Lessons from the Penn Affair

The anti-Republican classroom rant of Michigan State professor William Penn has attracted considerable attention in the last few days. (A student surreptitiously recorded Penn criticizing the Romneys, attendees to the 2012 Republican National Convention, and the election law recently passed on a party-line vote in North Carolina’s GOP-controlled legislature.) Three lessons come to mind about the affair.

First, as FIRE’s Will Creeley has observed, Michigan State’s decision to remove Penn from the classroom is a travesty of academic due process. University administrators acted before any academic panel could determine the merits of complaints against Penn. The school’s dean apologizing to students who might have been “made to feel uncomfortable during the class” does not testify to high academic standards on the part of the MSU administration, whose behavior has established a dangerous precedent for academic freedom.

Second, as Popehat’s Ken White has pointed out, the most remarkable element of Penn’s rant isn’t what he said but its low quality. The professor’s in-class “lecture” (for which, of course, students were paying tuition dollars) best resembled the intellectual quality someone might encounter on the fifth or sixth page of a partisan internet discussion board. Is this the caliber of instruction that regularly—or even occasionally—appears in humanities classes at Michigan State?

Finally, the Penn affair should give considerable pause to legislators, outside activists, and even some trustees who have championed the idea that colleges and universities should stress teaching students assessable “skills” or “critical competencies” or other such buzzwords—as if content is largely irrelevant.

In contemporary higher education, introductory English classes of the type that Penn taught are the one part of the curriculum that already are wholly divorced from content—their stated purpose is to teach students the “skill” of how to write or read intelligently. But professors can’t spend an entire semester talking about skills. And in an academy that’s wildly imbalanced ideologically, skills-based classes in which professors are free to introduce whatever content they desire (as long as it, theoretically, aids in the instruction of the “skill) are almost certain to lead to clearly biased content.

Take, for instance, this introductory English syllabus recently forwarded to me by a former student. The syllabus—which is, technically, a contract governing rules and regulations of the course—announces that the course will “concentrate on discussions about racial profiling,” such as New York City’s stop and frisk policy, and that the course will include “killings of people of color” (Trayvon Martin gets a mention) by people “backed by the state, such as individuals protected by ‘stand your ground’ laws.” Claiming that stop and frisk might constitute racial profiling or that stand-your-ground laws discriminate against people of color are certainly defensible opinions. But in this introductory English class, they’re presented not merely as indisputable facts, but as the indisputable facts upon which the course will be based. Students who want to learn how to write without accepting the instructor’s one-sided view of contemporary racial politics are out of luck.

The Penn affair, in short, should provide a reminder that those who champion a “skills”-based college curriculum should be very careful for what they ask.

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.

One thought on “Lessons from the Penn Affair”

  1. What stands out in the professor’s rant is not that his remarks are offensive (which they are) but that they are threatening. While students do not have the right to not be offended, they do have the right to not be threatened for their opinions.
    The first day of class typically outlines the procedures of the course and the how the class will be graded. I don’t see how a student who disagreed with the professor’s opinion of voter id laws would not infer that he had better shut up about his opinion if he wants a good grade in the course.
    I agree that due process was not followed in this case and I think the punishment was totally inappropriate. I don’t see how getting a paid sabbatical from teaching is much of a punishment. A far more appropriate action would be a conversation between the professor and either his chair, a dean or a well regarded senior colleague, explaining to him why his behavior was unacceptable. If he genuinely agrees with this, let him go back in the class and do his job after he assures students that they are entitled to their opinions and they won’t be punished for expressing them. If he doesn’t accept this, then he should be dismissed.
    Expressing opinions that may offend some students is usually acceptable free speech. Threatening students is not.

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