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Tattered Poster Child

March 15, 2005

Her name is still secret, but University of Northern Colorado officials agree that a student there filed a complaint two years ago complaining of political bias by a criminal justice professor.

The complaint is the basis for many speeches by David Horowitz in his campaign against what he calls political bias in college classrooms. As Horowitz has told the story many times, the student was asked on a test to "explain why George Bush is a war criminal," and when she submitted an essay on why Saddam Hussein was a war criminal, she received an F.

Over the last week, a number of bloggers have questioned whether the student really exists. But just because that question has now been answered in the affirmative does not mean the controversy is going to fade.

Because while a Northern Colorado spokeswoman acknowledged Monday that a complaint had been filed, she also said that the test question was not the one described by Horowitz, the grade was not an F, and therewere clearly non-political reasons for whatever grade was given. And the professor who has been held up as an example of out-of-control liberal academics? In an interview last night, he said that he's a registered Republican.

In addition, the university was able to directly refute other statements made by Horowitz supporters. For instance, Students for Academic Freedom, a group that backs Horowitz, on Monday posted an articleon its Web site (which was then widely posted by conservatives on other Web sites) with the headline "University of Northern Colorado Story Confirmed." The article, among other things, said that the professor in the course had been unable to produce any copies of the test questions. But the university has had the test the entire time -- and the question isn't the way it has been described by Horowitz.

Here is the question, as provided by Gloria Reynolds, a university spokeswoman:

The American government campaign to attack Iraq was in part based on the assumptions that the Iraqi government has "Weapons of Mass Destruction." This was never proven prior to the U.S. police action/war and even President Bush, after the capture of Baghdad, stated, "we may never find such weapons." Cohen's research on deviance discussed this process of how the media and various moral entrepreneurs and government enforcers can conspire to create a panic. How does Cohen define this process? Explain it in-depth. Where does the social meaning of deviance come from? Argue that the attack on Iraq was deviance based on negotiable statuses. Make the argument that the military action of the U.S. attacking Iraq was criminal?

Reynolds added that the student did not receive an F, and that although the instructions on the test said that answers were supposed to be at least three pages long, the student submitted only two pages on this question. In addition, Reynolds said that the student never had to answer this question. The test, she said, had four questions: two required questions and two others (including the disputed one) from which a student needed to select one.

Federal privacy laws barred Reynolds from releasing more information, she said. But she said that the information she did provide came from a file compiled by university officials after the student complained. And Reynolds said that everything in the file was inconsistent with the story Horowitz has told about this incident.

"The claim that Horowitz makes is incorrect," she said. "That didn't happen."

Additional context comes from Robert Dunkley, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northern Colorado who was identified by Horowitz as the professor involved. In an interview, Dunkley said that politics had nothing to do with the student's grade, and that the context of his course has been distorted.

For instance, Dunkley said that the course focused on the relationship between deviance and being classified as a criminal. "We talked in class about how George Washington was considered a war criminal to the British," he said. "We were going into the idea that different people define criminal behavior differently."

And in case there's any confusion, Dunkley wants it known that he does not think the father of our country was a war criminal. "I'm an American citizen and I thank God for George Washington. Without George, we wouldn't be here."

Dunkley said that he's angry about the way Horowitz and his supporters have made him an example of alleged liberal bias in academe. Dunkley said that he comes from a Republican family, is a registered Republican and considers himself politically independent, taking pride in never having voted a straight party ticket.

He said that he would have explained himself or his course to Horowitz or his backers, but was never asked. "He's cooked this whole thing up," Dunkley said.

Horowitz provided Dunkley's name to Inside Higher Ed Monday, based on a request that he provide more information about the Northern Colorado incident. At the same time, Horowitz offered up two supporters of his efforts in Colorado as people who could verify the complaining student's story.

Erin Bergstrom, one of the volunteers, was the person with Students for Academic Freedom who first interviewed the Northern Colorado student. Bergstrom said Monday that the student needed to remain anonymous because "she's been very intimidated by the whole process."

Bergstrom said that she believed that the student had copies of letters from university officials that backed her claims, but Bergstrom acknowledged that she had never seen the test that set off the complaint or other key documents. She said that because students "don't walk into a classroom expecting problems," they can't be expected to have proof when things go wrong.

"They don't tape every course. They don't keep every paper," Bergstrom said.

Ryan Call, regional coordinator in Colorado for Students for Academic Freedom, said he had spoken with the Northern Colorado student as recently as Monday, and that she stood by her story, on which he said she has been consistent ever since reporting her concerns to his group.

"She seems very credible. She's not a loon," Call said, adding that the student told him "that she loves the university" and made her situation known "out of a sincere desire to help future students not have to go through what she went through."

When told about what Northern Colorado officials had said about the test and the student, Call said it was "a little bit troubling."

"We can't independently verify everything that every student brings to us," he said. "We know that there are some students out there who might use a bit of hyperbole about their claims."

 

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