Prof Keeps Attitude Police on the Beat

D. J. Tice

D. J. Tice is an editorial page writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. This article is reprinted from the Pioneer Press.

It's been a busy year for the attitude police who seem to control American education these days.

In March, conservative firebrand David Horowitz kindled blazes coast to coast by trying to buy ad space in college newspapers for a combative essay opposing reparations for slavery. Student papers that ran the ad faced vandalism, rowdy protests and demands for resignations. Several apologized for publishing the unpopular views.

In May, a federal judge had to remind Woodbury High School officials that something called the First Amendment protects the expression of unapproved ideas. The school had banned a student from wearing a "Straight Pride" T-shirt that supposedly endangered the school's peaceful and tolerant atmosphere.

Now comes the case of Professor Jon Willand, who filed a federal lawsuit last week alleging leaders at North Hennepin Community College have violated his academic freedom and First Amendment rights.

Willand, who has taught history at North Hennepin since 1966, strikes one as a somewhat flamboyant and irreverent scholar. He has clashed with superiors on a number of issues over the years.

The lawsuit concerns conflicts in 1994 and 1996, when Willand was severely reprimanded for offending students and given orders to offend no more-orders that remain in force.

According to Willand's complaint and copies of letters from his superiors, the professor's intolerably offensive actions included these:

  • He hung on his office door a spoof recruitment poster showing Gen. George Armstrong Custer urging: "I Want You for the U.S. Calvary."
  • He said in class: 1) that Pocahontas sometimes cavorted naked on the streets of Jamestown; 2) that Stalin ordered more people murdered than Hitler did; 3) that "American Indians" is a better term than "Native Americans," and that Indians don't really have "nations," just "tribes"; 4) that the Nazis engaged in "human recycling" of their victims.

There was more, but it was all of this kind-statements that are either simply true or surely within the realm of reasoned debate. But student complaints inspired leaders at North Hennepin, in autumn 1996, to issue "directives" to Willand, including:

You will not make comments, nor will you use phraseology, which does not manifest a clear concern for student sensibilities and which may promote student misunderstandings or cause offense . . .

You will not make comments, nor will you use phraseology, which may be interpreted by a reasonable person as articulating or promoting racism, sexism, or any other ideology which incorporates stereotypical, prejudicial, or discriminatory overgeneralizations...

There was more graceful phraseology along the same lines. The letter warned Willand that "any failure to follow these directives will result in further disciplinary action, including dismissal . . ." But it assured him that, "The intent of these directives is not to curtail your academic freedom."

Heavens, no. Let freedom ring! Just be sure you calculate in advance what facts or phrases might be misunderstood or unappreciated by even one young fool who has learned to be "offended" three or four times before breakfast.

As for the interpretations of a "reasonable person," where is Professor Willand to find such a marvel?

One would happily believe that Willand's claims are fantasy-that these buffooneries simply cannot have occurred at a higher education institution supported with tax dollars and supposedly devoted to preparing young people for life in a free society. I invited a spokesperson for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system to deny Willand's story. The only response was an official statement saying MnSCU is committed both to academic freedom and a "respectful" environment.

"These people are so damned self-righteous," Willand says, referring to the letters his superiors sent, "they send you ink-signed confessions by certified mail."

"This is all silliness," he adds. "Until it's applied to you."

William Meehan, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Scholars, a group that defends academic freedom, says, a bit wearily: "As absurd as this [Willand's story] may sound, it is typical of the current climate on campus."

Willand's plight attracted the attention of the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington, D.C.-based libertarian public interest law firm that has won prominent cases defending academic freedom and religious expression on campuses around the country. A center spokesman says universities make "good defendants" for a group like his, because "they do outrageous things and then actually try to defend them."

Colleges and universities aren't supposed to be laughingstocks. They are supposed to be places where ideas are freely voiced and challenged-where one learns to find disagreement stimulating.

But today, self-styled free thinkers are in control of academe, and all true free thought on campus is the stuff of history-that is, the kind of stuff only a few eccentrics seem to know or care anything about.

Says Willand:

In a free country, you have a right to be offended any time and any place by anything. But you don't have a right to be taken seriously.

There's a lesson worth learning.


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