RALEIGH — Last week the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights issued a ruling that a lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had sexually and racially discriminated against, and harassed, a student in her class last fall.
For reasons that will become evident in this column, this news bears repeating: the OCR found that, at UNC-CH, a teacher abused her authority by discriminating against and harassing one of her students based upon the student’s race and sex.
Normally such a finding would be accompanied by such a convulsion on campus, the scientists now studying the rumbling Mount St. Helens would depart post-haste to take readings outside Blue Heaven. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton would immediately swoop down and begin mugging for camera crews. Screeching feminist bats would temporarily cease inventing new euphemisms to peddle abortion and jostle with the reverends for TV time. And the university itself would rend its garments and adorn itself with the sackcloth and ashes of investigative committees and the like seeking to find out how such an awful crime against diversity could happen here.
None of that is happening, however. Not even close. The instructor, Elyse Crystall, still teaches at UNC-CH. Many on campus consider her a hero and the real victim. And that's because her victim — who she named in a classwide e-mail and who subsequently found himself being denounced campuswide, even having his car vandalized — is, in her words, "a white, heterosexual, [c]hristian male."
Crystall's e-mail was in response to an end-of-class controversy during her classroom discussion in diversity cant, that heterosexuals feel threatened by homosexuals. The student differed from Crystall and offered examples to propose that heterosexuals find homosexuality disgusting and dirty. To Crystall, this was "violent hate speech" and therefore merited the hateful actions that earned her the OCR's harsh rebuke.
The OCR did, in fact, exonerate UNC-CH for how it responded to Crystall's harassment. Nevertheless, there is something in UNC-CH's culture — not unique to UNC-CH, I would argue, but pervasive throughout academe — that made a lecturer like Crystall believe she was right to engage in sexual and racial discrimination and harassment. A wonderful example of that pervasive environment appeared Thursday in a letter to the editor of The Daily Tar Heel.
The letter was written by UNC-CH Faculty Council chairman Judith Wegner. It bore the headline: Professor's conduct was inexcusable, unprofessional.
At last, one would think upon reading that headline, the faculty respond properly to Crystall's actions. Several quotations are right on the money concerning Crystall:
• "Professors have ethical obligations to their students. We are duty-bound to teach knowledgeably, respectfully and effectively. We also function as role models whose actions have powerful symbolic significance."
• "It's not a question of First Amendment rights ... It's about impeding student learning, burdening their growing self-concept as scientists and undercutting their joyful struggle to engage in new ideas and challenges — whatever their gender, viewpoint or personal attributes."
• "It's about being an ethical professional"
• "It's about cleaning up messes caused by behavior that can't be justified, explained or excused."
Wegner isn't writing about Crystall, however. Wegner's letter is about a chemistry professor, Malcolm Forbes, who allowed his home to be used as a site for a Playboy magazine "Girls of the ACC" photo shoot.
If Wegner can find dire ramifications to the classroom when a professor opens his home to students volunteering to pose for Playboy, then what has she to say about a lecturer using the classroom to subject one of her students involuntarily to racial and sexual discrimination and harassment? Hardly anything, it turns out, and nothing approaching her ire here.
In the Durham Herald-Sun Sept. 22, she said "The teacher made a mistake." In The Daily Tar Heel on Sept. 23, she said, "People make mistakes." In The News & Observer on Sept. 23, she said, "Teachers can make mistakes, and so can other people, so I think there have been some lessons learned."
A pervasive ideology that finds a professor's actions in his home "inexcusable" and something that "can't be justified, explained or excused," but that easily excuses away racial and sexual discrimination and harassment when the victim is "a white, heterosexual, [c]hristian male" is what enables such discrimination and harassment. Keeping Crystall teaching shows how unconcerned UNC-CH is by her actions. The lack of response on campus to the OCR report — other than to crow about how the institution was exonerated — shows how far removed UNC-CH is from the realization that what Crystall did to her student was atrocious, execrable, and offensive.
Yes, UNC-CH did the right things administratively after learning of Crystall's deeds. Now it's time it did something about the enabling mindset behind them.
Jon Sanders (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a policy analyst for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in Raleigh.