An undergraduate student at a well-respected research university attends a class where he is reportedly surprised to find a liberal professor ‘ranting’ about the GOP.
The student decides to use his cellphone to surreptitiously tape the professor calling Republicans “old, white, racist, and ‘losers.’” The prof also attacks Mitt Romney and his wife. The student posts the video on YouTube, branded as part of a channel for a conservative group called Campus Reform.
All hell breaks loose as the video goes viral. An outraged parent commented: “When a professor uses such hatefilled language to describe a large category of people, it cannot help but cause members of that category in his classroom to feel marginalized.” Another parent posted: “My son will be transferring at year end. Only one year wasted at this ‘institution.’”
The sad saga of American Book Award winner Dr. William Penn at MSU?
No, it’s the story of Dr. Darry Sragow at USC, who was secretly taped in his classes in October 2012 by USC student Tyler Talgo. The video was posted on the Campus Reform channel the following spring, the same channel that brought us the footage of Dr. Penn.
Below is the short clip that MSU student Evan Schrage of the MSU College Republicans published on Wed., Sept 3.. (Click here for the full nine-minute version.) Much of Penn’s rhetoric sounds eerily like Sragow’s, though Penn caused additional consternation on social media for the section where he challenges a young woman in the front row for “frowning.”
But here is where the two incidents dramatically diverge.
At MSU, Penn quickly found himself under the bus, though you could argue that he slid under the wheels willingly. At USC, Sragow dug in, defending his right to free speech. The USC administration vocally came down on the side of academic freedom.
Provost Elizabeth Garrett made it clear USC was not elated at Sragow’s choice of words, but she unequivocally defended his right to utter them:
“Statements made by our faculty members are not endorsed by the University; indeed we sometimes profoundly disagree with the statements. Nevertheless, we firmly protect their right to express those views” – Garrett
At MSU apparently, no so much. USC is a private institution but MSU must keep our Republican governor and legislature happy to keep state support flowing.
The MSU saga
The day after the Penn video was posted on the Campus Reform site, MSU Trustee Mitch Lyons immediately began tweeting his displeasure. Lyons is a Republican who was clearly offended.
— Mitch Lyons (@mlyons85) September 4, 2013
Thank u MSU Prof. William Penn for blowing up my email and phone today.Ur ridiculous hate speech diatribe is appreciated. #wasteofmytime
— Mitch Lyons (@mlyons85) September 4, 2013
The incendiary tweets were repeated in a story on MLive, and the fire spread from there, quickly burning through state and national media. Even Bill O’Reilly featured the incident on his Fox News show the same night.
MSU was understandably eager to put out the blaze. The next day, the Huffington Post reported that Penn admitted to MSU officials that some of his remarks were “inappropriate.” The administration immediately pulled him from the classroom, though Campus Reform reported that Penn continues to draw his salary of $146,000+.
President Lou Anna Simon called Penn’s remarks “out of bounds,” and there are questions about whether Penn will face further punishment.
But will these actions douse the flames or fan them further? Will those who are outraged and offended demand more than what appears to be giving Penn a paid vacation?
USC focused on the unauthorized taping
Apparently emboldened by his initial success, Talgo posted a second video (see below), of a different prof, soon after the Sragow video appeared. While MSU zeroed in exclusively on Penn’s behavior, USC also emphasized that the student had violated USC rules against secretly taping professors in the classroom.USC Provost Garrett again stood foursquare for academic freedom, but this time she also noted USC “expressly prohibits” videotaping lectures without the professor’s consent.
No more videos from Talgo have appeared. FERPA laws prohibit universities from commenting on student behavior, so the the fact that USC’s budding James O’Keefe has not posted any additional videos suggests that he discovered a good reason to cease and desist.
MSU reportedly has the same rules, too, but phone calls asking officials if the student here is being investigated have yet to be returned.
To tape or not to tape?
These issues resonate with me because I have long been concerned about whether conservative students are being urged (or even trained) to use illicit taping as a means of muzzling professors whose views they disagree with. An article in The Guardian in 2006 by Gary Younge had alerted me to the practice of taping profs with the goal of chilling their speech.
