Professors making shocking political statements is nothing new: most people involved in higher education are familiar with such outrages as University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill calling the victims of the 9-11 terrorist attacks “little Eichmanns.”
Traditionally, though, faculty members have refrained from making attacks directly at students for political reasons. But that is no longer the case. There were two such incidents in one month (April).
Such behavior raises important questions. Is this part of an emerging pattern? If so, why did such behavior surface now? What should schools do about it?
In the most publicized case, a campus-wide email recruiting campaign by the University of Iowa College Republicans called "Conservative Coming Out Week" so enraged one professor that she responded with a mass email of her own saying “F--- You Republicans.”
The other incident occurred at Davidson College, a small, prestigious private school outside of Charlotte, North Carolina. This time it was a professor’s abusive letter to the editor of the student newspaper attacking a conservative student columnist. While it did not receive anywhere near the national attention that the Iowa episode did—possibly because no profanity was involved—it perhaps caused more of a stir on its own campus than did the Iowa episode.
The roots of this phenomenon most likely lie in the political imbalance on many campuses, which results in an atmosphere allowing left-wing professors to avoid criticism of even their most extreme views. Dissenting opinions, particularly by students fearful of lowered grades and ostracism, were once uncommon on campuses. But today there is a growing—and increasingly vocal—conservative student presence.
For the two professors involved, it appears that having their sacred political cows gored by swaggeringly aggressive conservatives on the hallowed ground of the Ivory Tower was too much to bear, and they erupted with a torrent of angry words.
The Iowa case readily illustrates these dynamics. Ellen Lewin, a women’s studies and anthropology professor who specializes in gender issues, claimed that the main reason for her fury was the College Republican’s expropriation of the term “coming out.” The Republicans’ wordplay was an obvious attempt to draw a parallel between the tendency of campus conservatives to hide their opinions from professors and fellow students and the tendency of many gays to remain in the “closet,” in both cases for fear of facing discrimination and hostility.
To be sure, the Iowa Republicans “coming out” email was hardly subtle; it mocked left-wing beliefs by announcing an “Animal Rights Barbecue” and ridiculing union members for their part in the Wisconsin budget protests. But while Lewin may have considered the email to be “obscene,” it was officially sanctioned by the university administration. Furthermore, its so-called offensiveness pales in comparison to some of the things campus conservatives frequently are forced to accept. For instance, at least five colleges have made recorded speeches by unrepentant convicted cop-killer and Black Panther member Mumia Abu Jamal part of their commencements.
At Davidson, German professor Scott Denham’s fuse burnt more slowly than did Lewin’s, but he exploded much the same. For four years, senior Bobby DesPain was a political columnist for the student newspaper, The Davidsonian. His opinions were unabashedly conservative and often unpopular on the highly liberal campus. On March 31, his column claiming that President Obama lacked leadership appeared; it was the final straw for Denham, who fired off a letter that began by asking, “Is Bobby DesPain leaving soon? We, your loyal readers, sure hope so. He gives the intellectual climate here a bad reputation.”
He continued, “This last belch of his tops most of the others I’ve read over the years on the stench-o-meter of silliness. “ He concluded the largely ad hominem assault with “We’d hate for Davidson to attract more of this sort of illogical thinker, regardless of politics.”
DesPain told the Pope Center that he was shocked that a professor would respond in such an abusive manner. He said he was no stranger to negative feedback, but this was new; Denham’s missive was “not about my article, it was simply about me on a personal level,” he said in a phone conversation.
School officials attempted to reconcile DesPain and Denham through a private meeting, but DesPain balked at the suggestion. “What were they planning for me to do?” he asked. “Find some sort of middle ground? He [Denham] thinks it was okay to attack me and I don’t.”
DesPain also expressed concern that if Denham’s actions were swept under the rug other students might face similar intimidation. “Instead of debate, he seeks to silence,” he wrote of Denham in a subsequent Davidsonian article.
The Davidson administration has declined to make any statement regarding the situation. At Iowa, university president Sally Mason issued a bland general statement about diversity and respect that avoided any specific mention of the incident.
Nor has either professor has received any sort of punishment—at least publicly. Both issued apologies that were notable for their absence of contrition. At Iowa, Lewin’s blamed “fresh outrages committed by Republicans in the government” for her profane missive.
Denham continued to attack even in his apology, blaming his “frustration and anger in public at what I find are poorly argued ideas on your part. Engaging those in detail wasn’t on my agenda, since I don’t think there is much to engage.”
But should a simple apology—even if actually heartfelt—be enough to put the situation to rest? Or is further action against the professor required?
At Davidson, a prominent student (who wished to remain anonymous) said that he thought actual punishment might be too severe, but that “he [Denham] should receive an official rebuke.”
Robert Shibley, the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that advocates for free speech on campus, suggested that no further action by the administration was necessary in the Davidson case because DesPain willingly put himself in the path of all manner of criticism by becoming a political columnist. “This sort of attack on a random, non-columnist student would raise more professionalism concerns, and the concerns would be much greater still if the professor had the student in one of his classrooms,” Shibley wrote in an email.
Davidson philosophy professor Sean McKeever asked in a letter to The Davidsonian whether Denham’s “contempt” for DesPain “can be consistent with our chosen vocation as educators or with the College’s mission to develop humane instincts.”
Indeed, by reacting to students’ differing opinions with such unprofessional and acrimonious emotional outbursts, one must wonder about the offending professors’ fitness for their jobs and what kind of judgment they will use in campus business such as grading and serving on search, tenure, and promotion committees.
For instance, Denham is the committee chair for the Graduate Fellowships Committee. Since, according to the committee’s website, the committee “seeks to identify early in their Davidson careers students who are likely candidates for graduate fellowships and scholarships,” can he be expected to recruit conservative students for such honors? It would appear to be unlikely.
Given that conservative beliefs on campus seem to be on the ascendance, and given that some of America’s most extreme intellectuals have long found a sanctuary in the Ivory Tower (and have grown comfortable with winning one-sided debates), we can probably expect to see more incidents like those at Iowa and Davidson. Should academia greet such transgressions with a shrug, as Davidson and Iowa are doing, it will encourage them and their silencing effect.
In doing so, it will also reject the spirit of free inquiry that is the academy’s greatest virtue. And without that, academia will cease to matter in the long run.