Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Administrator bans classroom discussion of the war!

It’s been five years since the sorry episode described below. In subsequent years, VPI Dennis White, the villain of our tale, proved to be essentially a good guy, even if he is an abject fool-born muttonbean. (He was let go a year or two ago.)

I found the Shakespearean insults on one of the many sites devoted to such things.

This piece (somewhat edited) is from Dissent, April 14, 2003. It was originally entitled

“How many pinheads can dance at the head of a college?”

March 27, 2003:

OK, so there I was in the lounge, fixin’ to go to the Irvine Valley College Academic Senate meeting, when Rebel Girl slips me a copy of a memo that had been sent to deans earlier that day by one Dennis White, our Vice President of Instruction.

I read it. It said:

It has come to my attention that several faculty members have been discussing the current war within … their classrooms. We need to be sure that faculty do not explore this activity within … their classroom unless it can be demonstrated, to the satisfaction of this office, that such discussions are directly related to the approved instructional requirements … associated with those classes … College personnel are … encouraged to explore their views … outside … the classroom. Again, however, the exploration of those reviews [sic] within … the classroom is professionally inappropriate…

“Good Lord!” I said. “This memo is sayin’ that we can’t talk about the war in class unless we clear it with Dennis Freakin' White!”

The memo instructed deans to “advise…faculty and staff members of the position of this office.” That sounded pretty official.

Wow. We hadn’t seen anything like this since April of ’98, when then-President Raghu Mathur forbade discussion of district politics in the classroom!

Meanwhile, down the street at UC Irvine (my alma mater), the Chancellor was urging students and faculty to discuss the war in class and elsewhere. But of course! College administrators around the country were encouraging polite and peaceful discussion of the war in class.

Not at IVC. Nope.

Thou beslubbering dismal-dreaming ratsbane!

Who is this “Dennis White” anyway? Why, he’s our dapper new VP of Instruction. I recall first meeting Dennis, last November, outside Saddleback’s Library 104, on the night of his appointment. He seemed like a nice guy, so I filled him in on the recent history of our district.

When I finished, he paused; he thunk; he assured me that he wouldn’t do anything indecent or illegal.

I said: “I hate to break it to you, but if you’re a decent guy, you’ll be gone within a year.”

A coupla weeks later, I saw White again at a Humanities department meeting, at which time he answered someone’s question by telling a story. To this largely feminist audience, he explained that, as a young man, he dropped out of high school and joined the military, whereupon he discovered the difference between officers and enlisted men, namely, the officers’ cars were better and the officers’ wives were “prettier.”

Eyebrows arched skyward.

White realized, he said, that the officers had sheepskins (“That’s the ticket!”), and so he decided then and there to further his education. After his military stint, White, that seeker of spiffy cars and pretty women, snagged an A.A., then a B.A., then an M.A.

Maybe White noticed some community college administrators and their “wives and cars.” So he went out an’ snagged some Education degrees, including a doctorate.

* * * * *

In early January, White showed up to his first IVC Academic Senate meeting, launching his practice of standin’ and speechifyin’. He referred to the turmoil that has beset our district. All that stuff, he said, amounted to mere “politics.”

Now, one can describe our district’s infamous disquietude in many ways. But White, standing before a group of faculty, chose to describe it as faculty “antagonizing” administrators and the board.

That such remarks plummeted to earth entirely escaped the little fellow’s consciousness. He closed by asking faculty to send him, via email, their “dreams.”

A few minutes later, I emailed the fellow my dream that faculty be accorded their appropriate role in college and district governance. I outlined the unfortunate facts, shared governance-wise, about our district. I noted that our “turmoil” concerned substantive issues. I suggested that the culprits, turmoil-wise, were, not the faculty, but administrators and trustees.

In an email, White responded by warmly thanking me for my note and then accusing me of foully trying to draw him into my beef with administrators. He closed by alluding to his success at every institution where he has served.

