. "I will not be silenced," he told his students. Neither, it seems, will Columbia students, who continue to express their disgust at De Genova's comments and their dismay that their school is not only the seat of such commentary, but, as the employer of professors like De Genova, the sponsor of it. Check out this piece in the Columbia Spectator, and this one.
Last week the Spectator rejected a proposed ad demanding that De Genova be fired. The ad was sponsored by the Jewish Defense Organization, and it called De Genova an "enemy of Israel" and an "enemy of America." The JDO was not happy. "This pig professor is extended more rights than the Jewish Defense Organization. Where is our free speech to run him out of his job?" a spokesman told New York Newsday. The Spectator has a policy against running political ads.
UPDATE: The Columbia Spectator has the details on De Genova's return and on Columbia University's official stance toward him.
No dissent allowed at SVSU
Last month, I wrote about a website created by Saginaw Valley State University students who wanted to express their extreme disgust at how their school was effectively institutionalizing--and rewarding--an anti-war stance. The impetus for creating the website was a memo sent to the entire SVSU community by two English professors and one sociology professor announcing an anti-war rally and encouraging their colleagues both to cancel class (if it conflicted with the rally) and to offer students extra-credit for attending it. Students who felt this was an abuse of authority, an abdication of responsibility, and a deplorable instance of institutionalized bias appealed to SVSU administrators--only to be told that the professors were well within their rights to do as they had done. Unable to make themselves heard within the SVSU system, the students took their story to the world wide web, posting the offending memo, posting their response to it, and supplying the email addresses of the professors who sent it. They also took the opportunity to profile one of the most ideological professors on campus, linking to his own home page and his own online course materials as evidence of how this particular professor has converted his classroom into a political soapbox.
I wrote at the time that I was pleased to see the SVSU students standing up for themselves. They had tried to get administrators to remind faculty of their obligation to teach their classes and to avoid any appearance of rewarding students for espousing particular views--but they had failed. And so they went public on their own, simply posting the material that they found troubling and explaining why. They were uncompromising, but at the same time, they had a light touch. For the most part, they simply allowed the dogmatism of certain SVSU professors to speak for itself.
My hope was that public exposure would assist SVSU administrators, if not the faculty itself, see how legitimately bad their school would appear to a public that does not look favorably on institutions that try to hoodwink students, parents, and taxpayers into accepting indoctrination as education. But as is often the case with me, I indulged an entirely unfounded optimism. I was wrong to imagine that a few pesky students could convince their professors and administrators to clean up their acts. I should have anticipated what their response would be.
Here is a copy of an email addressed to the students who were (with good reason) anonymously running the site:
To Whom it may Concern,
I write to voice my extreme displeasure about the defamatory messages you have posted. I Chair the Department of English at SVSU and I want to communicate that you will face legal suit if you continue to libel these valuable professors in this way. Dr. Elizabeth Rich has cautioned you about copyright issues, and I caution you about libelous actions.
Janice M. Wolff
I have not seen the abovementioned email from Dr. Elizabeth Rich (who is not an expert on copyright law, but an assistant professor of English who writes about colonialism and women authors). But I can say that the note here from Professor Wolff is awfully rich in its own right. It is not libelous to express your opinion--which is all these students did. It is not defamatory to publish these professors' own widely disseminated memo (printed in full in my previous post), nor is it defamatory to point to a particular SVSU professor's own online self-presentation-- homepage, course syllabi, and assignments--as an example of the politicized atmosphere of the college. No lies were spread, and only fair comment was made.
Wolff's note is an attempt to silence the legitimate dissent of the students who posted the site by threatening them with legal action. Likewise, I am guessing the abovementioned missive about copyright issues was an attempt to do the same: It's pushing things awfully far to say that the students were violating copyright law when they reprinted the email memo that three professors had already distributed to the entire university community, and which they wrote with the express purpose of disseminating widely. It's equally preposterous to suggest that they were infringing on copyright by linking to one professor's web pages. I don't know what the note about copyright said, but I can't come up with an explanation that makes legal sense. It sounds like it was step one in an effort to intimidate the SVSU students into taking the page down, and that the note above threatening a libel suit was step two. That the threat comes not from SVSU's office of general counsel, but from the chair of the English department should itself alert us to the fact that the law is being invoked here not in an informed manner, but in a coercive one.
