MSU prof under fire

A noted writing professor at Michigan State University is under fire from conservatives after he was video taped by a student railing against Republicans and “closet racists” in class last week.
MCT Wire
Sep 5, 2013

Campus Reform, a conservative group that monitors what it sees as liberal bias at universities, released the video Tuesday that it says shows Prof. William Penn in the first day of a creative writing class last Thursday attacking Republicans as raping the country.

“If you go to the Republican convention in Florida, you see all of the old Republicans with the dead skin cells washing off them,” the professor is heard saying in the video. “They are cheap. They don't want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could.”

The anonymous student who made the recording appears to be sitting in the class at Michigan State.

“This country still is full of closet racists,” Penn tells his class during the video. “What do you think is going on in South Carolina and North Carolina? — voter suppression. It’s about getting black people not to vote. Why? Because black people tend to vote Democratic.”

Penn is a noted Native American writer and scholar who has authored several books that often deal with issues of identity and stereotypes. He’s won several grants and awards over the years, including an American Book Award in 2001 and Native American Writer of the Year in non-fiction by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers in 1997.

Kent Cassella, a MSU spokesman, said Wednesday that the university “is aware of the situation ... and the Office of the Provost is reviewing it. At MSU, it is important the classroom environment is conducive to a free exchange of ideas and is respectful of the opinions of others.”

Penn, who at one point in the video is heard admonishing a student who apparently was frowning in disagreement, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In his remarks in the class, he said: “If you’re a Republican, forgive me. If your parents are Republican, forgive me. They won’t and I don’t care.”

The class then chuckles.

“I absolutely don’t mean to offend you,” the professor added. “Even if you’re a Republican, I don’t mean to offend you in this class.”

Campus Reform is a project of The Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based non-profit that promotes conservative causes.

By Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press (MCT)

Comments

Sandypants

Like I always tell my kids, "Just because someone is an adult, it doesn't mean that they are smart. Question authority".

Soloman

What's the big deal? Except for those living in blissful denial, most reflective folks were thinking it anyway. Give the guy credit for speaking his mind and throwing it out in the open.

Mystic Michael

The professor just happens to be spot on. Of course in the current political environment, that's even more reason for the far Right to paint a bullseye on the guy's forehead and to try to take him down.

The much larger issues here are the rights of free speech, and of academic independence. University students, by and large, are adults. They are free to think for themselves, and to speak their own minds - regardless of what their professors think and say. That same freedom ought to extend to the professors as well.

So long as professors don't abuse their authority, i.e. by requiring students to express agreement in order to obtain a better grade, by infringing upon the rights of students to express their own views, etc., then it's all good: No harm, no foul. For the benefit of the uninitiated, critical thought and free expression are a big part of what the university experience is supposed to be.

Tri-cities realist

So MM, if a professor had said something along the lines of "Democrats have significantly contributed to the demise of the traditional family", or some other comment that put Democrats in a bad light, would you be so quick to stand up for his / her right of free speech, so long as the professor didn't abuse their authority?

And according to the article, "Penn is a noted Native American writer and scholar who has authored several books that often deal with issues of identity and stereotypes." Well, he certainly appears to be an expert on stereotypes, considering what he says about Republicans. No hypocrisy there.

And after Penn tells the students to put up with his bad jokes, and that if they have jokes that are about him and satirical, he doesn't mind hearing them.... But "If it's about me and it's burlesque, and mean, and cruel, and petty, I'll hit you." He then proceeds to tell of his love of humor and Bill Burr. Now if he would have said he would "hit" back with a joke or some other colorful words, I could understand that. But he made NO such clarification. He definitely sounds like a supporter of "free speech" to me, so long as you agree with him.

And after watching the video, I'm still trying to understand what was the purpose of his lecture, in the context of the class subject, if not just to bash Republicans. This is what college students pay 10's of thousands of dollars to hear?

And thankfully he was not teaching in the business school, since he asks a student if he gave them $40,000 and over the next 40 years, he paid them $250,000, would they agree to that investment? (He was comparing the return of tax revenue to the state over 40 years for the investment of a college education). That return equates to a little over a 5% rate of return, perhaps a good return for a guy who claims he likes investing. He should shy away from subjects in which he clearly lacks expertise.

