The Abusive Professor at Michigan State

In a revealing incident at the beginning of Michigan State’s new academic year, writing professor William Penn went off on a rant aimed at Republicans. Fortunately, a student captured it on video, which is included in this story on Inside Higher Ed.

Among Professor Penn’s comments were such ideas as these:

“If you go to a Republican convention in Florida, you see all those old people with their skin cells sloughing off them – they’re cheap.”

“They don’t want to pay taxes because they’ve already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could.”

Republicans are “greedy bastards” who “are rich like Mitt Romney and hide all their income offshore in the Cayman Islands.”

But wait – Penn told his students, “I don’t mean to offend you.”  If not, however, then why begin the class with such patently offensive remarks? Moreover, why would any college faculty member, especially one with decades of experience, think it appropriate to waste class time babbling away about his personal animosities?

Penn’s verbal assault on Republicans was somewhat less offensive than Ward Churchill’s famous line that the people killed in the World Trade Towers on 9/11 were like “little Eichmanns” but Churchill wrote that in an essay rather than lashing out at students seated in front of him.

Michigan State officials have decided to turn Penn’s course, “Literatures, Cultures, Identities,” over to another faculty member. Since Penn is the recipient of a Michigan State “Distinguished Faculty Award,” you might think that his students are losing an excellent instructor who just happens to have a bit of a problem with running off at the mouth. If you read the comments from students who have taken him in the past, however, you find that, far from an excellent instructor, most think that he is terrible.

After being called into meeting with the dean, Penn admitted that his remarks were “inappropriate, disrespectful and offensive and may have negatively affected the learning environment.” Because he has tenure, though, all MSU can do is administer a slap on the wrist.

What is especially interesting about this incident is the way it undermines one of the standard arguments we hear for “diversity” – namely that when colleges and universities recruit students from various backgrounds and ancestries, that leads to the breaking down of stereotypes and promotes cross-cultural understanding. For years, Penn has had numerous white, conservative, Republican students and yet he holds on to nasty, demeaning ideas about them.

If “diversity” really breaks down stereotypes and promotes understanding, you would think that it would work at least as much on veteran professors as on college students. Obviously not in this case.

Perhaps that lovely theory about the “educational benefits” of diversity isn’t true after all.


One thought on “The Abusive Professor at Michigan State”

  1. In reading the comments provided in the “comments from students” link, I’m flabbergasted at the sheer incompetency of the writers. While I agree with the sentiments expressed, the quality of their musings is abhorrent. One student identified himself (or herself) as a an English major. Egads! But perhaps I’m being unduly harsh. If Prof. Penn is representative of MSU’s English Department personnel as a whole, then the drivel and dross expressed by students is wholly understandable.

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