Well, Professor Wolff won. SVSU truth is no longer online. The chair of the SVSU English department has successfully silenced the unwelcome and inconvenient voices of students who do not appreciate her colleagues' attempts to "teach" them to adopt their politics. Along the way, she has shown herself to be illiberal and unethical: It is not only intolerant to attempt to silence legitimate criticism, but it is dishonest to do so by describing that legitimate criticism as illegal defamation.
To the writers of SVSU Truth, if you are reading: Contact the ACLU and contact FIRE. Don't let yourselves be censored, and do seek justice. I'm not a lawyer, but from where I sit, Janice Wolff and her thin-skinned colleagues aren't the ones who are well positioned to bring a lawsuit. You are.
UPDATE: SVSU Truth has been restored! Kudos to the courageous students responsible for the site.
April 8, 2003
Brooklyn College guts core curriculum
Within the next day or so, I'll be posting further on the case of Frederick Lang, the Brooklyn College English professor who is no longer allowed to teach students because he refused to assign inflated grades. In the meantime, the comments readers have appended to my post are well worth reading (just scroll down), as is this New York Sun article on how Brooklyn College is currently gutting its once nationally recognized core curriculum.
The rock solid education that William Bennett once described as one of the few "bright spots" in American higher education and that the New York Times credited with BC's success during the 1980s is now on its way out as newly appointed Provost Roberta Matthews attempts to install her own pet curriculum (an intellectually vacuous vehicle of political correctness known as the "Learning Communities" model, about which I will write in greater detail in future posts).
The Sun notes some disturbing trends at BC:
1) The chairman of the Faculty Council's core curriculum committee is an intolerant, unapologetic ideologue who has recently written that religious people are "moral retards" and that religion itself is "sanctimonious nonsense" that must be exposed by rigorous intellectual critique.
2) A recent survey of BC faculty's opinions about what the new curriculum should teach encouraged respondents to indicate that the goal of the new curriculum should not be to provide a solid educational grounding in the arts and sciences, but rather to promote identity politics. While there was not even the option to indicate that such material as Aristotle, Shakespeare, economics, or the concept of freedom should be included in the curriculum, respondents were given multiple chances to indicate the importance of centering the new core around the fashionable but intellectually bankrupt concepts of diversity and identity: "Respect for diversity and difference in such areas as gender, race, class, and ethnicity," "Understanding and appreciation of the diversity of U.S.," and "Understanding and affirmation of one's own identity" were all listed as possible goals for the new Brooklyn College core.
3) Provost Roberta Matthews has evinced a strong attraction to pedagogical strategies that impose a particular politics on students. For example, she has openly endorsed the guidelines for classroom discussion published by University of South Carolina women's studies professor Lynn Weber--guidelines whose grossly inappropriate infusion of ideology into classroom etiquette was ruthlessly exposed by FIRE last fall.
The case of KC Johnson strongly suggested that Brooklyn College is a train wreck waiting to happen. The more recent cases of Michael Cholbi (now resolved) and Frederick Lang (very far from resolved) confirm it. Roberta Matthews is well worth watching: in the not-quite two years since she became provost, she has not only helped de-rail--or nearly de-rail-- several careers, but is also well on her way to driving the entire college curriculum over a cliff.
David Horowitz writes:
On campuses across this country, embedded in the leadership of every radical "anti-war" protest group, are organizations that promote the culture of Islamic terrorism and its anti-Western, anti-Israeli and anti-American agendas. One that will serve as an example for the others is the radical Muslim Student Association (MSA). The Muslim Student Association is an organization financed by the Saudis and also by student funds at every university where it operates. The ideas and enthusiasms that it promotes among impressionable college students should give every American cause for concern.
Read the whole thing.
