Thursday, April 3, 2003

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Should Nicholas De Genova be fired?

The Columbia Daily Spectator reports on mounting alumni pressure to fire Nicholas De Genova for the statements he made in last week's anti-war teach-in. Congressmen are also jumping on the dogpile.

Glenn Reynolds, as well as Columbia's Filibuster blog, argue that De Genova's comment at the antiwar rally, although certainly repugnant, are protected under academic free speech. I wholeheartedly agree. The congressional activity is particularly repugnant -- the last thing anyone should want is organs of the state requesting universities to fire particular individuals. And bravo to Jim Kolbe (R--Ariz) and his press spokeswoman for stating the obvious: "it is not appropriate for him [Kolbe] in his role as a member of Congress to tell Columbia University how to discipline their employees."

However, there is one facet of De Genova's behavior that might -- might -- warrant a dismissal. It comes from yesterday's New York Times story about a Columbia student who plans to join the Marines after graduation:

A few days ago her Latino History teacher, Mr. De Genova, notified his students by e-mail that he would not be holding office hours on the usual day because he would be attending an antiwar function. 'I totally respect academic freedom,' she said. 'However, there needs to be a distance.'

Then, she said, the assistant professor set aside the coursework for a day and invited students to share their feelings about the war. 'I was one of about two students who said anything that was not antiwar,' she said. 'I said I was hoping to go into the Marine Corps as an officer, that I have friends over there, and that my main focus now was to support the troops.'

'I felt so uncomfortable,' she added."

Then there's this from the Columbia Daily Spectator's story:

Rebekah Pazmiño, CC '05, is enrolled in De Genova's undergraduate class and is also an officer-in-training in the Marines. Pazmiño used De Genova's unmoderated classroom to respond to the three graduate students' suggestion that they were being silenced.

'If you guys feel so silenced, what about those of us who are going into the military?' Pazmiño asked. 'When remarks like that are made, those of us who are on the other side also feel threatened.' 'Having to hear that, and having to be in this class, just really sucks,' she said.

Any teacher worth their salt knows that students must be constantly reassured that disagreement with the powers that be -- i.e., the person in charge of grading -- will not affect their class performance. If academics publicize their position on an issue of the day, and then signal to the students taking their class that this can be the only correct position, the professor has crossed the line from the free expression of personal views to the subtle intimidation of alternative points of view.

Did De Genova cross this line? The Times and Daily Spectator stories hint at this, but don't provide enough information. De Genova's lack of subtlety makes this a distinct possibility, however. If students felt that their position on the war would affect their grade, then De Genova should be fired. [But what about the protest in support of De Genova by his students?--ed. Those were his graduate students -- I'm more concerned about the undergraduates, who are more likely to feel intimidated. Based on this poll, it's highly likely that more than two students in the class held pro-war views. But only the students in the class can say for sure one way or the other.]

UPDATE: This Filibuster post provides additional information suggesting that DeGenova did not cross the line. Pazmiño went on Hannity & Colmes this evening. According to the Filibuster, "De Genova discussed the war one class period and she spoke up and expressed her views. She added... that de Genova was actually pretty respectful of her pro-war stance." If this is the case, then no student coercion took place, the question comes back to academic free speech, and De Genova should not be fired.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Tim Wagliore argues that my rationale is way too broad. His points are solid, though he's exaggerated my position a bit. Obviously, I'm not suggesting that a professor should be fired for cancelling office hours. Nor am I suggesting this rationale as a "pretext" for firing someone whose politics I find repellent. Also, I should have said that there exist measures short of termination that would probably be appropriate for this situation. Only if a professor repeatedly and persistently did what I described above would termination be the appropriate measure.

posted by Dan on 04.03.03 at 04:56 PM