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'Handout Hysteria' or Insensitivity?

April 29, 2005

Jonathan Bean is a popular professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale -- even though his libertarian politics don't always coincide with his students' views. A historian, he was just named Teacher of the Year in the College of Liberal Arts.

But in the last two weeks, he has found himself under attack in his department -- with many of his history colleagues questioning his judgment for distributing an optional handout about the "Zebra Killings," a series of murders of white people in San Francisco in the 1970s. His dean also told his teaching assistants that they didn't need to finish up the semester working with him, and she called off discussion sections of his course for a week so TA's would not have to work while considering their options.

Students and professors at the university are trading harsh accusations about insensitivity and censorship, talking about possible lawsuits, and assessing the damage. Shirley Clay Scott, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, sent a memo to faculty members warning that they could "easily self-destruct if we do not exercise restraint and reason."

Support for Bean appears strong on the campus, at least outside of his department and his dean's office, and several national groups that defend professors who get in trouble for their views have offered to help him.

Bean, who calls the incident one of "handout hysteria," said in an interview Thursday that he hoped life could get back to normal. "I want this resolved in a civil manner," he said.

The controversy involves readings in Bean's survey course on 20th century American history. In teaching about race relations in the '60s and '70s, he assigns readings by and about such notables as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But this month, he also gave students some "optional readings," too. And Bean is enough of a realist to know that most students don't read optional handouts (at least not until they become Topic A on campus).

One of those readings was called "Remembering the Zebra Killings," and it was largely a review of a book published about a series of murders of white people by black militants in the early 1970s. The article describes how gruesome the killings were and suggests that they are little known today because of public discomfort in discussing black violence against white people.

The article was a condensed version of the original, which appeared on FrontPage Magazine, which is published online by David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture. The online version of the article contains a link to the European American Issues Forum, a group that has been criticized by many as being racist and anti-Semitic (articles on its home page talk of "Jewish influence" and bias against white people) and that has pledged to oppose parole for those involved in the Zebra Killings.

Critics of Bean have focused on the link. In a letter to The Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper at the university, six history faculty members expressed "disgust" with the distribution of the article, which they said was "distorted and inaccurate," and combines "falsehood and innuendo." They also said that the article was downloaded from a site with "links to racially charged and anti-Semitic Web sites." They also said that Bean abridged the article in a way that "disguised its full context." (In response to the last allegation, Beam provided Inside Higher Ed with a copy of the handout, which clearly identified the source as FrontPage Magazine.)

Bean said, on the advice of his wife, that he decided to "push for harmony." So although he didn't think there was anything wrong with students reading the article, he withdrew his recommendation that they read it and apologized to his history colleagues for any concerns he had raised -- as soon as he heard of complaints from his colleagues, and before the letter was published.

But things were escalating. Scott, the dean, told Bean's teaching assistants that they didn't need to finish up the course, Bean said. He said that this amounted to his being convicted of doing something inappropriate without due process. He also noted that the concerns about the link from the article were from the online version -- when he'd distributed a print version that couldn't link anywhere.

In response to a request for an interview, Dean Scott said that she could not comment on the case because of her need "to act with due diligence and to ensure due process for everyone involved." She referred to the message she sent to faculty members in which she called for greater civility and mutual respect.

She did not directly respond to charges that she had interfered with Bean's rights. The student paper had quoted her as telling Bean that he did not understand "the parameters of discussion." In her memo this week to professors, Dean Scott said: "I do not consider it my responsibility to conduct surveillance of faculty actions that are beyond the scope of the college mission -- and I will not do that."

The Daily Egyptian has come out strongly behind Bean. An editorial this week said: "Professors must be free to choose controversial material if doing so will further intellectual inquiry. The manner in which the material is presented, the discussion it generates and the conclusions drawn from it -- in other words, the intellectual context -- must provide the standards by which such material is judged."

The editorial said that another professor at the university has reconsidered distributing material because he feared a backlash against it.

And the student journalists also criticized the idea that students can't judge ideas for themselves.

"Another troubling aspect is the insistence by some that the students who were presented with the article were not yet capable of critical thinking and were therefore susceptible to corruption," the editorial said. "This paternalistic attitude flies in the face of all freedom. It is not the university's mission to shield soft young minds from offensive ideas, and the ability to think critically cannot be developed when people are denied the opportunity to think in the first place."

Bean said that he felt gratified by the student support. But he said he remained amazed that his faculty colleagues had turned against him and his dean had punished him -- for an article that was never even required and that he withdrew as even an optional assignment.

"It was a handout," he said. "This is a 100-level course so we're trying different things to get students interested in events that they've never heard of." He said that his study of history has always left him amazed at events of cruelty in American history and that when he teaches about the lynching of black people, he doesn't hide the extent of the terror and horror. "I don't whitewash history," he said.

"The chilling thing here is that people are saying what is allowed and what is not allowed."

 

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