April 4, 2003
De-grading Brooklyn College
It's easy to deplore grade inflation (not to mention grade distortion, a related category identified by Alabama professor David Beito). It's fun to debate the causes and to prescribe solutions. Critical Mass readers know this first hand, as my recent post on grade inflation and the subsequent reader comments demonstrate. It's much harder to address grade inflation for real--especially when you are doing it alone, against the wishes of your students, your colleagues, and your administrative superiors. We tend to assume that in order to eliminate grade inflation, all we need is conscientious teachers, committed, thick-skinned educators who are willing to put in the extra time it takes to assign honest grades and who are capable of resisting student pressure to ease up. That would be largely true at a school that openly acknowledges it has a problem and that publicly supports--or even rewards--individual professors' efforts to restore integrity and dignity to their own courses and, by extension, to their institution. But at a school that does not admit it has a problem with grade inflation, that is, indeed, committed to broad curricular reforms that effectively institute lowered standards, and that has strong financial and ideological reasons for doing so, things work out a bit differently for professors who buck the tide.
One such professor is Frederick Lang, an English professor at Brooklyn College (yes, that Brooklyn College) who has been forcibly removed from the classroom because the chair of his department and various college administrators--among them Roberta Matthews, the provost who so disgraced herself in her handling of BC history professor KC Johnson's tenure case--feel that he grades too harshly.
Frederick Lang has been teaching writing at Brooklyn college for over twenty years. For much of that time, he worked in the college's Department of Education Services, helping students who needed remedial help get their writing skills up to college snuff. Lang was successful in this work. In 1996, he even received an award from Brooklyn College for excellence in teaching and scholarship. But in the late 1990s, Brooklyn College stopped offering remedial writing courses (preferring to refer ill-prepared students to nearby community colleges for remediation). At that time the college also lowered the standards for students looking to test out of mandatory remediation. As Brooklyn College gutted its remedial writing program, Lang decided that his skills would be best applied elsewhere. He asked to be transferred to the English department.
Lang has a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature from Columbia University and has written a book on Joyce, so the move made sense. In the English department, Lang reasoned, he could continue to teach composition but would also have the opportunity to teach literature. Lang was transferred to the Brooklyn College English department in 1998. That's when his trouble began.
What Lang found when he began teaching writing courses in the Brooklyn College English department was that many of the students who had placed into the courses should not have been there. According to Lang, many of them should not even have been in college. A number of them were functionally illiterate; they could neither express their thoughts on paper nor understand the simple spoken directions of their professor. Appalled by their utter lack of writing, listening, and reading skills, Lang set out to teach them as much as he could in the space of the semester. Some learned enough to pass his class. Many did not. When the failing grades began rolling in, so did the students' complaints.
Lang's students had never encountered grades as low as his before. Professor Lang wasn't grading fairly, they argued, because his grades were lower than the grades other professors gave them for similar work. Lang's students also had never encountered a professor who engaged with their work as honestly, and in as much detail, as Lang did. Lang covered their papers with comments, addressing everything from their grammar to their logic. He did not pull punches: he let students know when their syntax was nonsensical and when their arguments either did not work or did not exist. His students were shocked. They were overwhelmed. Their feelings were hurt. They had never, in all their years of schooling, been subjected to such treatment. Lang was mean, his methods cruel and unusual. He had to be stopped.
Lang's disgruntled students found a willing ear in English professor Ellen Tremper. Shortly after Tremper became chair in the fall of 2000, she began urging the troublesome Lang to give higher grades. In a series of meetings and written exchanges with Lang, Tremper informed Lang of the complaints she had been receiving and told him that he was being far too hard on his students. She suggested that he lighten up. For example, he could cease his practice of marking his students down for misspelling. The practice was humiliating and discouraging. Lang argued that it is disrespectful to students to pretend that they are performing better than they are, and that students deserve to hear the unadorned truth about their writing if they are to improve their skills. His arguments were lost on Tremper.
