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Video of instructor at USC sets off controversy, but is context missing?

The Video and the Context
April 15, 2013

The video went viral on conservative websites late last week. The Fox headline: "USC Political Science Professor Darry Sragow Tells Students Republicans Are ‘Stupid and Racist.' " Various conservative websites reposted the video as evidence of "liberal bias" in the classroom, referring to the University of Southern California instructor as a "professor of political science." The site Angry White Dude used the headline: "Indoctrination 101: Meet USC Professor Darry Sragow." The story at Campus Reform was: "A professor at the University of Southern California (USC) appears to have used a fall semester 2012 political science class to deliver sustained and angered attacks on Republicans, who he characterized as old, white, racist, and 'losers.' " And the longer versions of the video posted to YouTube have headlines calling Sragow "Marxist professor" (he's actually a Democrat). Bill O'Reilly cited the video as evidence that the "far left" is now "running wild" in the United States.

The story spread this weekend to mainstream press, with Los Angeles television stations reporting that, in the words of KABC News, "University of Southern California professor of political science, Darry Sragow, was caught on camera delivering an anti-Republican rant during class by a student." The student paper, The Daily Trojan, reported on how students were reacting to the debate.

The video shows Sragow saying the things that the various groups accuse him of saying. He does call Republicans stupid and racist, suggests that they are catering to and controlled by old white men, accuses them of trying to discourage minority and college-age voters, mocks Mitt and Ann Romney, and more. It's all in there -- with language that clearly has some at USC uncomfortable.

But what the critics haven't mentioned is that Sragow isn't a Ph.D. academic devoted to a life of scholarship. He's a political partisan who happens to teach one course a year at USC through a program that recruits political partisans (Democrats and Republicans) so that some political science courses will be taught by practitioners, not academics.

First, here's the video:

As the controversy has grown, USC's provost, Elizabeth Garrett, issued a statement that spoke of a faculty member's right to say controversial things in class, and also of a faculty member's responsibilities.

"Regarding a video clip of excerpts from a part-time teacher’s lectures in a political science elective class, at USC we strive to hold ourselves to the highest standards of rigor and professionalism in our classes. There are established faculty processes to determine whether a course meets those shared standards. Our faculty endorse, through our Faculty Handbook, the principles that academic freedom in teaching is fundamental and that it carries with it duties correlative with rights: faculty members are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subjects, and they also have the responsibility to exercise critical self-discipline and judgment in transmitting knowledge," Garrett said. "The freedom to take unpopular positions and the freedom to express those positions publicly are at the foundation of what it means to be a faculty member of a university. One of the most important principles of an academic community has been that academic inquiry and discussion be free from censorship or undue outside control. Statements made by our faculty members are not endorsed by the university; indeed, we sometimes profoundly disagree with the statements. Nevertheless, we firmly protect their right to express those views."

Sragow was unavailable for comment. But someone familiar with his courses at USC said that he was actually doing what he was hired to do: teach a course in political science from the perspective of a political operative (which is Sragow's day job), not as a traditional professor. This source said that the language, jokes and barbs heard from Sragow -- while perhaps not the norm for career academics -- are arguably tame when it comes to the way political tacticians talk.

In fact, Sragow is teaching at USC through a program designed to bring people like him (both Democrats and Republicans) into the classroom. (The approach taken at USC reflects concerns of some political scientists nationally that their discipline has lost student and public interest for being too theoretical and disconnected from actual politics.)

Sragow is one of among 50 fellows of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC -- people who teach a course or two a year and who are generally employed full-time elsewhere as political professionals. In response to e-mails coming to USC and negative press coverage, Dan Schnur, the director of the institute, sent an e-mail to supporters explaining the program. "Our fellows provide a valuable resource for our students, not just by providing them insight into the world of practical politics, government and public service, but also giving them the opportunity to be exposed to a wide range of opinions and analysis from across the political spectrum," Schnur wrote.

Schnur noted that he is a Republican and a veteran of the 2000 presidential campaign of John McCain, and that he worked for five years as chief media spokesman for Pete Wilson when Wilson was the (Republican) governor of California. Through the program, Schnur said, he is currently team-teaching a course with Bill Simon (Republican nominee for California governor in 2002), and that current fellows include former Republican legislators in California, and "leading GOP strategists and consultants."

For some of the institute's programs, Schnur wrote, there is an effort to be bipartisan in a specific event. For example, panels are set up with Democratic and Republican speakers. And polls conducted by the institute are conducted through two polling companies, one Republican and one Democratic.

But while Schnur questioned some of the language used by Sragow, he said that students benefit from having instructors who express strong opinions, including courses like Sragow's with one instructor, and that students are intelligent enough to make their own judgments.

"We believe in the value of using lecturers with real-world political experience, all of whom are encouraged to state their affiliation and allegiances openly. I understand why you were offended by the excerpts of Darry's lecture that were posted online. His choice of words was deeply regrettable, as he himself has acknowledged," Schnur wrote.

He added: "I believe that whether our students end up supporting the views they hear from our guests or opposing them, or whether or not they choose to pursue a career in politics or public service, we do them a disservice by not exposing them to the realities of the political world. We also sell our very bright students short if we assume them to be easily influenced by a single lecturer's opinions, and we encourage all our students to challenge lecturers and ideas with which they disagree. That is an essential part of the classroom experience."

Emily Schrader, a recent Southern Cal graduate who was on the board of the USC College Republicans when she took Sragow's course, on Sunday shared with Inside Higher Ed a letter she wrote to the Daily Trojan that had not been published at the time. (A shorter version has since appeared there.) In the full letter, she said that conservatives shouldn't be bothered by professors expressing liberal views as long as conservatives are encouraged to speak out as well, and as long as nobody is punished for their views. And she said that wasn't a problem with Sragow.

"While I do not condone Mr. Sragow’s statements, and obviously his comments were over the top (and much more severe than when I was in his class), I think that conservative students need to stand up and engage in debate when their beliefs are challenged. Secretly recording videos to expose a professor, even though his statements were inappropriate, is doing nothing to help the conservative cause," Schrader wrote.

"While I think Professor Sragow might want to tone down his rhetoric, I think the responsibility lies with USC students to challenge Sragow's accusations. When I was in his class, he made similar remarks and I regularly challenged him to the point where people laughed at me because they expected me to respond and argue. Professor Sragow always welcomed debate and discussion and approached my comments with a dry sense of humor (that was indeed often partisan). Some students may not be comfortable in such a situation, but I think that students (especially conservative students) need to understand how important voicing their own views are in the classroom. I don't know what the university plans to do in response to this incident, but I will be very disappointed if Professor Sragow's free speech is inhibited in any capacity, and I absolutely do not think he should be reprimanded for someone else's decision to not speak up," she added.

Shrader closed her letter with a challenge for those who share her politics: "Conservatives, we are all about personal responsibility; it’s time for us to engage, not silence."

 

 

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