Mystic Michael

If the professor was a conservative spouting the kind of stuff that you cite, I probably would not as instantly leap to his defense, no. But that doesn't mean that the issues I raised would be any more or less valid - because they are not. That said, if he were a conservative saying those conservative things under the very same circumstances, would you be just as eager to condemn him?

I don't deny my political point of view, and if you somehow think I've been trying to keep it in stealth mode or cover it up, then you really don't "get it". But that doesn't somehow invalidate the points I've been making. Because this isn't merely about ideology, or even primarily about ideology. It really, actually, truly is about free speech & academic independence...as I've just now stated for at least the third time already.

What is it about free speech & academic independence that don't you understand? What is it about free speech & academic independence that you can't accept?

It seems that you, and PAA, and the Vladster, and all the other Cons here are able to see this - and most other things for that matter - only through the prism of political ideology: You're either right, or you're left - and there's no other dimension to any of this that even exists, much less actually matters.

There's that same old reactionary, black-white dualism thing again. Never any room for nuance or shades of grey. Everything has to be reduced down to fit into a simplistic two-dimensional model - even if the world it is supposed to represent is three-dimensional.

Ironically, it was probably this very same kind of constrained thinking - and the asinine public policies that result - that set the professor off in the first place!

Tri-cities realist

Thank you for your honesty. I suppose I would not be as quick to condemn, as well. However, I don't really understand the need for a professor to spout his political views (right, left, or otherwise), unless of course it is relevant to the class discussion. Who knows, maybe he was discussing a section on politics in this creative writing class. From the report and video, I can't be sure, but somehow I doubt it on the first day of class, when he was all over the map, talking about his love of humor, the benefits of investing in a college education, and of course, jabbing at Republicans.

Does he have the right to say those things? Absolutely. Is it appropriate? Hmm, not so much, in my opinion, regardless if he was slamming D's or R's. I understand free speech & academic independence, thank you, please take it easy on the condescension. I just question whether it was appropriate and relevant to the course that he is teaching, and for which students pay. If he wants to stand on campus and rail Republicans, by all means, I support his right to do so.

As for the duality in my thinking, I have no problem admitting it. And I'm not really interested in changing the way in which I was raised, and have tried to live my life, although I do appreciate hearing another opinion, certainly something you don't lack!

What are your thoughts on the professor's threat of violence? I know, a total exaggeration on my part, but one that the left would point out if he was a right winger. See I'm trying to be more balanced and nuanced.

And if you want to see me and nuance, scroll to the bottom of the "10 things to know today", under the Top Comments section, regarding US involvement in Syria. I'm struggling with that one, and it's pegging my nuance-meter.

Mystic Michael

OK, fair enough. All I can tell you is that we obviously see things differently, and we'll have to agree to disagree.

From ample personal experience, I can tell you that all kinds of things tend to come up in the context of a university lecture - particularly in any of the liberal arts subjects. It just comes with the territory; a part of the mix and the milieu. So it's generally advisable to go with the flow. Higher education is about a lot more than just conveying facts & figures. The real education tends to come via multiple channels - including the classroom.

Threat of "violence"? See, that's exactly what I'm talking about: Tearing things out of context, taking them too literally, etc. C'mon already!

Tri-cities realist

As I said, I was exaggerating, such as the liberal media would do, if he were a conservative. See I'm just trying to be more open minded and think like a liberal. Isn't that the goal?

PeopleAreAmazing

Not so fast MM - there's a fine line between having an opinion and sharing it in an environment where there is a free exchange of ideas - AND - being the leader of a class and in lecture making these kinds of inflammatory and disrespectful comments. You've apparently missed the part of the article where the Professor "admonishes" a student for a visual display of disagreement - - - that really isn't "all good".......

Mystic Michael

There is no "fine line" at all. There is nothing about a professor expressing his/her personal views, even in the context of a classroom, that is inherently suppressive of the views of others - so long as the professor does not abuse his/her authority. As I've already established.

As for this alleged "admonishment", there is no way for either you or I to comment upon it knowledgeably, as the article makes no mention of what specifically was said. We have only the reporter's characterization of those remarks. That may be enough for you to justify laying blame. It is not enough for me.

