Friday, December 01, 2006

I'll be posting more frequently on this blog. To start, here's my article from the Fall 2006 issue of Illinois Academe:

By John K. Wilson
“I hear some people say Zionism is racism, how do I respond to that?”

This question from a student in his Spring 2005 World Religions class, says Douglas Giles, ended up costing him his job as an instructor at Roosevelt University (a settlement this fall may return Giles to the classroom, but the details are confidential). The problem wasn’t anything Giles said about the state of Israel, but the fact that he allowed students to discuss the issue at all.

It may seem surprising that this dispute over whether instructors can discuss political issues and whether a department chair referred to Palestinians as “animals” is happening at Roosevelt University. Roosevelt, with 7,200 students at its downtown and Schaumberg campuses, was founded with a progressive vision 60 years ago, when Central YMCA College president Edward Sparling was fired for refusing the demands of trustees to impose a quota on minority admissions. He took nearly all of the faculty and students with him to form a new institution.

But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most controversial subject in colleges today, with several Chicago-area faculty claiming they were fired for expressing their views about it.

Giles says that in response to the Zionism question, “I explained the religious dimensions of the belief of many Jews that God has promised the land of Israel to them and will eventually lead them back to the land. I explained that both Jews and Muslims consider Jerusalem a holy city and thus religious belief is a huge factor in the current conflict over Israel. I also explained that the charge that Zionism is racism was anti-Israeli political speech and that there is nothing in Zionism itself that is racist. The class responded very positively and there was discussion about the beliefs about the land of both Jews and Muslims.” Jonathan Lowe, a student in the class, reports that Giles “was very careful to remain neutral and diffuse any hot comments.”

On the final exam, Giles included an optional question on the topic: “What was the history of Zionism and how does it affect the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?” One student who answered the question didn’t like the grade he received. A formal grade appeal went to Susan Weininger, the chair of Giles’ department.

On Sept. 21, 2005, Weininger rejected the complaint, writing to the student that Giles “persuaded me that his political opinions did not figure in his assessment of your work.” However, Weininger added, “I did have a discussion with Prof. Giles about the political content that was introduced into the course, and I believe that he is aware that it was inappropriate and will not be covering this material in the future.”

Weininger told Giles not to allow any discussions in his class critical of Judaism that might be “disrespectful to any Jews in the class.” According to Giles, Weininger said: “I hear you even allowed a Muslim to speak in class.” Giles says he responded, “Yes, of course, I allowed all students to speak, regardless of their religion!” And Weininger reportedly replied: “You shouldn’t! What disturbs me is that you act like the Palestinians have a side in this. They don’t have a side! They are ANIMALS! They strap bombs to their bodies and blow up women and children! They are NOT CIVILIZED!”

Roosevelt’s Associate Provost, Louise Love, defended Weininger in a statement by proclaiming that “it is within the University’s province to determine its curriculum.” (Weininger and Roosevelt University refused to respond to requests for information.) Love’s memo declared that Weininger’s demand for Giles to limit the content of the course “is not an issue of academic freedom but a pedagogical one.” But pedagogical issues are covered under academic freedom. Roosevelt’s Faculty Constitution explicitly protects “the right to discuss the member’s subject in the classroom with full freedom.”

In March, 2006, Roosevelt finally announced their explanation for why they had fired Giles. Love responded to the adjunct union’s grievance by acknowledging that the university had violated its own procedures. So Roosevelt University reinstated Giles and then immediately fired him again (or “permanently not re-hired” him, as Roosevelt prefers to call it).

Love made a new claim that Giles’ teaching in a Logic class was the cause for his dismissal: “the decision not to rehire was based, in large part, on Giles’ interpretation of a particular problem he submitted to his class. His interpretation of the problem was submitted for review to the full-time faculty who found his interpretation severely wanting and who, as a result, did not want him rehired.”
The controversy surrounds the logical fallacy in this statement: “Crime in the streets, especially crime committed by gangs of teens, is increasing at an alarming rate. Senator Ess shares your concern about this issue. Therefore, to reduce crime in the streets, vote for Ess.” A student complained about how Giles defined the fallacy.

But it is difficult to believe that a college would fire an instructor because of one student’s complaint about a single response to a logical fallacy without ever bothering to hear the instructor’s side of the story (Giles later denied that the student’s account was accurate, but Roosevelt never investigated the case). As the American Philosophical Association (APA) concluded in an investigation, “the case against Giles’ competence as a logic teacher is, at best, insubstantial. As philosophy teachers ourselves, we know that the labeling of fallacies in informal logic is notoriously imprecise.” The APA added, “the assessment of Giles’ logic teaching was anything but thorough or systematic.”

No one visited Giles’ classes, read his syllabus, or even looked at his student evaluations in the class. Dayna Lambert, a student in his Logic class, calls him a “fantastic Logic professor.”

Perhaps the most troubling fact is that no one discussed the logical dispute with Giles. Giles reports, “Weininger never discussed it with me, I never heard the issue was ever raised until March 14, four months after the termination and three months after we filed our grievance. I was never given an opportunity to speak to the faculty who allegedly spoke about the issue.”

If Roosevelt administrators are to be believed, Giles was fired for making a mistake on a philosophical question without ever having a chance to explain his side of the story. But this explanation is particularly difficult to believe because Warner had told Giles that he would be given two courses to teach in Spring 2006, and another professor was already scheduled to teach the Logic class at the downtown campus. That means Giles must have been fired from teaching a non-logic class (most likely World Religions) because of his response to one question about a logical fallacy. Even if Giles was deemed incompetent to teach logic, that would have nothing to do with his ability to teach World Religions.

But for Weininger (an art history professor), the logic dispute must have seemed like a convenient excuse to get rid of a politically troublesome instructor who had offended a student.

Unlike most adjuncts who are fired and can do nothing about ti, Giles has a union on his side and a grievance procedure where the reasons for his dismissal must be explained. The Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization is strongly defending Giles: “We continue to believe that the questioning of the instructor’s competence is a diversionary tactic to shift the argument away from the academic freedom violation. We believe the so-called evidence does not in fact indict the adjunct but rather shows that the university has no commitment to collegiality toward its adjunct instructors and it demonstrates a callous disregard for the evaluation of teaching.”

Giles rejected a settlement offer of $6,150, his pay for teaching two classes, and an arbitration hearing was scheduled for this fall. In November 2006, Giles and Roosevelt reached a settlement that created a new Academic Freedom committee, but it may not repair the chilling effect on faculty who fear offending students by allowing discussions on controversial issues.

As Giles noted, “I have been amazed and upset that so many people hear about this case and say ‘how typical’ and aren’t surprised that a university has acted this way. That is truly tragic.”

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