Blogs > Cliopatria > Free Speech at UNC

Oct 10, 2004 6:30 pm

Free Speech at UNC

Last week, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued an important ruling touching on many of the ideological divisions affecting the academy. The matter involved a case at the University of North Carolina, in which an English professor named Elyse Crystall ended a class by asking whether heterosexual men felt “threatened” by homosexual men. One student (an evangelical Christian) responded that he would not want to take his son to a baseball game where two men were kissing, and that a Christian friend of his was propositioned by a gay man and found the experience “disgusting,” but that “threatened” would be too strong a word for the feeling.

The next day, Prof. Crystall sent an E-mail to the entire class saying that “what we heard thursday at the end of class constitutes ‘hate speech’ and is completely unacceptable.” She apologized “to those of us who are now feeling that the classroom we share is an unsafe environment,” and promised to do her “best to counter those feelings and protect that space from further violence.” The student’s remarks, she continued, constituted “a perfect example of privilege. that a white, heterosexual, christian male . . . can feel entitled to make violent, heterosexist comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable is what privilege makes possible.”

Upon learning of the E-mail, Crystall’s department chairman met with her and the student, stated that the E-mail was inappropriate, and monitored the remainder of the class to ensure that the student suffered no formal or informal retaliation.

The OCR investigation held that the student was targeted for" criticism in part because of his protected status”—since white and male are"both protected classes under the laws enforced by OCR"—and that such an act “constitutes intentional discrimination.” Additionally, the office ruled that the employer is responsible for"ending the discrimination and preventing its recurrence.” Since it found that the UNC administration had acted properly in this case, the OCR requested no further action. As North Carolina congressman Walter Jones noted, the ruling recognized that “a student's constitutionally granted First Amendment right to free speech was trampled upon by an instructor with the power to intimidate,” and it established a limit on future such acts (albeit a limited “limit,” since faculty ideologues were only prohibited from referencing race or gender when attempting to apply ideological litmus tests.)

The ruling resonates on three broader levels: 1.) Administrations matter. The UNC administration, which doesn’t have the greatest record on academic free speech issues, in this case seems to have acted entirely properly. (Alas, the faculty leadership’s subsequent actions—suggesting that the OCR’s inquiry chilled academic freedom--suggests some backtracking.) And although the department chairman’s response might seem like common sense, it’s not difficult to imagine an opposite reaction. For instance, at my own institution, President C.M. Kimmich received a letter from a women’s history professor denouncing the offering of courses and hiring of personnel in political and diplomatic history on the grounds that such “old-fashioned” topics were of use only for “young white males” of “narrow” intellects. Kimmich not only affirmed the interpretation, but placed the professor on the department’s personnel committee, which controls future hires. It would be hard to maintain that any white male could receive fair treatment in such an environment.

2.) The tip of the iceberg. It’s not as if many professors around the country are consciously imitating Crystall’s e-mail, or my colleague’s remarks on political history, or the justification issued by Duke philosophy professor Robert Brandon as to why his department had no conservatives (“If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire”). But it’s worth pondering about the intellectual environment that produced such transparently absurd statements. Crystal, my colleague, and Brandon not only made their claims believing that they would be persuasive, but assumed that no reasonable person could brook opposition to their positions. Scholars of racial or gender bias speak of the “mirror effect,” in which people like to hire those who resemble them. Certainly this approach holds for ideological bias as well: how could someone such as Brandon, for instance, ever evaluate applicants for a position in his department with a search for merit as his prime criterion?

3.) The UNC requirement. When this story first broke, I had assumed that the course in question was some sort of personal counseling offering, since I found it hard to imagine a normal academic setting in which Prof. Crystall’s question would be appropriate for class discussion. It turns out, however, that the course was an English class called “Literature of Cultural Diversity” that fulfills UNC’s “cultural diversity” requirement, which “explores diverse cultural values and viewpoints within the U.S.,” with a goal of exposing “students to the many facets of a diverse society and to allow self-understanding in the contemporary and pluralistic world.”

It would be hard to contend that this requirement isn’t more political than academic, and UNC’s interpretation of it raises serious questions about the university’s academic values. For instance, what sort of intellectual justification would maintain that a course in, say, “Women of Byzantium” fulfills the terms of this requirement, but a course in, say, postwar U.S. legal history, which would have to cover such topics as the civil rights movement, the ERA, abortion rights, and the gay rights movement, would not fulfill the requirement? Perhaps the university would have less negative publicity in the future if it confined itself to offering courses in academic subjects.

