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Brandeis University Trying To Discipline Professor

for saying (in a Latin American politics class) that "Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks'"? That's what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports, though pointing out that Brandeis hasn't even explicitly said exactly what speech of his was found to be "racial[ly] harass[ing]." FIRE (which I've found to be consistently factually credible) also points to Brandeis faculty committees that strongly condemn the procedures that the university has used, and argue — quite correctly, if the facts are as they are described — that this is a serious violation of academic freedom.

I should note that I'm not as hostile as the faculty committees are to the administration's decision to place a monitor in the professor's class. It seems to me that people who pay one's salary to teach are entitled to know what one is teaching. And if the monitor was looking for, say, targeted personal insults of individual students (if that were the allegation), that would be a plausible thing for the monitor to do (though my view is that recording the class would be a less disruptive way of doing that). Likewise, if there were simply reports that the professor was teaching in a confusing and ineffective way, the administration should be entitled to look in on the classes and see whether they can offer the professor constructive advice, or perhaps evaluate the teaching to see if the professor falls below minimum tenure standards (or perhaps should be reassigned to teaching some other class in which he does better).

The trouble is that the administration seems to be using a vague and potentially extremely broad definition of what the professor is not supposed to be saying — it's not just the monitoring, but monitoring coupled with (1) the threat of punishment for speech for which a professor ought not be punished, (2) a finding of racial harassment based on the earlier statements, and (3) seemingly serious procedural failings in the process the administration has used. Looks like very bad stuff, given the facts reported on the FIRE site and the documents to which it links.

UPDATE: Prof. Margaret Soltan (at George Washington University) blogged several weeks ago about the controversy (and also here); I haven't read all the details, but I thought I'd forward the link. Thanks to reader Cactus Jack for the pointer.

FURTHER UPDATE: I have more about the facts, and the problems with Brandeis' actions, here.

lowlylowlycook:
What so no one in the administration has read any Harry Potter or has kids that have read any Harry Potter?
1.23.2008 2:50pm
Houston Lawyer:
While I understand the term "wetbacks" is not to be used, I would think that only those to whom it refers to could be offended. It only implies that they swam across the Rio Grande (probably waded would be more accurate) to get here illegally. Also, I've never heard it used as a slur used against those of Mexican descent who either came here legally or predated the Anglos.
1.23.2008 3:04pm
Arkady:
Sounds like a use-mention error on the part of the administration. It seems to me that this sentence:

"Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as 'wetbacks'"

is logically equivalent to this sentence:

"The word 'wetback' is sometimes used to refer perjoratively to Mexican migrants in the United States."

Maybe the administrators ought to head over to the philosophy department for a tutorial on the distinction.
1.23.2008 3:07pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
Political Officers in the classroom. What more could we expect in this day and age?
1.23.2008 3:08pm
Freddy Hill:
I'm with lowlylowlycook. It seems that PCness is moving toward a religious belief in the awfulness of certain words that are treated as incantations rather than words. It is not the things they refer to that are evil, it is the words themselves, which can't even be said aloud in order to condemn them lest the very act of voicing them conjure unspeakeable evils from the bowels of the earth.
1.23.2008 3:08pm
mls:
How bizarre! I'm waaay far to the left of most readers of this blog, and as PC as they come -- and I used the word "wetback" in my Criminal Procedure class just the other day. I was describing an ineffective assistance of counsel case where the attorney had described his LEGAL resident alien client as a "wetback" in front of the jury. The court actually found ineffective counsel in that case -- I use it as an example of how bad the conduct has to be before a court will find counsel ineffective . . .