Where’s that? Why, until January of this year, White has spent his administrative life at Antelope Valley College, in beauteous Lancaster, California, where, as Dean of Fine & Performing Arts, he presided over about 16 full-time instructors and some cactus.

Thou impertinent fen-sucked horn-beast!

March 27: Immediately after my encounter with Rebel Girl, I headed for the Senate meeting—with Wendy, another senator and a close friend. Along the way, I described White’s memo. She laughed. She asked if I was joking.

During the meeting, which White attended, the Senate Prez bemoaned the failure of junior faculty to participate in governance, owing to fear. He sought ways to overcome the problem. Some senators suggested that the fears are reasonable. Wendy then cited White’s memo as the latest in a series of threats to faculty.

White defended his memo. His point, he said, was that faculty, except in some areas, shouldn’t be expressing their opinions about the war in the classroom.

Ted, a PE coach and Vietnam War vet, explained how discussions of the Iraq war can arise even in his courses. Others made reference to our “academic freedom.” That sounded pretty reasonable, but White was unmoved.

He commenced lecturing us about “history.” According to White, the Supreme Court has considered whether faculty have a right to academic freedom. According to the Supremes, said White, they don’t.

Thou puking dismal-dreaming dewberry!

Friday morning, I contacted my pal Marla Jo at the OC Register. “What’s up?” she asked.

On Saturday morning, an article appeared in that paper entitled, “Irvine Valley bans talk of war.” According to the article, “Faculty members at Irvine Valley College were banned this week from discussing the Iraqi war in classrooms, unless their course touches directly on the conflict….” According to the article, White says that he was responding to “student complaints.” He says he wanted to “protect” students from the “personal opinions” of faculty. He suggests that, in class, faculty should stick to their subjects.

Naturally, editors at the L.A. Times were plenty steamed that the lowly Reg had beaten them to this sexy bannage story, so, on Sunday, they scrambled to out-do their rival, interviewing just about everybody in Orange County.

That night, over a plate of GB’s wondrously excessive pasta, me ‘n’ Wendy made predictions. “They’re gonna dig in their heels; you watch,” said Wendy.

“Nope,” said I. “They’re not that stupid. They’ll back off.”

“Wanna bet?”

* * * * *

The Times article appeared the next morning. It covered the same ground as the Reg piece, but it also sported IVC Prez Glenn Roquemore’s seemingly equivocal attempts at damage control:

…[C]ollege President Glenn Roquemore said the memo was “not a ban” and that the college respects the faculty’s academic-freedom rights. Though Roquemore didn’t rule out any disciplinary action [!], the memo “doesn’t say you’re going to be disciplined and thrown out of your job,” he said. “The memo has little effect, it’s certainly not official, and it’s subject to further debate.”

Not official? Little effect? Academic-freedom rights? Having read that, I figured I’d won the bet.

But Rocky went on to explain—and apparently to endorse—what White “meant” to say:

“I believe [White’s] memo was really meant to say, ‘Please talk to me before you enter into a conversation with your students, unless it’s in the context of a political science class’”….

D’oh! According to Rocky, therefore, unless an instructor teaches Political Science, he IS obliged to run things past White before talkin’ about the war.

To be fair, Rocky did throw in the word “please.”

The Times also quoted staunch Mathurian apologist, and Accred report bowdlerizer extraordinaire, Ray Chandos, who sought to minimize the problem. Chandos “thought the memo was a case of ‘an administrator who received a complaint from a student, wrote a memo and hoped the situation would go away.’”

* * * * *

Also on that Monday, Reuters, the news service, ran a story entitled “California college war talk ban stirs debate.” There, White explains that the limits he imposed on discussion and opining in the classroom are “attempting not to limit academic freedom or limit discussion but to define a framework for the discussion….” Oh.

White went on to say:

War is very different to the people who are fighting and the people who are at home. I was just trying to make sure our faculty are sensitive to the type of students we have.’’

