Saturday, October 11, 2003

My response to the Winston-Salem Journal's editorial supporting the firing of Elizabeth Ito (see the article below my letter)

To the editor:

Your editorial board (Oct. 10) should reconsider its defense of the firing of Elizabeth Ito by Forsyth Technical Community College. The dismissal of an instructor because of her political views is a serious abridgement of academic freedom. And despite all the claims to the contrary, I think everyone realizes that Ito would still be teaching at Forsyth Tech if she had not criticized the Bush Administration.

Every teacher at some point makes a comment “unrelated to her course,” whether it is the weather, a sporting event, or a current controversy, as Ito did. To encourage the selective firing of instructors on this principle sets a dangerous precedent.

Nor is it the case that Ito did not allow responses from her student, although she admits that her initial comments fell short of her pedagogical ideals. Ito made a minor mistake, but not one that caused any irreparable harm or could possibly justify her firing. The fact that she acknowledged her initial remarks were not handled well and then gave students an opportunity to write a response shows her skills as a teacher.

Your paper is wrong to claim that Forsyth Tech “is clearly within its rights not to renew Ito's contact.” No institution has the right to fire a teacher for her political speech. Blaming the victim for creating an “awkward situation” by objecting to her firing is absurd.

It is the administration of Forsyth Tech, not Elizabeth Ito, which has fallen short of the standards of competence and professional behavior by its failure to protect academic freedom.

John K. Wilson

Winston-Salem Journal (Winston Salem, NC)
October 10, 2003
SECTION: A; Editorial; Pg. 12
If the question is why Elizabeth Ito's teaching contract at Forsyth Technical Community College was not renewed, the answer depends on whom you ask.
Gary Green, the president of Forsyth Tech, says, "First and foremost, this is not about freedom of speech, academic freedom, politics or the (Iraq) war. This is about a lack of competence, professionalism and the ability to meet standards of professional behavior." This spring, Ito spoke against the war in Iraq in her class on technical writing. Two students walked out and complained to the chairman of Ito's department.
In May, Ito's contract was not renewed. Ito is appealing the case, which she thought had been resolved last spring.
Green said that Ito dismissed class early on occasion, came to class unprepared to teach, spent time talking about matters unrelated to her course and did not allow students to respond.
At a rally for Ito this week, some three dozen people gathered carrying signs that said, "Education is about exchange of all views," and, "Teachers don't teach in a vacuum." One student said that he is rethinking his enrollment at Forsyth Tech and said, "Education is a process of learning and freedom of expression and questioning the status quo."
Ito's supporters are right, generally, but the question is whether their general philosophy regarding education has been properly applied in this case. Green suggests that it has not.
While we may never know exactly what happened, the weight of the argument favors Green. First of all, Forsyth Tech is a practical school, where learning skills is more important than discussing philosophy.
That aside, however, if Ito did, as Green says, express her views on issues outside the purview of her course and did not allow discussion of those views, her teaching methods are suspect.
It would be one thing to come to a class in current events or modern history or even political science, announce opposition to the war and elicit a class discussion. Opposition to the war is hardly subversive or radical. But Ito's view on the war, essentially expressed in a vacuum, has nothing much to do with technical writing.
By taking up class time with her views on a subject unrelated to her course, especially since she did not, apparently, allow responses from her students, Ito shortchanged those students and failed a teaching obligation.
Finally, the school is clearly within its rights not to renew Ito's contract. Her appeal does nothing but create an awkward situation, even if she wins. This case is not the cut and dried affair that either side would like it to be. But the school has most of the cards in this game.

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