At Brandeis, I couldn't talk about this case?!
1.23.2008 3:20pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
I wager a hundred quatloos that whoever made the complaint didn't understand what "pejorative" meant.
1.23.2008 3:28pm
Cactus Jack:
Professor Soltan mentioned this story in a couple of posts late last year. Her posts include a few background links which readers may find useful.
1.23.2008 3:32pm
RL:
Reminds me of the D.C. administrator who got disciplined for using the word "niggardly."
1.23.2008 3:41pm
Hoosier:
Freddy Hill--Well put. This appears to be a metastasis of the "N-word" disease: A word is proclaimed to be so hurtful that any uttering or printing of it is sufficient to cause harm to the group it is meant to insult.

Arkady has suggested some basic philosophy-of-language training for the administration. I would add a lesson on Wittgensteinian language theory. Specifically, they might find interesting his conclusion that NO WORD has meaning outside of the context of its use. 4My Merriam-Webster's Dictionary prints the word "nigger," and now so do I in this post. The use of the word in both contexts, howeever, reveals its meaning *within those contextts,* namely, to discuss the word. Not to insult any person or group of people.

The Brandeis professor seems to have used "wetback" in a similar context: He was referring to the word, not to the people whom the word insults. (Wasn't "meta" the hot prefix of the early '00s?)

The difference between a meta-reference and a reference seems rather big in this case. Along the order of the difference between having a magazine article about Nicole Kidman and having Nicole Kidman.
1.23.2008 3:49pm
rarango (mail):
Perhaps the professor should have used the Spanish term "mojado." That is commonly used by Hispanics in my part of the country to refer to illegal (undocumented?) fellow Hispanics. This PC stuff is really getting wierd.
1.23.2008 3:53pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Reminds me of "Flower Drum Song"
1.23.2008 3:54pm
Ralph Phelan (mail):
Arkady has suggested some basic philosophy-of-language training for the administration. I would add a lesson on Wittgensteinian language theory.

I don't think the problem is not understanding the distinction. The problem is that the administration either (a) believes that anything that offends anyone is a crime or (b) is afraid of the bad publicity that would result in crossing those members of the academic community that believe that anything that offends anyone is a crime. Philosophy education will help with neither problem.
1.23.2008 3:55pm
Student:
Academic Freedom: a concept invented by academics for their own benefit that serves largely to insulate them from accountability for their laziness, inefficiency, and poor teaching. See also, tenure.
1.23.2008 4:00pm
Lively:
I like the monitor idea.

When my kid was in high school, her history teacher was a lunatic. I wanted her to tape her classes so I could hear what was going on. Teacher said no tape recorders.

I would have given up my time to transcribe her class and put it on the Internet. Parents would have been appalled at what is taught in some schools.
1.23.2008 4:16pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
Like MLS, I'm off way to the left of much of the VC readership, but something damn close to a 1st Amendment absolutist when dealing with adults talking to other adults, and this sequence of events strikes me as just plain nuts, and I'm not as sanguine as Doc Volokh seems to be about the "monitors", when the "monitoring" is so transparently punitive, and, it appears, to be punishment for acts which the Admin seemed curiously reluctant to specify.

I'm also wondering if the Brandeis library system has a copy of Randall Kennedy's book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word and, if so, whether any faculty member ever assigns it, or even refers to it, and how its existence is referenced by Brandeis library staff, without running afoul of the same administrators.
1.23.2008 4:18pm
alias:
Reminds me of the D.C. administrator who got disciplined for using the word "niggardly."

Did this really happen? A niggard is a stingy person...
1.23.2008 4:27pm
Yes, it happened:
And it's not the only case, either.

Wikipedia counts as evidence, right?
1.23.2008 4:41pm
MDJD2B (mail):
In this case the professor (according to the FIRE press release) used the word "wetback" to criticize its use. It's phenomenally idiotic that he was disciplined by a university (let alone one named for a person famous for his advocacy of free speech) for merely uttering it, if he did so under these circumstances.

I have two questions.

1. What does David Bernstein think of this. Isn't he an alumnus of the place?

2. Can Enclish departments teach the famous novel by Conrad set on the ship Narcissus?
1.23.2008 4:44pm
pete (mail) (www):

Did this really happen?