When Lang refused to lower his standards, Tremper escalated. She told Lang that his students thought he was a "prick" and she gave him a punitive course assignment for the spring of 2002: Instead of the usual combination of writing-intensive courses and literature courses, Tremper assigned Lang to teach three sections of composition. It was an ironic punishment, considering that Tremper's problem with Lang was his manner of teaching composition, but an oddly effective one: Lang formally objected to the assignment in a letter, accusing Tremper of retaliating against him for refusing to inflate his grades at her behest. Noting that the heavy course assignment demonstrably violated university policy, Lang ruefully observed that Tremper's assignment would make it impossible for him to attend to each student's work with his usual level of care and dedication.
Lang's grades remained too low for Tremper's taste, however, and in the fall of 2002, she escalated again. She informed Lang that he would not be teaching at all that term, that she was removing him from the classroom and assigning him to an administrative project that would keep him away from students. This assignment, too, was ironic: Tremper was punishing Lang for his composition pedagogy by requiring him to conduct research into the structure of composition programs at comparable institutions. Lang has not taught since. He has filed a series of complaints and grievances in his attempt to be restored to the classroom, but he has had no success.
I describe Lang's story in as much detail as I do here because it illustrates the investment some colleges and universities have in lowering standards and keeping them lowered. That Lang's dedication to teaching is perceived as a disciplinary problem by Brooklyn College administrators speaks volumes about the institution's priorities. That Lang's refusal to compromise his standards earns him the appellation of "prick"--not only with his students, but with a boss who listened receptively to those students and could not resist the temptation to pass their shallow assessment on to him--tells us a great deal about the manner in which some Brooklyn College students combine an unearned sense of entitlement with absolute ignorance about what learning is all about, and about how shamelessly some Brooklyn College administrators prostitute themselves to the arrogance of the students they are supposed to teach.
There is more, much more. Next week, I'll look at the context in which Lang's professional nightmare gains meaning, focussing in particular on the curricular innovations that are being promoted by Roberta Matthews and showing how those innovations are themselves a blueprint for educational malpractice.
April 3, 2003
De Genova in context
Nicholas de Genova says that his "million Mogadishus" comment was taken out of context. And indeed he is right. Daniel Pipes has compiled a long but not comprehensive list of other Columbia University faculty who regularly express similar forms of disgust for the U.S., but are cagier than De Genova and know better than to indulge--publicly anyway--in the fantasies of American annihilation that are the logical endpoint of the rhetoric they spout, publish, and teach. Pipes' list:
* Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton professor of American history, sees the U.S. government as a habitual aggressor: "Our notion of ourselves as a peace-loving republic is flawed. We've used military force against many, many nations, and in very few of those cases were we attacked or threatened with attack."
* Edward Said, university professor, calls the U.S. policy in Iraq a "grotesque show" perpetrated by a "small cabal" of unelected individuals who hijacked U.S. policy. He accuses "George Bush and his minions" of hiding their imperialist grab for "oil and hegemony" under a false intent to build democracy and human rights.
Said deems Operation Iraqi Freedom "an abuse of human tolerance and human values" waged by an "avenging Judeo-Christian god of war." This war, he says, fits into a larger pattern of America "reducing whole peoples, countries and even continents to ruin by nothing short of holocaust."
* Rashid Khalidi, who will hold the Edward Said chair of Middle East Studies starting in the fall, used the term "idiots' consensus" to describe the wide support for reversing Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and called on his colleagues to combat it. After 9/11, he admonished the media to drop its "hysteria about suicide bombers."
* Gary Sick, acting director of the Middle East Institute, alleges that Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 by conspiring with the Ayatollah Khomeini to keep the U.S. hostages in Iran. He apologizes for the Iranian government (it "has been meticulous in complying with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty") and blames Washington for having "encouraged Iran to proceed" with building nuclear weapons.
Sick opposes letting U.S. victims of Iranian-sponsored terrorism collect large damages against Tehran. More generally, he sees the Bush administration as "belligerent" and his fellow Americans as "insufferable."
* George Saliba, professor of Arabic and Islamic Science, routinely interrupts his class with political rants, leading one student to observe that it is "continuously insulting" to attend his lectures and another to complain about his course (on the subject of an "Introduction to Islamic Civilization," of all things) degenerating into a forum for railing against "evil America."