Which “type of students” do we have? The ones at home, right?

I don’t get it.

Perhaps White’s point is that the studentry comprise diverse groups, and we ought not to reason in class in a manner that offends one or some of these groups.

Does this mean we should avoid discussing natural selection and the problem of evil, abortion and the Big Freakin’ Bang?

White adds “that students at the community college, many of whom have relatives fighting in Iraq or families trapped there by Saddam Hussein, should not become a ‘captive audience’ to teachers.” He means, I suppose, that students should not be forced to listen to teachers’ opinions when those opinions offend them.

But aren’t there importantly different kinds of opinions? Some opinions are mere opinions, but others, including some that offend, are much more than that.

Isn’t that obvious?

* * * * *
According to the Reuters article, the American Association of University Professors “has had several reports of incidents across the country in which state officials or communities tried to curb war talk….” In each case, says an AAUP spokesman in the article, “administrators resisted public pressure to limit campus speech….”

In each case, that is, except ours.

The phenomenon of community pressures to limit professors’ speech about the war on campuses even made the front page of the New York Times (“Professors protest as students debate,” 4/5/03).

There, IVC gets a brief dishonorable mention. But of course!

Thou villainous rump-fed lout!

The Reg, Times, and Reuters articles incited a media frenzy-ette. By Monday afternoon, the TV people—Fox, KCBS, KMEX, etc.—descended upon our little college, spillin’ wires and has-been reporters all over the lawn. Faculty were invited onto radio talk shows (KABC’s Al Rantel). Al Jazeerah’s website (jazeerah.infoNews) ran the Times article under the title: “Neo-McCarthyism.” Saudi Arabia’s decidedly anti-Bush Arab News ran the article.

Meanwhile, NEAR (Network for Education and Academic Rights) weighed in, and the AAUP formed a special committee to monitor IVC. Academics from near and far (U of Redlands, Cal Arts, Riverside Community College, etc.) wrote to condemn White’s memo.

An administrator at Glendale Community College sent the Times article to faculty, adding that “banning classroom discussions of the war and other controversial topics is not the way” to approach the phenomenon of students who are upset by discussions of the war.

* * * * *

Amidst all this, Dennis White issued a 2nd memo (uh-oh), in which he explains that he “strongly support[s] the concept of academic freedom.”

But what about his claim, made just four days earlier, that the Supremes say there ain’t no Academic Freedom?

And how exactly does his “strong support” for Academic Freedom square with his muzzling of faculty?

According to White, a “faculty member had spoken his personal views on the war effort,” and this resulted in student tears. In an effort to “recognize” the “diversity of the student body,” which includes students of “Middle Eastern backgrounds,” White “issued guidelines,” he says, that attempt to “define the proper context of” discussions of the war.

How does a policy that muzzles speech recognize student diversity? What does the poor fellow mean?

What many of us at IVC wanted to know, of course, was whether White’s “guidelines” obliged us to secure White’s approval before discussing the war! We wanted clarification about this pre-approval business, and memo #2 sheds no light on that at all.

On the other hand, in the Times, Rocky seems to endorse pre-approval. Despite his guff about the memo not bein’ “official” an’ all, Rocky was, in truth, endorsing bannage and muzzlage.

Thou froward fat-kidneyed joithead!

In the article that appeared in Tuesday’s Chronicle of Higher Education online, Roquemore again denies that the memo is “a new official policy.” “This college certainly approves of discussions about war by faculty and their students,” he is quoted as saying.

He’s saying, of course, that faculty get to discuss the war all right, but not in the classroom.

According to the Chronicle article, White “stands by” his memo. He explains that it would be appropriate to discuss the war in a political science or a cultural anthropology class, but not in a mathematics class.

Now, what does it mean when a guy like Dennis White says he stands by his memo? That’s hard to say. Maybe he’s sayin’ that he’s hungry or that his feet hurt.

