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The Shirley Sherrods of Academe?

April 29, 2011

Videos posted by the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart appear to have ended the teaching career of an adjunct at the University of Missouri -- even as university officials issued a statement backing the contention of the two instructors of the labor studies course that their comments in the class had been edited to present an "inaccurate and distorted" picture of what was said.

Breitbart posted the videos (here and here) on his Big Government blog and, based on the recordings, called the course "advanced thuggery." In the video, the two instructors can be heard making numerous seemingly positive statements about the use of violence or threatened violence in labor-management relations. The course is taught by one instructor at the university's Kansas City campus, Judy Ancel, and another at the St. Louis campus, Don Giljum. With a video link, the professors and students at the two campuses interact in class -- and the recordings have been available to students through the learning management system used in the course. The videos posted by Breitbart are clearly from different class sessions, as the professors appear in different clothing.

In interviews Thursday, both Ancel and Giljum said that their statements in the videos were a mixture of different teaching techniques, including describing how labor leaders felt during certain periods of time, directly quoting specific individuals (whose views they did not necessarily share), and intentionally taking an extreme position to prompt class discussion.

They said that the full recordings would make this clear, and that they would like the complete class sessions released. The problem, they said, was that the recordings show identifiable students as well as the instructors (which is the case in the excerpts posted by Breitbart, too), so the university can't just post the recordings without violating student privacy rights.

Late Thursday afternoon, Gail Hackett, provost of the Kansas City campus, issued a statement that backed the instructors' description of the class, based on administrators' review so far of the 18 hours of available video (of which Breitbart's two excerpts are together under 15 minutes). "From the review completed to date, it is clear that edited videos posted on the Internet depict statements from the instructors in an inaccurate and distorted manner by taking their statements out of context and reordering the sequence in which those statements were actually made so as to change their meaning," Hackett said. "Such selective editing is disturbing and the release of students’ images without their permission is a violation of their privacy rights." (University officials assume that a student either gave Breitbart a copy of the video of the class or provided access.)

Hackett's statement went on to "underscore our commitment to the importance of academic freedom, freedom of speech and the free-flowing discussion of challenging topics in our courses," as well as "the serious responsibilities this places on us to ensure a balanced perspective is offered to our students within our curriculum."

And Hackett said that "[i]n this particular case, we also affirm our belief that studying labor unions, their history, and their role in society is an important subject given the role they have played and continue to play in the United States and the world. As a result, we continue to review the appropriate place for such an offering within our curriculum."

Breitbart did not respond to a request from Inside Higher Ed for a response to the allegation that the videos he posted are distorted.

This is not the first time that he has been accused of selective editing. It was Breitbart who posted the excerpt of a talk by Shirley Sherrod, then an Agriculture Department official, purporting to show her expressing anti-white racial attitudes, setting off a furor that led to her resignation. The subsequently released video of her complete talk showed how she was referencing long-ago attitudes and in fact gave a moving call for racial reconciliation.

Breitbart may be on the lookout for other academics. Appearing on Sean Hannity's show on Fox last week, he said that "we're going to take on education next, and go after the teachers and union organizers."

The American Association of University Professors released a statement late Thursday denouncing Breitbart's tactics, and contrasting the alleged calls to violence in the videos with the damage that the association said is really taking place. "The violence that is being done ... is to the academic freedom and employment security of the instructors, and to the privacy and safe classroom environment of the students, some of whom speak on the video clip," said the AAUP statement. "When students voice their views in class, they should not have to fear that their comments will be spread all over the Internet. When faculty members rightly explore difficult topics in class, they should not have to fear for their jobs or their lives."

While the university's statement endorsed academic freedom, it also noted that during "the course of our review the past couple days, UMSL has accepted the resignation of its lecturer." The St. Louis campus declined to elaborate on that resignation, but Giljum said that he was told by a dean that she needed him to resign, and had been told by her higher-ups to get his resignation.

Noting that he is an adjunct, Giljum said that "they could care less about me. I am an at-will employee, and they are focused on preserving funding for the university."

He said that the university sent a message by asking him to resign in the wake of the videos. "Teachers here are no longer going to be able to express comments, theories or counter-positions or make statements to force students to push back and critically challenge the comments and statements of the teacher," he said.

Teaching in such an environment, he said, "I would be guarded about what I would say, and students would be guarded as well."

Ancel, the other instructor, said in an interview that she works on annual contracts and that the university has not taken any action against her. She also released a statement in which she explained the context behind some of the quotes shown in the video.

For example, she noted that one of her quotes in the Breitbart video is: "violence is a tactic and it's to be used when it's the appropriate tactic." Here is what she said really happened: "After students had watched a film on the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King, they were discussing nonviolence. I said, 'One guy in the film ... said 'violence is a tactic, and it’s to be used when it’s the appropriate tactic.' " In this instance, she said, "Breitbart’s editing has literally put words in my mouth that were not mine, and they never were mine."

Both Ancel and Giljum said that a course about the history of the labor movement would of necessity discuss violence. Ancel said in her statement: "Any examination of labor’s past would be incomplete without discussion of violence (which for the most part was directed at workers), and analysis of its roots. At no time did my co-instructor, Don Giljum, nor I advocate violence."

While Ancel's statement said that complete review of the tapes would vindicate both instructors, she added that the videos had caused real pain, "ugly" threats and the loss of Giljum's job. "These videos are no idle prank. They do real harm," she said.

She also stressed that the invasion of privacy extended to her students -- some of whom want to learn about labor without telling their bosses, and who are visible in the videos. "These videos are an attack on higher education and its mission to working adults, putting labor education programs at risk. They create fear and have an enormously chilling effect on freedom of thought and expression," her statement said. "Sadly, they have already shattered the very positive atmosphere of trust and openness that we worked so hard to create in this class. One of my students told me, with some discomfort, 'My boss watches Fox News.' "

 

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