Indeed this is why I decided to video David Horowitz when he appeared on campus last December at the invitation of MSU conservatives. (It is difficult to be precise about the groups because they are not listed on the MSU database of authorized student groups, apparently because their paperwork is not up to date.) Horowitz is a speaker for the Leadership Institute, the group that claims Campus Reform as one of its projects.
As the video below shows, one of the questions I asked that set Horowitz off was whether he urged conservative student activists to tape professors without their knowledge. The tape ends suddenly because Horowitz grabbed my (nerve-damaged) arm trying to wrestle my camera from me. (FYI – while my video shows Horowitz professing surprise that I was taping, please be assured that I discussed my taping with him before the lecture. I asked him where he would stand and also asked him if I could raise the white screen behind him so my videocamera would do a better job with the lighting.)
When I read about the Penn incident and realized the connection between Horowitz, the Leadership Institute and Campus Reform, these ‘coincidences’ made me wonder about whether there are dots that should be connected.
Is there a connection between the videos on Campus Reform from USC and what happened here? Could it be that both USC’s Tyler Trago and MSU’s Evan Schrage had no underlying agenda and both just happened to find themselves in classes with outspokenly liberal professors, cellphone camera at the ready?
Are there dots between David Horowitz’ visit, the Leadership Institute, Campus Reform and the video of Dr. Penn on the first day of class?
I do not want to succumb to paranoia or to drawing lines where none exist. But I am concerned that there is a concerted effort by conservative groups to use surreptitious taping of professors as Younge argues in that Guardian article.
If you have nothing to hide . . .
What bothers me most about the USC and MSU incidents is not that I fear being taped saying similar things. Much of what they said made me cringe, and it saddens me that Penn and Sragow seemed to hand their executioners more than enough rope to hang them.
But I am no longer sure what the standard is. Was Penn relieved of his duties for his political expression or for being off topic? Or were those remarks OK, but he crossed the line when he challenged the student for frowning? What is the straw that breaks academic freedom’s back?
A friend calculated that Penn’s nine-minutes of commentary would constitute roughly 0.2% of his total lecture time in the class. Is it fair to judge someone good enough to win a Distinguished Faculty Award for such a snippet of his work?
Many people have argued that if it is OK to tape Mitt Romney making his 47% comments at a private dinner, then professors in the classroom are fair game, too. But I am not a public figure, running for the highest office in the land. I am just an instructor trying to find way to keep my students engaged.
I try hard not to inflict my personal biases on my students. (That’s what husbands are for.) As a former Green Party candidate with progressive libertarian leanings, if I have one too many cups of coffee and go berserkers, chances are I will offend Democrats and Republicans alike. And I will confess to being off-topic at times. Indeed I have threatened to drop to one knee and begin singing showtunes from Les Miz just to rouse the students nodding off in my early-morning classes.
What I frequently do, however, is take many different sides of the same question, playing devil’s advocate and angel’s advocate alike in the hope of helping students learn how to think for themselves. Could edited clips of those conversations turn me into Shirley Sherrod? That worries me. (Sherrod was the woman driven from her job at the USDA by a deceptively edited video that distorted what she really said.)
I teach a class of more than 260 students, and it would not be hard for a number of them to tape me without knowing. So last week, after the Penn case surfaced, I told them that they had my blanket permission to tape me. I trust them.
But I also told them that I did not have the right to grant them permission to video their fellow students. They have my permission to try to use video to make a fool out of me, but not their peers.
Yet I am also considering whether I need to begin videoing all of my lectures myself, just so that I would have proof if someone takes me out of context. As someone who has posted more than 800 videos to YouTube, I know that you can edit video in ways that will make Miley Cyrus look like Sister Theresa and vice versa.
On the one hand, I do not want to be paranoid. On the other hand, I hate to think what Professor Penn has been going through the past few days.
But more than anything, at 1 a.m. on an early Sunday morning, I regret spending the past few hours writing this instead of working on that new lecture about Big Data.
Is this what college teaching has come to? Really?