In the Chronicle article, White steps deeper into dictatorial doo-doo. According to White, even in “courses where the war is a reasonable topic for discussion, professors should refrain from stating their personal views.” Further, White’s concerns aren’t “limited to the war.” For instance, it would be “problematic,” he says, for a criminal-justice instructor to express his opinion about the death penalty.

In other words, in the classroom, opining in general is verboten.

Thou fobbing fool-born skainsmate!

To my amazement, the Times editorial that appeared on Tuesday largely supported White:

[A]t Irvine Valley College…, the administration issued a heavy-handed warning to professors to avoid spouting their views on the war during class and to stick to their approved lesson plans. [Lesson plans? This is college, Bub, we don't need no stinkin’ lesson plans!] Here, common sense largely favors the college’s administration. Faculty members can be forgiven for overreacting to the memo; the Coast Community College District [sic] has a miserable record on free speech [that’s about me mostly, but also the students, who got fitted for a muzzle by Mathur]…Into a campus thus primed for a free-speech battle, …Dennis White dropped a poorly worded memo…The document…provoked immediate faculty cries to protect academic freedom. This time, though, campus administrators are within their rights.

On Thursday, the Irvine World News expressed a similar view, though it suggested that administrators and students over-reacted.

Meanwhile, at least one paper called White’s edict “un-American” (The Bakersfield Californian, 3/31/03).

OK, Bakersfield doesn’t count.

Thou errant half-faced nut-hook!

In an article appearing in the Irvine World News on Thursday, Roquemore suggests that the notion that White “banned all discussion about the war” resulted from “misinterpretations” of his memo. Contrary to critics, he suggests, faculty at IVC are free to express their opinions all over campus. It’s only in class, when they are teaching, that they gotta clam up about the war.

Rocky assumes, of course, that faculty interpret White’s memo as a ban on discussions of the war anywhere on campus. But no one interprets it that way. The faculty complaint is that the memo bans discussion of the war in class.

It is true, of course, that the media keep referring to White’s “ban on war talk.” But the reason that they do not bother to add “in the classroom” is that, when you think college, you think classroom.


According to President Rocky, even when discussion of an issue is related to course content, “teachers have an obligation to present the various sides in a balanced manner….”

Does this mean that, in class, I may not suggest that the Holocaust occurred unless I also refer to the contrary view and arguments of Holocaust deniers? That’s absurd. Well-trained academics know that some “sides” are not worth presenting. Sometimes, from a logical point of view, only one “side” (e.g., “the Holocaust occurred,” “the earth is round”) is worth presenting.

Roquemore goes on to offer a sophistical understanding of opining. Offering an opinion, he suggests, is tantamount to “disseminating one’s personal sense of truth.”

Really? If a biology instructor offers her assessment of, say, punctuated equilibrium, she is offering an opinion. But only a lout and a ratsbane would suppose that she is thereby merely disseminating her personal sense of truth!

Perhaps Rocky and his friends are thinking of the merest sort of opining—opining unencumbered by reasons. Or perhaps they object to opinions that are mere whims or matters of taste.

Is that what one intends when one judges a war to be right or wrong—the expression of one’s tastes or whims? Obviously not, Mr. Pumpkinhead.

Or perhaps the Rockettes object, not to opining, but to forceful opining that muzzles disagreement.

If that is what they mean, then they should express their view more clearly. They ought not to say that “discussions of the war” and “opinions” are inappropriate in the classroom.

Thou jarring guts-griping pignut!

On Thursday, in yet another memo (yikes!), Rocky attempted a clarification of White’s original ban. Here, he repeats White’s theme of the need for “sensitivity” to some students (those from the Middle East and those who have family serving in the military). According to Rocky, White’s purpose in the memo was only to “encourage faculty to use professional discretion in discussing the war in order to protect the integrity of the curricula and the students’ right to a course-related education.”

Upon reading this memo, GB unearthed a nicely framed photograph of Richard Nixon and handed it to me, saying, “You’ve clearly won the bet; you’ve won the Nixon.”

