The Wild, Ethically Dubious Allegations at Wesleyan

I first encountered Wesleyan professor Claire Potter at the tail end of the Duke lacrosse case. The self-described “tenured radical” published a post claiming that “the dancers” at the lacrosse team’s party “were, it is clear, physically . . . assaulted.” She produced no evidence for the assertion (perhaps because no evidence existed); indeed, even rogue district attorney Mike Nifong had never claimed that the second dancer, Kim Roberts, had been assaulted.

Potter further asserted that “many players who were not involved in this incident, and who did not do anything wrong, still refused to speak about what had happened.” In fact, nearly two dozen lacrosse players voluntarily spoke to investigators from the North Carolina attorney general’s office, and all of the players offered to do so.

A few days after Potter leveled these and other untrue allegations, the North Carolina attorney general released a report exonerating the lacrosse players, affirming that no evidence existed that any type of assault against false accuser Crystal Mangum, and laying out the remarkable degree of cooperation from lacrosse players and their attorneys with the investigation. In response, Potter not only refused to retract her false statements; she lashed out with more bizarre allegations (this time against me). Many months later, perhaps recognizing her potential legal vulnerability, Potter without explanation deleted her Duke post.

This tendency to make wild, ethically dubious allegations against college students she perceives as politically unappealing reappeared in the recent controversy over a student-run affirmative action “bake sale” at Wesleyan. (John Rosenberg profiled the affair here.) According to the Corner’s Mytheos Holt, Potter inserted herself into the controversy by e-mailing one of the student organizers.

Leaving aside the highly unusual nature of a professor e-mailing a student over any non-classroom or departmental matter, Potter described the bake sale as a “mere stunt” to “promote solidarity among young conservatives at different campuses.” She lectured that “actual speech promotes dialogue, not mocking others” (Potter apparently has never watched The Colbert Report or The Daily Show), and claimed that no evidence exists that Wesleyan’s use of racial preferences led to the admission of less qualified students. For good measure, she accused the conservative students of causing “substantial harm . . . to a great many students of color and their allies.”

Potter’s chilling conclusion: “This event, in and of itself, was racist”; and “the failure to consider that as an outcome of a certain kind of political speech is not what we expect of Wesleyan students, regardless of their political beliefs.”

Imagine applying this standard to “political speech” from students of whose viewpoints someone like Potter would approve. For instance, even Wesleyan must have a handful of students with siblings or parents in the armed forces. Should, therefore, student peace organizations receive e-mail from faculty members, haranguing them on how their political speech caused substantial harm to a great many students of military families and their allies? And I assume that at least a few Wesleyan undergraduates had parents who worked in the Bush administration. So should professors lecture Democratic club members on how their complaints against Bush made some of their fellow students feel bad, and were in any case mere stunts designed to promote solidarity among young liberals at different campuses?

Potter’s email screed might be easily dismissed if she represented an extreme view in the academy. But, if anything, the reverse is true. Politically, Potter’s beliefs fall well within the academic mainstream. And her research and teaching agendas reflect the race/class/gender approach that has come to dominate contemporary humanities and (most) social sciences departments.

A final aside: I wanted to see what the Wesleyan Faculty Handbook had to say about how professors should treat undergraduates at the college. For instance, is it proper for a Wesleyan professor to level, in writing, charges of racism against her own institution’s students? But Wesleyan has elected to shield its Faculty Handbook behind password protection—a convenient way to ensure that “outsiders” can’t call on Wesleyan faculty to follow their own school’s standards.


  • 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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