Bigoted Views vs. Bigoted Teaching

Indiana University condemns professor's racist and misogynistic tweets in strongest terms but won't fire him over views alone.

November 22, 2019
 
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Indiana University at Bloomington will not terminate Eric Rasmusen, professor of business economics and public policy, for the “stunningly ignorant” views he expressed on social media. So said Provost Lauren Robel this week amid calls that Rasmusen be fired.

Rasmusen “has, for many years, used his private social media accounts to disseminate his racist, sexist and homophobic views,” Robel wrote in a statement. “When I label his views in this way, let me note that the labels are not a close call, nor do his posts require careful parsing to reach these conclusions.”

‘Not a Close Call’

At the same time, “We cannot, nor would we, fire Professor Rasmusen for his posts as a private citizen, as vile and stupid as they are, because the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution forbids us to do so,” Robel said. That’s “not a close call,” either.

Still, Robel said that no student will have to take a course with Rasmusen, as it’s “reasonable” to worry that women and sexual and racial minorities would not get a “fair shake” in his classes. And so Rasmusen also will use double-blind grading on assignments going forward to “ensure that the grades are not subject to Professor Rasmusen’s prejudices.” When that is not possible, other instructors will grade the work.

Rasmusen, who has tenure, has been at Indiana since 1992.

The First Amendment “is strong medicine, and works both ways,” Robel said. “We are free to avoid [Rasmusen’s] classes, and demand that the university ensure that he does not, or has not, acted on those views in ways that violate either the federal and state civil rights laws or IU’s nondiscrimination policies.”

Robel also chided Rasmusen’s past defense of his views that his is a devout Christian, saying that “Christ was neither a bigot nor did he use slurs; indeed, he counseled avoiding judgments.” Rhetorically speaking, Robel said, Rasmusen “has demonstrated no difficulty in casting the first, or the lethal, stone.”

To some, Robel’s statement -- the sentiments of which are reflected in a parallel message from Rasmusen’s dean, Idie Kesner -- reads as a “mic drop.” That is, it condemns Rasmusen’s speech in the strongest terms, rather than merely distancing the university from it or otherwise equivocating. It also clearly asserts his right to speak about, but not act on, discriminatory beliefs.

Getting ‘Much Right,’ or Wrong?

Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that Indiana’s response to Rasmusen gets “much right.” It identifies the First Amendment limitations on the university's ability to discipline faculty members for extramural comments, he said, “distinguishing offensive speech from discriminatory conduct.” In also taking disciplinary action “off the table” in the absence of such conduct, Indiana can focus on “other, more effective methods of answering speech that members of the community find offensive.”

At the same time, many others continue to call on Indiana to terminate Rasmusen. It's inevitable that his views impact the classroom, even for those students who voluntarily take his courses, they say. Someone has graffitied walls on campus, "Fire Eric Rasmusen" and "No bigots allowed."

Kevin Gannon, professor of history and director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Grand View University, tweeted that Indiana had punted. Gannon told Inside Higher Ed that there’s a “distinction between free speech and the classroom.” Rasmusen has “made it clear he sees some groups of his students as inferior,” he said -- and the fact that the university is making alternative grading plans “is an admission they know this.”

One can’t really do the job of professor “effectively if there is legitimate reason for any of your students to think you hold them in contempt. It's a simple performance issue,” Gannon also said. He asked, for instance, how telling a woman during class to “get back in the kitchen,”  is “materially different" than what Rasmusen's done.

‘Pernicious and False Stereotypes’

Rasmusen has previously used Twitter to ask whether “Democratic women have sex with anyone,” to praise the late Jeffrey Epstein’s decision not to attend college with no mention of his sex offender status, and to like a post critical of trans people interacting with children.

Earlier this month, Rasmusen tweeted an article from The Unz Review: An Alternative Media Selection, called “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.” He also quoted the piece, saying, “Geniuses are overwhelmingly male because they combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness and moderately low Conscientiousness.”

Other posts have shared additional, “pernicious and false stereotypes,” Robel said -- including that women don’t belong in the workplace, that gay men don’t belong in academe where they interact with students and that black students are generally unqualified for attendance at highly selective institutions.

Via email, Rasmusen said that he was putting together a webpage about his “kerfuffle.” In the interim, he said that Indiana was condemning him as a “dissident professor” in order to show students “that they need not fear bias in grading.” Ultimately, however, he said, students “will know what to expect if they speak freely in the classes of the 99 percent of professors who are (a) leftwing and (b) exempt from blind grading.”

Indiana, therefore, isn’t “discouraging bias, but encouraging it, even requiring it, as a condition of teaching.” Rasmusen continued, “There are views you're not supposed to express, even outside of class, and God help the conservative student whose professor checks Facebook and Twitter before grading term papers. In the past I’ve had Christian and conservative students shyly approach me to say how happy they were to finally find a professor who was open in his beliefs. I hope to encourage them as much as I can.”

Influence of Bias

Asked specifically about how sharing the article on women “ruining” academe might affect his female students, Rasmusen said that his quote on genius was men and women in general and “entirely irrelevant to the question of the talent of male and female students in my classes." He added, "I'm not a genius myself, and I don't think I've ever had any geniuses in my classes,” anywhere. 

As for the acting on bias question, Rasmusen said he's never had a student complaint lodged against him that he knows of. That could not be immediately confirmed with the university, but it seems consistent with what the university has said it knows about Rasmusen's classes so far. Still, it plans to review his courses for evidence of bias.

Even while praising Indiana, Steinbaugh, of FIRE, said the dean’s statement goes too far in stating, more specifically, that it "will conduct a thorough review of the courses taught by this professor for the influence of bias."

While a university can certainly address discriminatory conduct, he said, “we should be wary of the threat to academic freedom presented when administrators announce reviews into course materials for the influence of bias.”

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