* Joseph Massad, assistant professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, seems to blame every ill in the Arab world on the United States. Poverty results from "the racist and barbaric policies" of the American-dominated International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The absence of democracy is the fault of "ruling autocratic elites and their patron, the United States." Militant Islamic violence results from "U.S. imperialist aggression."
Similar lists could be made about any number of elite and not-so-elite colleges and universities around the country.
The point is not that Nicholas De Genova is an aberration who should never have been hired by Columbia, but that Nicholas De Genova is of a piece with his institution. The point is that when Columbia hired De Genova, it knew exactly what it was getting. It knew De Genova would fit right in.
Nicholas De Genova is not alone--though he has indeed been hung out to dry by the colleagues and teachers who have encouraged and nurtured and mentored him, who have set the example of radical outspokenness he now (clumsily) follows, and who are now lying low to save their own skins. One does not get where De Genova is professionally without plenty of nurturing, mentoring, and encouragement from those higher up the academic food chain. As shocked and awed as his colleagues profess to be by his statements, as eager as they are to distance themselves from them, they are the creators and maintainers of the intellectual climate that made De Genova feel so sure of himself last week.
There is much talk these days of how important a "safe" and "welcoming" campus environment is for teaching and scholarship; I would venture to guess that De Genova felt quite safe when he made his comments, and that he expected that he was more than welcome to make them (the connections between the "safe" learning environment and the conformist one should be obvious here). I would venture to guess that De Genova never began to imagine the reaction he would cause--and that this is a function not of his own stupidity, but of prior observation and experience. Last year, De Genova sparked some local outrage with some choice pro-Palestinian comments: but offending Jews and bashing Israel have become favored sports on campuses, and De Genova's comments were calculated to create the reaction they did. Last week's teach-in was different.
The question we should be asking now is not "Why didn't Nicholas De Genova know how people would react to his comments?", but "Why haven't those Columbia professors who have made similar statements--indeed, who have made careers out of making similar statements--stepped forward to defend his academic freedom and to help him clarify his argument?" That's what mentors do when they see their proteges in trouble. Unless, of course, it would be professionally inconvenient to do so. Even for intellectuals who profess deep commitment to political causes, self-interest trumps principle more often than not. In a way, De Genova is a kind of innocent here--not for making the hideous comments he made, but for assuming that academic life would go on as usual once he had made them. As De Genova's own graduate students stressed at their vigil for him this week, his comments were "well within the limits of academic discourse" and were an instance of "perfectly normal ... academic expression."
Certain things seem obvious to me:
De Genova cannot be fired, nor should he be. The First Amendment, and Columbia's stated commitment to free expression, protect his comments. To fire him or to sanction him in any way would be to invite a whopping lawsuit, not to mention the unpleasantly public wrath of FIRE. Congress is behaving absurdly in urging Lee Bollinger to fire De Genova for expressing his views. The people who have signed the petition know better than that--but they see the chance to grandstand and they value it more than the freedom they are elected to honor and protect.
The solution is not to punish De Genova, but to focus long and hard on the larger issues the De Genova Debacle uncovers--the political uniformity of so much of the nation's faculty, the resulting absence of genuine debate on campuses, and the consequent unchecked hubris of people like De Genova, who do not recognize themselves as extremists because, in the insular ideological world of academe, they are in fact conformists. The damage this situation does to scholarship (as documented by people like Martin Kramer and Daphne Patai) and to education (as documented by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate) is so vast and so terrifying that as a nation we have preferred not to deal with it, to keep paying the taxes that fund our corrupted educational enterprise, to continue making the donations that well-heeled alumni are expected to make, to persist in sending our children to institutions that do not deliver the educations for which they charge so much, and to hope against hope that the problem isn't as bad as we sometimes suspect it is and that everything really will be okay in the end.
The ostrich mentality needs to end. Instead of yelling loudly for blood when the De Genovas surface (as people always do) and then subsiding into quiescence when the media drops the issue (as it always does), the American public must begin to insist that colleges and universities become accountable for their actions. It can do so by paying close, critical, educated attention to what happens on campuses; it can do so by refusing to help finance schools that disrespect students' rights or that shortchange students' educations; it can even do so, as we are currently seeing, with well-timed, well-chosen lawsuits.