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Julie A Hofmann - 10/11/2004

That's all well and good, but not necessarily easy when teaching ancient and medieval, for example. And it's not just in the presentation, thanks. A huge amount of breaking down misconceptions has to take place just to get to the presentation.

Derek Charles Catsam - 10/11/2004

As a civil rights historian, I can tell you that my US Since 1877 survey class not counting for this sort of diversity requirement would be a joke, yet in the end, most people may consider me a political historian. I tend to side with KC on this one. I almost think that, in history departments at least, I wonder if the diversity requirement is not a once necassary corrrective that has long since become something of a cudgel. Let's face it -- there was a time not so long ago when most history departments were populated by white males of a certain ideological viewpoint in their teaching. As late as the early 1980s a diversity requirement may well have been the only way to get other voices, other perspectives in class. But these days, most of us do that sort of thing as a matter of course that the diversity requirement now substitutes for other things -- I'll call them the culture wars -- that ironically enough are largely perpetuating another, equally dangerous, sort of power dynamic. I'm not certain that a tyranny of the standardbearers of cultural diversity is any better than a tyranny of dead white men. Most of us try to simply do it right. This sort of extremism ad absurdum makes it a lot more difficult.

Derek Charles Catsam - 10/11/2004

I remember clearly an incident from 4th grade. We had music class with a woman who just was not equipped to deal with 4th graders, who are in a transitionary period from the stuff younger kids like but who may not be ready for more advanced stuff. In any case, we were raising hell and so she wqent to the principal, who came back to our class and asked who did not want to be in music class. Gerry Mosconas raised his hand. He got yanked from class, screamed at, and got in all sorts of trouble. That little injustice never entirely left me. That is what the student in the UNC professor's class faced, and it really is unconscionable.

Sharon Howard - 10/11/2004

Exactly my first thought. Why ask the question if you can't handle the 'wrong' answers? Unless of course you're looking for the 'wrong' answers so that you have an opportunity to do the tough professor, put students you don't like in their place, etc. I don't know if the question was unacceptable, but the subsequent email certainly was. In sending it, *who* was using a privileged position to make someone "feel marked or threatened or vulnerable"? And how does sending an email like that encourage open discussion and persuade students that they are in a safe classroom environment? What the email makes clear is that it's safe only as long as they agree with the teacher.

Robert KC Johnson - 10/11/2004

I agree completely with Jonathan's point that properly presented history can overcome presentism and essentialism--I try to do that in my own classes, nearly all of which deal with the 20th century US.

The question I have with the UNC requirement (and, I suppose, other comparable ones, although obviously each institution varies) is one of priorities. If the goal is to sensitize students to the society around them, why does UNC not require a US history survey?

UNC requires students to take two historical studies classes, one of which must be non-western; among the options for the other class is England since 1688 and a history of sea power. (The US survey is an option here, too, but it's not required.)

It seems to me that a properly taught US survey would be far more useful for training students to be citizens in a participatory democracy--which is the implied goal of the cultural diversity requirement--than, say, courses like Native American history, which provides only a slice of U.S. history.

The real goal, then, seems to be to do more than simply sensitize students to the society in which they live, but to require students to take a multicultural studies course. That might be appropriate for a college--but given that UNC's stated justification for this requirement is more politically/citizenship oriented than academically oriented, it's hard for me to see how a multicultural studies class could be required when a US history class isn't.

Along these lines, I reread the OCR finding, in light of Oscar's comment above. I agree that were the class discussion that triggered the e-mail of, say, E.M. Forster's novels, I could imagine the question about students' personal attitudes toward homosexuality that the instructor asked being one that could naturally come up in class. But the class--a literature class--was reading Allan Johnson's "Privilege, Power, and Difference," whose description states that it "provides students with an easily applied theoretical model for thinking about systems of privilege and difference," seeking to "enable students to see the nature and consequences of privilege and their connection to it." The class, then, was reading what amounted to a political polemic, not a work of literature, which raises questions for me about the precise purpose of this UNC course.