I said, “I want this Nixon. I do. But I don’t get it. Haven’t I lost?”

Meanwhile, in his column for the Times, columnist Dana Parsons came down firmly on the side of academic freedom.

What better place than a [college] to discuss something as vital as war and its inevitable global consequences?…Is there anything more important nowadays than the war in the Middle East? Its potential to affect so many aspects of American life…cuts across all disciplines. With the war on TV 24 hours a day, it’s unrealistic to expect students not to have it on their minds. Does that mean a week’s worth of chemistry lectures should be shelved to talk Iraq? Obviously not, but let’s trust our college instructors…to know how much is too much. Inevitably, some teachers will…rant and rave…but the students will survive it. At day’s end, they’ll at least have had their minds challenged, if not their patience…[T]hey’ll realize down the road that they were part of a great debate of the modern age. Those discussions aren’t likely to happen with Mom and Dad, and they’re not likely to happen on Friday night dates…At a time of war, the classroom is a great place to be.

That pretty much nails it. And Parsons almost never nails anything.

Thou rank dread-bolted wagtail!

April 10: There I was at yet another Senate meeting, along with VPI Dennis White. Item 10 was White’s “bannage” memo.

When we got to that item, I spoke first. Addressing my comments to White, I noted that one can glean a philosophy about faculty classroom speech from White and Roquemore’s various memos and media interviews. I identified its elements.

I asked White if this philosophy has any standing in the operations of his office.

I then noted that the President had said that he was “investigating” cases in which faculty discussed the war in class, producing tears and whatnot. (I should have also mentioned that Roquemore “didn’t rule out any disciplinary action” in those cases.) I asked whether these faculty were being called in by administrators and whether the philosophy was being applied in their cases.

White answered that he could not talk about meetings between administrators and faculty regarding this issue, owing to confidentiality. He noted, however, that he was “satisified” with those meetings.

Regarding the status of his bannage philosophy, White said that there had been enough talk about it—it had been discussed all over the country—and he was not going to comment on it further.

To some, White’s remarks were unsatisfactory. One instructor suggested that it is “hogwash” to suppose that only Poli Sci instructors have occasion to discuss the war. Others also explained how reference to the war naturally occurs in their classes.

One instructor reported that White’s memo had a “chilling” effect on some instructors, who said they were now afraid to refer to the war in class at all. Another instructor suggested that Roquemore was trying to have it both ways: he seemed to agree with the memo and yet he also seemed to disown it.

Someone motioned that the Senate seek clarification about the administration’s policy regarding academic freedom, about faculty opining, and about discussion of the war in particular.

White then suggested that, if faculty ask for clarification, they might not like what they get.

Good Lord. That freakin’ Dennis White doesn’t have a brain in his head. Naturally, his remark raised eyebrows. Some senators viewed White’s remark as a threat, they later explained.

One instructor suggested that, as things stand, for all that she had been told, the bannage philosophy could be wielded against faculty now. It is better, she said, to be clear about the rules than to wonder whether one is somehow violating them.

The motion failed by one vote.

Thou yeasty boil-brained fustilarian!

On the 6th, the Times printed my response to their unfortunate editorial. A former student—he was a Marine at the time, he said—read it and then emailed me to express his anger and his support of Dennis White. According to this former student, I have chosen to defend “anti-American” professors who are “Saddam enablers.” He based this assessment of the professors on the fact that they are criticizing our President and the war. Evidently, in his mind, professors ought not to do that in the classroom.

I also heard from a UCI professor who included a quotation by Teddy Roosevelt that I rather like:

To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public.

Bully! —RB (CW)

The issue eventually faded away without resolution. Still, the atmosphere at the college has much improved, and I don't think that faculty believe that White's "ban" is in effect. These days, faculty and Roquemore are more or less on the same page. The locus of difficulty is the Chancellor's office.

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