People who care about the state of American higher education should be grateful for Nicholas De Genova: he is our wake-up call.
UPDATE: Justin Katz offers some analogous thoughts over at Timshel Arts.
April 2, 2003
Congressmen call for De Genova's job
Columbia undergraduate Matthew Continetti reports on NRO that the House of Representatives is circulating a letter to Columbia president Lee Bollinger demanding that Nicholas "Million Mogadishus" De Genova be fired. The letter is the brainchild of Arizona Republican representative J.D. Hayworth, who says Congressmen are "lining up" to sign it. The full text is as follows:
Mr. Lee Bollinger
President, Columbia University
New York, NY 10027-6902
Dear President Bollinger:
We are writing to urge you to fire assistant professor Nicholas DeGenova for remarks he recently made at a žteach-inÓ on the Columbia campus at which he called for the defeat of U.S. forces in Iraq.
According to Newsday, DeGenova told the anti-war gathering that he would like to see "a million Mogadishus," a chilling reference to the 1993 ambush in Somalia that killed 18 American servicemen. He added that, "The only true heroes are those who find ways that help defeat the U.S. military,Ó and said those Americans who call themselves "patriots" are nothing but white supremacists.
As members of Congress who stand for election every two years, we are no strangers to the frank exchange of ideas and vigorous debate, and we have a deep appreciation for AmericaŪs tradition of academic freedom. However, we also have an equally deep appreciation for the fact that our words have consequences.
Assistant professor DeGenova has brought shame on the great institution that is Columbia University. As an assistant professor, DeGenova has not yet earned the promise of lifelong academic employment Ů i.e. tenure. We hope that you will take steps immediately to ensure he never gets it.
Thank you for your consideration.
Member of Congress
Sixty-five representatives had put their names to the letter as of Tuesday afternoon; it will be delivered to Bollinger at the end of the working day on Friday.
Continetti also reports that videos of the Columbia teach-in were made, and were originally supposed to be made available through Columbia's web site. In the wake of the De Genova controversy, that has not been done, a decision that, Continetti notes, helps the hapless De Genova out considerably. Had video been available, the entire world would not only have been able to watch him make the comments that have been widely reported in the media, but would also have witnessed a portion of his talk that the media somehow neglected to take up: his praise of Asan Akbar, the army sergeant who rolled grenades into officers' tents two weeks ago in Kuwait.
Desperately seeking De Genova
Nicholas De Genova has received death threats since making his now famous "million Mogadishus" comments at a Columbia University teach-in last week. The teach-in's organizers have received a barrage of threats as well, despite their repeated public denunciations of De Genova's comments. Political science professor Jean Cohen worries that plans for a follow-up event may have to be scrapped, and debate rages about whether Columbia President Lee Bollinger crossed the line when he not only publicly denounced De Genova's statements, but posted that denunciation on Columbia's web site. Some say Bollinger did not go far enough, that he should have fired De Genova; others say that Bollinger's duty is to uphold academic freedom and that taking sides--even in an extraordinary case like this one--chills the climate of debate and inquiry on campus. Meanwhile, De Genova has gone AWOL. Newsday reports that the person answering phones in the anthropology department responded to a request to speak with De Genova by saying, "I don't know of his whereabouts." De Genova was scheduled to teach yesterday--but according to this must-read New York Times piece, he didn't show.
UPDATE: Today's Columbia Spectator reports on the silent protest De Genova's graduate students held yesterday to express their solidarity with their absent professor (De Genova cancelled both his undergraduate and graduate classes yesterday). According to one of the graduate students, De Genova and his wife are "in hiding" because they have received over one thousand death threats since De Genova made his notorious remarks last week. A delegation of De Genova's grad students went to his undergraduate class to invite members to participate in the protest with them. Describing themselves as "unofficial advocates" for De Genova, whose remarks they feel were "well within the limits of academic discourse" and an example of "perfectly normal ... academic expression," and announcing that as intellectuals they feel "silenced by Nick's absence," they were unprepared for the reaction they got when they invited De Genova's undergrads to join their protest:
"If you guys feel so silenced, what about those of us who are going into the military?" [Rebekah] Pazmi“o asked. "When remarks like that are made, those of us who are on the other side also feel threatened." "Having to hear that, and having to be in this class, just really sucks," she said.