Jonathan Dresner - 10/11/2004

Well, I'm spoiled. The requirement here is for "World Cultures", and our World History surveys are very popular as a fulfillment thereof; we also have a "Hawaiian/Asian/Pacific" requirement, and my Asian history classes are some of the most regularly offered courses that fulfill those.

Presentism and essentialism, which is often also a factor in 'culture studies,' are indeed issues, but a properly presented history, informed by knowledge of current events and practices, can avoid both of those.

Julie A Hofmann - 10/11/2004

I agree that there is probably more a political background to diversity requirements than an academic one, but I would have to say that the background does not prevent its being valid and useful in an academic sense. There is, for example, a multicultural requirement where I teach and, like Jonathan, I wondered why it could not be fulfilled with a course like World Histroy (or even Western Civ) that clearly dealt with multicultural issues. I got a couple of half-assed explanations that seemed very rooted in the political, but an incredibly sane one from a colleague who teaches such courses. She explained that, for multi-cultural studies as required by the college to work, the courses had to deal with the American experience. Were the course not taught within that context, students would find it too easy to distance themselves and not see how power and privilege informed their own lives. Clearly, this is a course grounded in a political agenda, but I think that the kind of distancing my colleague spoe about is one of the greatest problems I face in teaching -- presentism rearing its ugly head and the ease with which many students dismiss imporatnt issues because "well, we've really come a long way from those simple-minded people in time period x."

Robert KC Johnson - 10/10/2004

I'd agree with Oscar on this point that, at the very least, this is all an example of bad teaching: the instructor asked a "question" to which she already had the proper answer, and the student didn't supply the desired answer. If the prof. already knows what answer he/she wants, the prof should just lecture, rather than giving students the false sense of participation.

On Jonathan's point, I am dubious about "cultural diversity" requirements not in the abstract but because of my concern with how they are implemented, and the UNC case is a good example. Given that program's stated "cultural diversity" goals, I fail to see how even a general course in US history since 1950 would not represent a more appropriate topic for "study of the multicultural and diverse society in which we find ourselves" than a course such as "Women of Byzantium." Of course, we all know the reason why the latter course is on the list and the former is not--the latter comes from a gender studies department, while the former is offered by a regular liberal arts department and doesn't deal with race, gender, or sexuality in its title. If the goal of the requirement is to allow only courses that seem to reflect a particular ideological or pedagogical viewpoint, the university at least should have the courage to state that in the requirements.

As to the e-mail itself, I think that the OCR's finding makes very clear that this issue wasn't a close call of a professor marginally going over the line. But I'm not assuming malice on her part--I'm quite sure that she was convinced that what she did was absolutely correct.

As to the idea that the point of view expressed by the student is commonly expressed in class by professors, that may be, but where is the evidence (apart from, say, at a religious institution, which is a wholly different issue)?

Jonathan Dresner - 10/10/2004

... that malice is at work when ignorance is an adequate explanation.

Why is not the offending e-mail seen in the context of a teacher trying vigorously to protect the rights of minorities, and erring? "Free speech" clearly has limits; otherwise the e-mail itself would have been unproblematic. The instructor made an honest mistake in balancing competing claims. These issues are not easy, otherwise we wouldn't have multiple appeals processes, competing special pleadings organizations and different reactions to the same incidents.

Your 'tip of the iceberg' argument runs both ways: comments such as the one proffered in class are not uncommon, from both students and from instructors at all levels. For all the trendy popularity of homosexuals on TV, there is still a strong current of homophobia in American culture.

Finally, we are going to have to continue to disagree about 'cultural diversity' requirements. But since the catalog to which you linked indicated that the requirement could be fulfilled by a wide variety of courses in a range of disciplines, and because study of the multicultural and diverse society in which we find ourselves is a perfectly legitimate subject for academic study, I think you are quite wrong in this case.

Oscar Chamberlain - 10/10/2004

I remember that in the panic following the Columbine student, a student at another school got suspecned. His crime: the teacher asked her class if anyone could understand why kids would do that. The kid answered honestly and was suspended as a threat.

In the UNC case, I'm not sure if the question was appropriate or not. In a literature class there can be a legitimacy in asking students to explore their reactions.

However, you don't do that and then punish someone for actually being honest. In this case, the problem was not hate speech but, to use the language of our times, privileging the viewpoint of the teacher in order to repress that of a student.

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