Unfortunately yes. here is a CNN story on it.

According to this story he did get his job back eventually.
1.23.2008 4:45pm
Ross Grimes:
Article from Brandeis Hoot

Surely that is a spoof paper of satire, like the onion? I mean, how could Brandeis even accept a student as (insensitive remark)stupid(/insensitive remark) as that. People need to stop believing that using the right words makes all the difference. Words may matter, but they matter far less than actions, context, and people. Stopping words like "wetback" does nothing to address the reasons for its use and existence. Bradeis, if this is true, is truly pathetic.
1.23.2008 4:50pm
pete (mail) (www):
My favorite part of the article Grimes linked to with "Jane" being the student who lodged the complaint:


Despite her complaints, Jane said she may take another course with Hindley, because "I won't have to do work."
1.23.2008 5:00pm
Mike Keenan:
This quote from Jonah Goldberg's new book seems appropriate here:

Many progressives seem to think we can transform America into a vast college campus where food, shelter, and recreation are all provided for us and the only crime is to be mean to somebody else, particularly a minority.
1.23.2008 5:28pm
Bender (mail):
As a Brandeis alum it saddens me to know that the campus has sprouted little Gauleiters like "Jane" and her enablers (Jess Simone) within the administration. The nasty little insect seems to have enough cunning -- based on the quotes in the Hoot article she clearly doesn't have much intelligence -- to realize that a lot of Brandeis students and alums would love to romp on her the way she and the administration have on Professor Hindley. The Hoot article suggests that this whole thing may have been concocted by this one student and a more than willing administration accomplice from -- where else -- Human Resources, the administrative dumping ground for the extremely mentally challenged. No more donations from this alum.
1.23.2008 5:40pm
wfjag:
You've got to wonder what the reaction would be if in an American Literature class the Professor assigned readings from Mark Twain's works Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer or Life Along the Mississippi and noted that therein, and in the 19th century, "African-Americans were referred to pejoratively as . . ."
1.23.2008 5:48pm
Yankev (mail):
Life imitates art.

In Blackboard Jungle, the principal rips into Glenn Ford for using a series of racial slurs in class -- except in the film, the student who made the anonymous complaint deliberately failed to mention that Ford used them as examples of names that ought not to be used. When Ford explained, the principal at least had the decency to apologize. Brandeis seems to believe that context is no defense.

Which recalls the stoning scene in Life of Brian. The judge reads the writ of execution against a man who was convicted of saying Jehovah. As the judge reads tht part of the writ, the crowd then starts throwing stones at the Judge -- for having said Jehovah.
1.23.2008 6:03pm
Ted, Brandeis '87 (www):
No more donations from this alum, either.
1.23.2008 6:06pm
yankev (mail):

You've got to wonder what the reaction would be if in an American Literature class the Professor assigned readings from Mark Twain's works Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer or Life Along the Mississippi and noted that therein, and in the 19th century, "African-Americans were referred to pejoratively as

A few years back, a group of parents protested over assigning Huck Finn, period.

Now, suppose the assignment was to read Dick Gregory's autobiography?
1.23.2008 6:13pm
Gringo (mail):
I am WASP, fluent in Spanish, who worked in Latin America. Between overseas postings I usually stayed at a rooming house on the East Side of Houston that had a lot of native Spanish speakers, many of them without the appropriate entry papers(a.k.a. wetback/mojado). Why spend $$ on a hotel? On several occasions some of the native Spanish-speaking roomers called me a "mojado."
I took it as a compliment to my fluency in Spanish. Perhaps the Brandeis administration could have found me an attorney to initiate a defamatory lawsuit against them for calling me "mojado."
1.23.2008 6:15pm
Tom Maguire (mail):
From the Brandeis Hoot account of the incident:

"The thing that pushed me over the edge was a story about a Brandeis student that he had who came from an elite Mexican family. He said, 'he came here and he paid his way.... but when he came back here, his back was still wet,'" said Jane. "That was the day I came to my professor and said, 'this is crazy.' These flippant remarks, he doesn't see that they affect other peopleā€”it's a joke, to him." Hindley was unable to be reached for comment.


