More Troubling News From Minnesota

Just before Christmas, FIRE issued a press release appropriately celebrating a letter from the University of Minnesota general counsel declaring GET. The letter was good news not for its contents but for its existence. It’s hard to imagine that a public university’s chief attorney would sign off on anything approximating what the U of M’s Education School proposed regarding the teaching of “cultural competence”—and the existence of the letter strongly suggests that the Education curricula will now be reviewed by the general counsel’s office.
That said, other passages in General Counsel Mark Rotenberg’s letter are deeply troubling. “No University policy or practice ever will mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with ‘wrong beliefs’ from the University,” he encouragingly wrote. But then, in his next sentence, Rothenberg stated, “To the contrary, as Dean [Jean] Quam repeatedly has emphasized, an essential component of CEHD’s curriculum initiative will be to expand — not restrict – the horizons of future teachers.”
Those two sentences are mutually irreconcilable given the facts of the case. FIRE’s letter (and, of course, additional coverage of the Minnesota fiasco) made perfectly clear that the Education faculty sought to “expand” (a wonderfully euphemistic verb) the “horizons of future teachers” through mandating “particular beliefs” and screening “out people with ‘wrong beliefs’ from the University.” Does Rothenberg see anything wrong with the behavior of his university’s faculty? If so, he ‘say.
Indeed, Rothenberg goes out of his way to defend the Education professors’ performance. He accuses FIRE of having based its letter on “an unfortunate misunderstanding of the facts.” (Unfortunately, he doesn’t reveal what those misunderstood “facts” were.) He hails the Education process as indicative of the “creative thinking of many faculty members charged with exploring ideas to improve P-12 education and student achievement.” Under his own signature, he repeats Dean Jean Quam’s absurd description of a formal task force report as nothing more than “faculty brainstorming”—as if the professors sat around a table over high tea, exchanging ideas off the top of their heads.

Rothenberg goes on: “Academic freedom means little if our teaching faculty is inhibited from discussing and proposing curriculum innovations simply because others find them ‘illiberal’ or ‘unjust.'” Carrying his argument to its logical exclusion, Rothenberg apparently believes that “our teaching faculty” shouldn’t be “inhibited” from “proposing curriculum innovations” that are based, say, on the premise that African-Americans are intellectually inferior. Most people would, justifiably, find such a proposal “illiberal” and “unjust”—but if the U of M Education Department proposes it, the university’s general counsel apparently would cite principles of academic freedom to defend such a curriculum.
Of course, we all know that Rothenberg’s office would never defend an Education curriculum based on premises that the race/class/gender faculty found unsuitable. And in the current controversy, he had the thankless task of attempting to defend an indefensible curricular proposal. But rather than using this affair as a teachable moment to put future faculty ideologues on notice that they should respect freedom of thought, Rothenberg chose to articulate broad principles that would seem, in the future, to give carte blanche to the worst impulses among his professoriate.
In this respect, the concluding paragraph of Rothenberg’s letter is particularly chilling: “Inevitably, choices must be made about what to teach, and how to teach, our University students. Those curricular choices are made by our faculty on an individual and collective basis throughout all of our many campuses, colleges, and academic departments. Such choices, and the deliberative processes (like the TERI task forces) from which those choices emerge, are broadly protected by principles of academic freedom, principles that lie at the heart of American higher education. Rest assured that the University of Minnesota will protect and defend those principles.” [emphasis added]
Is the general counsel of the University of Minnesota really maintaining that the university’s president and the university’s trustees possess no role in curricular matters beyond rubber-stamping the “curricular choices are made by our faculty on an individual and collective basis throughout all of our many campuses, colleges, and academic departments”? That certainly seems to be the basic argument Rothenberg’s letter to FIRE offered.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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