I would also call your attention to the fact that the professor made a point of saying, "Forgive me", and "I don't mean to offend you". Taken all in context, and taken holistically instead of seizing upon one isolated element of the exchange in order to create a "Gotcha!" moment, that does not sound like someone who's trying to force his own views down the throats of anyone. It does sound like someone who's going out of his way to take responsibility for his own opinions & remarks - without any coercion.

Mystic Michael

There is no "fine line" at all. There is nothing about a professor expressing his/her personal views, even in the context of a classroom, that is inherently suppressive of the views of others - so long as the professor does not abuse his/her authority. As I've already established.

As for this alleged "admonishment", there is no way for either you or I to comment upon it knowledgeably, as the article makes no mention of what specifically was said. We have only the reporter's characterization of those remarks. That may be enough for you to justify laying blame. It is not enough for me.

I would also call your attention to the fact that the professor made a point of saying, "Forgive me", and "I don't mean to offend you". Taken all in context, and taken holistically instead of seizing upon one isolated element of the exchange in order to create a "Gotcha!" moment, that does not sound like someone who's trying to force his own views down the throats of anyone. It does sound like someone who's going out of his way to take responsibility for his own opinions & remarks - without any coercion.

PeopleAreAmazing

You're trying very hard here - I give you that! I wouldn't waste another minute trying to justify his actions. I'll say this - if you find it so easy to question whether he actually "admonished" a student based on the limited information we have- why wouldn't you also question whether his request to be forgiven is authentic? Are you biased?

Mystic Michael

It is easy, I assure you. One need only understand the principles of free speech & academic independence, then apply the stated facts, such as they are, to those principles. The argument virtually makes itself.

So far as I can see, the professor's behavior doesn't require any "justification" - from me or from anybody. The mere fact that an out-of-state, right-wing extremist group is trying to create a pretext for a witch hunt changes nothing about that.

As for your question, I believe you are the one with the burden of proof here: Why are you so eager to believe the worst about the professor, based upon no detailed or specific information whatsoever; yet so reluctant to take him at his word, when we have what appears to be verbatim quotes, or presumably accurate paraphrases, of words that he uttered directly to his own students?

Yet I'M the one here who supposedly is biased???

PeopleAreAmazing

MM, I hate to tell you this, but you definitely are biased. At this point, I'd suggest that you call the Professor and ask him - he's already agreed that his statements were inappropriate - he likely has time to take your call now. http://www.cabs.msu.edu/news/key...

Vladtheimp

I guess MSU fails to understand " the principles of free speech & academic independence" since they suspended the academic harasser for the semester. Kudos MSU!

SUSPENDED: Michigan State removes prof who went on anti-Republican tirade http://www.campusreform.org/blog...

And to save you the effort, we all know you will come back with a retort characterizing the poor professor as a victim, Ward Churchill-like, of right-wing McCarthyism and anti-intellectual efforts, and that MSU caved. Why not just express your sentiments to the school.

Mystic Michael

I did. As an alumnus of Michigan State, I sent an email this morning to the acting provost, urging her to ignore the knuckle-draggers from Virginia, and to defend the professor's rights. Apparently expecting her to show a little backbone was expecting too much.

Tri-cities realist

Honestly, I don't think it would make a difference if a professor was saying this type of stuff about R's or D's, they would be relieved of their teaching duties. I assume this is what you take issue with, regarding free speech and academic independence. Isn't there a limit to it, that the institution (MSU) can insist be followed? I know, a very gray area, with no clear cut lines.

For example, if a professor was a Holocaust denier, and spouting anti-semetic views, or any other racist views, doesn't a University have the right to limit a professor's speech when he is in class, when it doesn't represent the views of the University? What the professor does on his own time is his business, but as an employee of the University, doesn't he have an obligation to limit his speech when it contradicts the policies or views of the University? I would think MSU has some sort of employee policy, that prohibits employees from reflecting negatively on the University. I'm not saying that he even violated some policy, rather he appeared to use poor judgement in the timing of his comments, while teaching a class. Or maybe that was his intention, although from the 9 minute video, he appeared to be rambling from topic to topic, but I suppose coherence isn't a necessity in a creative writing class.

If a professor doesn't like the limits a University may place on his free speech, he is free to work at another University that won't limit it. Or better yet, start his own school and see if he can make it in the market.