Pazmi“o's remarks began a discussion of the content of the speech that De Genova gave at last week's teach-in. One of the graduate students present suggested that those remarks had been taken out of context.
Billy Pratt, CC '03, is not enrolled in the Latino History and Culture class, but today he came to the classroom where it is normally held, intending to confront De Genova personally.
Since reading coverage of the teach-in, Pratt has been an outspoken critic of the professor, contacting newspapers and talk shows with the intention of expressing his outrage publicly.
After [one graduate student] suggested that the University ought to physically protect De Genova, the tall, broad-shouldered Pratt stepped out from the doorway, where he had been pacing since 2:40, to challenge [him] face to face.
"Should they protect him?" Pratt asked. "Why should they protect him? ... He wants to kill my father, and I don't see them protecting my father."
Launching into a tirade against De Genova and his defenders, Pratt edged closer and closer to the part of the room where Cubukcu and the other graduate students were standing. When they spoke, Pratt spoke louder. One student tried to close the classroom door in Pratt's face, but Pratt pushed it back open.
Read the whole thing, and read more about Pazmino and Pratt here and here.
War passes the test at Davis
When war broke out two weeks ago, winter quarter final exams were being given at UC Davis. Davis policy requires all undergraduate courses to conclude with a final exam. But two UC Davis anthropology professors decided that they would be asking too much of their students if they compelled them to take the final at such a difficult and complex time.
One cancelled the exam outright: Professor Suzana Sawyer told the 300 students in her Anthro 2 course to take the test on their own and to check it against a posted key; she then used the scheduled two-hour exam period to conduct a discussion about the war (about one hundred students stayed and participated). Sawyer's exam was originally suppossed to count for 30 percent of students' grades.
Professor Monique Borgerhoff-Mulder gave the sixty students in her Human Ecology course a choice: they could take the exam as scheduled, substitute a take-home exam that would be due several days later, or skip the test entirely and take the average of their midterm grades for their final grade.
Borgerhoff-Mulder was not available for comment, but Sawyer was candid with the California Aggie about her reasons: "It is a horribly inappropriate time to simply follow routine," she said. "I could not ignore the fact that the outside world was, as it still is, under intense turmoil ů turmoil that necessarily affects our lives, our teaching." In recent decades, pedagogy on college campus has turned increasingly toward therapeutic models of interaction and assessment. How students feel about issues is often more important than--or synonymous with--what they think about them; enormous amounts of money are spent to ensure that students "feel safe" on campus and that they have a "supportive" learning environment. Students whose feelings have been hurt by the comments of peers or professors can file complaints; those who do the hurting can be sanctioned under various repressive speech codes and harassment policies. The emphasis on feelings effectively dampens the climate of free and open inquiry that is supposed to be the lifeblood of higher education; "sensitivity" is a cleverly disguised means of placing clear limits on what people on campuses can say and even, by extension, on what they can think.
A surprising number of teachers buy into what is ultimately a deeply anti-intellectual imperative, and will even compromise their professionalism by putting the hypothetical trauma of their students ahead of the real obligation to teach them. Sawyer's decision to cancel her final exemplifies this mentality, suggesting not only that the turmoil of the world is necessarily the inner turmoil of her students and herself, but also indicating that neither she nor her students should have to try to function in a time of intense international disturbance. The notion that it is more important than ever to function at such a time, and that it is the height of self-indulgence to use the war as an excuse not to meet one's obligations, does not enter into this particular world view. It was more important to Sawyer to lead her students in a rap session than it was to give them the opportunity to show what they had learned; encouraging them to share their thoughts--and feelings--about the war took precedence over requiring them to demonstrate the knowledge and understanding they had acquired in her course.