That is not quite as presented by FIRE, but on the other hand, the Administration has been slow to provide specific examples of his inappropriate speech to the prof.
1.24.2008 12:35am
Pink Pig (mail):
Unbelieveably, my attempt to log in to this site has resulted in a display of my password. Not s big deal, by any means, bwcause I only use it for miscellaneeous purposes. Do you guys have any clue?

Anyyway, I've lost the thread of my thoughts. I'm sure that I had something to say that would have convinced every ccommenter on this site, not to mention the originators of this thread, of the perfect wisdom of my thought, but it will just have to pass for now.
1.24.2008 3:28am
one of many:
You've got to wonder what the reaction would be if in an American Literature class the Professor assigned readings from Mark Twain's works Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer or Life Along the Mississippi and noted that therein, and in the 19th century, "African-Americans were referred to pejoratively as . . ."

My reaction is pretty strongly offended, in the the 19th century the usage was not perjorative (for the most part) but a commonplace descriptive like African-American. There was no shortage of perjorative terms for vaious human subgroups in the 19th century including African-Americans, but the common N- words were not used insultingly, merely descriptely as the word b---k was formerly considered a non-perjporative term for African-Americans, indeed the word b---k is still used by the PC impaired African-Americans who inhabit Africa to refer to themselves.
1.24.2008 5:06am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Another unfortunate example of the power of feigned offense.
1.24.2008 7:40am
yankev (mail):

He said, 'he came here and he paid his way.... but when he came back here, his back was still wet,'" said Jane. "That was the day I came to my professor and said, 'this is crazy.'


In other words, she found it racist that the prof passed along someone's first hand account of having experienced racism.
1.24.2008 9:29am
wfjag:

My reaction is pretty strongly offended, in the the 19th century the usage was not perjorative (for the most part) but a commonplace descriptive like African-American.


One of many: Your knowledge of history appears lacking. In the 19th century US, the N-word (as it's now called) was definitely a perjorative, although its use was commonplace. The Draft Riots in New York City during the Civil War also show that the N-word was negatively emotion laden. "We're not going to fight Lincoln's [N-word] war" inspired lynchings, not endearment.

So, would your feeling offended stem from the fact that the statement would be an accurate statement of 19th century America (Twain writing accurately the language used at that time and accurately reflecting attitudes of the time) or, as a 21st century person, that someone today would accurately repeat certain facts of 19th century America?
1.24.2008 9:58am
Milhouse (www):
"Nigger" has certainly been a pejorative in the USA for at least the past century. But it has not been one in the rest of the English-speaking world until fairly recently. The original libretto of The Mikado used the word twice, but it was changed in the 1940s because it wasn't going down well with USA audiences. And Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers has never been published in the USA with that title - the first USA edition in 1940 was entitled And Then There Were None, with the text changed accordingly, and not even an acknowledgment on the fly page that it was ever published with a different title. (The first time I saw the USA edition I thought it was a book I hadn't read yet.)
1.24.2008 11:44am
David Chesler (mail) (www):
This past fall the Agatha Christie play was temporarily cancelled in an Ohio school because of the original title.

The N-word is also used early on in "The Grapes of Wrath". Some kid (IIRC a white kid) in my high school senior English class, 1979, shouted out "I'm offended!" at that and the teacher was ready to address it, but the kid said he was only joking and we went on. (That is, in the late 70s we knew the word was offensive, we could still say it in school in appropriate contexts, and students knew that feigned offendedness was already getting silly.)
1.24.2008 12:58pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
The story made page 2 of this morning's Boston Herald.
1.25.2008 3:09pm