Wingmaster

What we see here TCR, is another display of liberal bias and intolerance. Only they can force an agenda or views. When done by a liberal it's free speech, when confronted by conservatives it's deemed to be wrong and the name calling begins.

The students are paying for the class and not a political rant. They should demand their money back because they are not getting what they paid for!

Mystic Michael

Of course there's a limit there somewhere. But it's not anywhere close to where you apparently think it is.

In your analogies, you seem to be imposing some kind of corporate or industrial model (and culture) onto an academic environment. I can assure you, there are very good reasons for why academia needs to be free from that same stifling degree of coercion & control.

By and large, professors do NOT speak for the universities where they research & teach. They have to operate within certain broad, reasonable guidelines & policies, sure. But generally they operate from the standpoint of their own points of view, their own knowledge bases, and their own particular expertise. That is a major source of their actual value to the university. They represent a valuable source of diversity - which is possible only if they are guaranteed a substantial degree of independence and protection from those who may consider themselves to be their ideological opponents. That's a big reason why tenure is so important.

I'm not going to take any additional time to lecture you about how universities are supposed to function. If you've been there yourself, then you should know this stuff already. If you haven't, there's nothing I can convey here & now that can bring you up to speed.

Wingmaster

Uh, academia is preparing students for corporate and industrial environments right?
Good reason to prepare them for it, not fill their heads with senseless political rants.

Think maybe Penn's "teaching"or"rant" would make more sense in a political science class.

Don't care what you think, professors do represent the universities they are receiving a paycheck from. Part of what these universities advertise is their curriculum and faculty to students.

Have been there myself and found success in that environment means you have to accept nonsense from idiot professors with an ego.

Good for the student who exercised his freedom and exposed this clown.

Tri-cities realist

Yes I've spent a number of years at two universities, plus post graduate courses, so I know how those schools work. Apparently your alma mater places the line closer to where I would, compared to where you would.

The only reason I could see tenure being important, is that it presents a level of immunity for the professor. I think we need more accountability in all aspects of our culture. If someone wants to say or do something, they are free to, but they need to accept the consequences, and not hide behind tenure, or some other artificial immunity.

If diversity among professors is the goal, why do you suppose there are so few conservatives, or at least those who will admit it? Or is academia not really interested in true diversity? I'm honestly asking the question, since I've spent my career in the world of manufacturing after getting my education. So I'll admit, I'm no expert on how academia actually functions.

westside444

The same thing is going on in every middle and high school. They are teaching/pushing their beliefs.

ohwell

Exactly......unless it has to do with what is being taught, keep your yap shut. Then if it does have to with the topic in the class, don't penalize the student for having a different opinion. Happens all the time as said above, in schools of all kinds. How about doing your job and teaching the subject at hand and keeping your personal beliefs out of it. If the teacher/professor can't, they shouldn't be in the classroom.

Wingmaster

http://www.freep.com/article/201...
Pushing and agenda is what's happening here. Encouraging free thinking is not. He offers no facts to back his rant.

I would feel the same way if a conservative teacher was ranting against Democrats in a classroom. This crap has been going on for years and its about time it gets called out.

PeopleAreAmazing

The next words to come out of Professor Penn's mouth might be "oops". http://www.mlive.com/lansing-new...

PeopleAreAmazing

Professor Penn's teaching duties have been moved to someone else. It seems as though he himself believes that the hate he spewed was inappropriate.

http://www.cabs.msu.edu/news/key...

Wingmaster

Guess the fine line is in a circle around Mr. Penn.

Sandypants

What's with the 'stach and the 80's "feathered" haircut? I'll bet MSU is proud of this doofus.

LessThanAmused

That's all you got? Make fun of his appearance? Sheeesh, thanks for the contribution.

Michael Johnson

I find this interesting...so a student in my classroom is allowed to video/audiotape me without my express written consent, despite the fact that I consider my lectures my intellectual property? And the student can then share that material with anyone he or she sees fit, again without my express written consent? It's a good thing I included the prohibition of all such activities in my classroom in my syllabus...and since a syllabus is considered a legally bending document in cases involving arbitration of misconduct in the classroom, I can look forward to never being in a position where my right to express my opinions in my classroom can be manipulated by an opportunistic student in a politically contrived effort to make me look bad.

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