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September 13, 2006 [feather]
Offensive math prof wrongfully suspended

Defenders of the academic status quo frequently dismiss FIRE as a right-wing organization that is not as concerned with individual rights on campus as it is with promoting conservative causes. Those folks are dead wrong--and they should take note of FIRE's most recent case:

SEATTLE, September 13, 2006--Bellevue Community College (BCC) near Seattle has decided to suspend a professor for composing a math exam question that involved a person named "Condoleezza" dropping a watermelon from the top of a building--a question that originally featured the comedian "Gallagher." After months of public outcry, BCC informed Professor Peter Ratener that he would be suspended for a week without pay for his "offensive" question. Ratener then contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.

"Given the reaction of the community and the college, one might think that Ratener was guilty of committing a serious crime, rather than writing an accidentally offensive math problem," stated FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. "Everyone involved has acknowledged that Ratener intended no offense, and Ratener even apologized for the question, so what exactly is BCC trying to prove by suspending him? This punishment is not only unfair and a violation of the First Amendment, but also totally unnecessary."

In 2004, Ratener composed a question for a math exam that read in part, "Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of the roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second." Ratener states that he had planned to use the comedian "Gallagher" in the question. But realizing that many current students would be unfamiliar with the comedian, who was well-known for smashing watermelons on stage, he later substituted the more recognizable name "Condoleezza." The exam with this question was administered to students in 2004 and elicited no complaints.

In March 2006, another professor distributed the exam featuring Ratener's question to his class as a practice exam. This time, one student approached the math department chair to express that she was offended by the question. Within days, the math question had turned into a controversy and appeared on Seattle's local KOMO-4 news, in The Seattle Times, and was soon picked up by media outlets from across the country and activists from across the political spectrum. The Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, which is chaired by BCC Trustee Paul Chiles, even issued a press release branding Ratener's exam question "another example of hate and bigotry" and calling for BCC to take action.

On April 15, BCC's Board of Trustees held a special meeting to discuss how to react to Ratener's question. The Board issued a public statement, available on the BCC website for months, which read, "We ... are deeply offended by the conduct of a math instructor ... and strongly condemn this offensive behavior," calling it "a gross violation of BCC's mission and core value of respect for diversity." The Board then asked BCC President Jean Floten to take appropriate disciplinary action and "examine the curriculum and practices of all its departments."

On April 19, Ratener himself issued a public apology, admitting that he had made a mistake but stating that the invocation of a negative racial stereotype was completely unintentional. Even BCC's Executive Dean for Instructional Services Ron Leatherbarrow characterized the question's offensiveness as "unintentional" in a letter to Ratener in early May. Leatherbarrow nonetheless stated that the question "interfered with the educational process" for the student who complained, "and, possibly, for others as well." Concluding that Ratener had not met BCC's standards "regarding choosing appropriate test materials and treating students with respect," Leatherbarrow suspended Ratener for one week without pay. Ratener has filed a formal grievance through his union and currently awaits arbitration on this matter.

FIRE wrote to BCC's president and Board of Trustees on August 28 to protest the fact that the college "has raced to vilify Ratener and punish him for what he admits was a mistake," instead of giving Ratener--a 26-year veteran of BCC with a spotless record--the benefit of the doubt. On September 8, Washington State Assistant Attorney General Alan Smith responded to FIRE's letter but refused to comment on the situation before the arbitration that is scheduled for January.

FIRE's Lukianoff concluded, "Liberty on campus cannot and will not long survive if professors can be disciplined merely because some interpret their speech as offensive. While BCC and others are free to criticize Ratener for his choice of words, the answer to speech one dislikes is more speech, not official punishment."

I have a bit of trouble swallowing the premise that the professor really had no clue that the casual alignment of blacks and watermelons is a common racial stereotype in this country. You'd have to be exceptionally tone-deaf to miss the base caricature of Condoleezza Rice that emerges from the math question. But FIRE is right. Suspending the professor without pay is not the proper course of action here.

UPDATE 9/14: More at InsideHigherEd.com.

posted on September 13, 2006 11:14 AM


Oh for Pete's sake... it's not like she was *eating* the watermelon -- she was SMASHING that horrible symbol of racial oppression! Are we just not allowed to talk about blacks and watermelons in the same sentence anymore?

If you are having a party over at your house, are you not allowed to serve watermelon or (god forbid!) fried chicken if there will be at least one black in attendance? What about an octoroon? What about just someone pleasantly liberal and sensitive?

Posted by: Safely anonymous at September 13, 2006 11:39 AM

Umm--his explanation is pretty hard to buy. sure, students may not get the gallagher reference, but why replace it with "condoleeza"? there are certainly more well known figures than rice. why does the figure need to be well known at all? if the person dropping the watermelon isn't gallagher then why have a famous person? i think it's a crude joke--the prof may or may not be racist; we don't have enough evidence to decide that. but it was poor choice on his part--i say this without endorsing the firestorm about the situation. why not say "that was stupid" and move on to more important matters.

Posted by: jason at September 13, 2006 5:07 PM

Probably "hate and bigotry" is a bit much, but I agree with you, Erin, it's hard to believe he didn't know about the stereotype.

I will say that (white) children brought up to be in ignorance of those stereotypes are done a disservice. Their parents think they are preparing them for a world without racism, but they're setting them up for problems. So for instance, if my daughter overheard my husband and me mention the word "spade" in the context of tools we needed for yardwork, I made sure to turn to her and explain that that word is also a derogatory term for black person and she must never use it in a context in which it could be misconstrued. It's kind of a shame to keep those things alive by continuing them into the next generation that way, but you're a fool if you don't.

Posted by: Laura(southernxyl) at September 13, 2006 8:18 PM

His excuse might be hard improbable, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility. I didn't know about the watermellon stereotype until I was in college - and I went to a mostly black high school (then again, that may actually be why I didn't know about that stereotype). Likewise, I didn't know that the word spade had any racial context until a few years ago.

Of course, my parents are immigrants, which might be why it took so long for me to pick up on this stuff, but that only makes this case even more important to me. I really don't look forward to someday having to explain why I used the word, 'crustacean', in such an offensive context.

Posted by: Independent George at September 14, 2006 6:49 PM

During my time as a cadet at West Point (mid-80s), the only time we were ever served watermelon was at the Flipper Dinner--which celebrated the graduation of our first black graduate, Henry Flipper.

I thought it was nuts back then!

Posted by: Darren at September 15, 2006 11:51 AM

I didn't find out about the Watermelon and fried chicken thing until my first semester as a graduate student (quite a few years ago).

I was teaching a class where about half the class was African-American and I made some comment about eating healthy and the difference between "eating lots of apples, oranges and watermelon vs. chowing down on fried chicken and pizza" or something like that.

The class burst into laughter and I couldn't figure out why. I looked fairly puzzled, so a student told me why that was so funny - though no one was offended. They just figured I was a clueless white boy (to which I plead guilty).

Posted by: John Phelan, Conservative English Major at September 17, 2006 4:45 PM