The Dean of the school does not share Sawyer's idea that sensitivity justifies an abdication of responsibility. When he learned of events in the anthropology department, he stressed how important it is that people "carry out business as usual," and he criticized the professors both for violating university policy and for unfairly disadvantaging students who did not prepare for the final. But Sawyer, who has the support of Anthropology chair Carol Smith, is unmoved and unapologetic: "An interesting analogy is that if this had been September 11, that exam would have been canceled,Ó she said. "We need to think about how this event, which is taking place over much longer period of time is just as traumatic, if not more so." The Aggie appears to have resisted the temptation to ask Sawyer if school should be cancelled until the war is over.
Thanks to Emoo for the link.
April 1, 2003
Free expression on the fly
As the Columbia faculty and administration tie themselves in knots trying to denounce Nicholas De Genova's "million Mogadishus" comment while still upholding the sacred value of academic freedom and respecting the First Amendment, it's worth looking at how other schools are handling the complex issues that arise when faculty--and sometimes students--act and speak in ways that embarrass schools and outrage taxpayers.
At Irvine Valley College, the vice president of instruction sent an email memo to department deans advising teachers not to talk about the war in their classrooms. The memo stated that spending class time talking about the war would be "professionally inappropriate if it cannot be demonstrated to this office that such discussions are directly related to the approved course materials." The memo, which administrators insist is neither a ban on war talk nor a threat to discipline those who do not follow it, was issued after several students complained that their instructors were voicing anti-war opinions in the classroom. Administrators say the memo was a reminder to faculty to stay on topic in their courses and to be sensitive to the fact that their students' views may differ from their own. But faculty are calling the advisory an attack on academic freedom. Here's the Reuters report, the AP report, and the piece in the Orange Country Register.
At Arizona State, a new honor code has been instituted that requires students engaged in extracurricular activities to behave with "honor, dignity and integrity." The honor code was created in response to a particular public relations disaster last fall, in which ASU student Brian Buck appeared in a pornographic film that was shot on campus (Maurice Black wrote up the details on Critical Mass last fall). Though Buck broke no laws, ASU threw the book at him, forcing him to resign from his elected position as vice president of student government, sentencing him to community service, forbidding him to continue living on campus, and requiring him to write a letter about integrity. The only reason ASU is not currently being sued by Buck is that he dropped his lawsuit in order to finish school and move on with his life. But ASU is undeterred in its quest to compel students to behave as good little organization men and women, and so has created an honor code that essentially allows the school to sanction any student involved in an extracurricular activity who acts in any way the school does not like. Such acts could include being a vocal activist, getting drunk at a party, or working at a strip club.
ASU students are having none of it. Yesterday the student paper ran two pieces on the code, one an informational feature article (linked above) and the other a staff editorial, both arguing the the honor code's overbroad language has an essentially repressive function and suggesting that the code could be used to punish students for exercising their constitutional rights. The student senate is currently issuing a bill condemning the code for trampling student rights to free speech and due process.
Finally, the Kansas state legislature voted last Wednesday to require public universities to ban the purchase and display of "obscene" material. The ever-ambiguous "community standards" are to be invoked to determine what is and is not obscene, and what does and does not have educational value. University departments found in violation of the ban risk losing all of their state funding. The bill was introduced as an addendum to the state budget for next year, and was inspired by Republican State Senator Susan Wagle's belief that a human sexuality course that has been taught at Kansas for twenty years by social welfare professor Dennis Dailey is "obscene" and should not be funded by the taxpayer. Say what you want about Dailey's course--which enrolls 500 students every time it's taught and which has consistently been one of the most popular courses on campus. You may think it crosses the line with its use of explicit videos and photos of children's genitals; you may think it sounds more like a course in group sex therapy than an academic class. But whatever you think of the award-winning Dailey's pedagogy, one thing is clear: the content and conduct of the classroom at Kansas state schools are now in the hands of the state legislature rather than the hands of the professors who teach the courses. Not good for education, not good for academic freedom, and very probably not properly mindful of the First Amendment.