When the semester started, Stephen E. Williams was teaching history at the Lancaster branch of Harrisburg Area Community College. But early in the semester, he stopped showing up, and his students received calls confirming the reason why: He had used the word "fuck" in class.
Officially, administrators at the college will not say why Williams was suspended or why the institution recently reached an agreement under which the tenure-track (but non-tenured) professor ceased to be an employee. But students in his classes started getting calls from officials soon after he left, asking if they had heard him swear in class.
The problem for Williams may be that their answer was Yes, although students also reported great admiration for Williams, and a number have complained about his removal as their professor. (Williams is not the only college professor in trouble over language this week: The Morning News reported that the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville just removed a popular adjunct in music for cursing and talking about controversial topics.)
Donald Dodson Jr., who has taken several courses from Williams, called him "an excellent teacher," and said that the periodic profanity was part of his "blue collar approach" and a "conversational teaching style." Williams, Dodson said, uses this style to reach out to students. Dodson said that he's among the many students who take every course Williams offers -- even though he gives tough exams.
As for the swearing, Dodson said it is something that isn't constant and is never directed at an individual. "It's just part of his style," he said.
Dodson, who is 37 and is just back from military service in Iraq, said that it was relevant that Williams doesn't teach in a high school, but in a community college where students aren't young innocents. "I know what things are like out there," he said, and a little profanity is part of life. To those offended, he said his message would be: "Get used to it -- that's the way life is."
Michael Essig, an adjunct instructor in English at the college, also said that it was important to remember the context in which Williams taught. "We're not dealing with children here," he said.
"To me, this is about free speech and academic freedom," Essig said. Since Williams was removed, he said, other professors have "had to wonder, 'if it could happen to him, could it happen to me?' "
Patrick M. Early, executive director of public relations at the college, said he couldn't comment on Williams, except to say that he was no longer an employee and that there had been a "mutual resolution of the situation." Early also said that Williams had the opportunity for a hearing involving peers, but opted for a settlement. (Williams did not respond to a message, and told local reporters he had been advised by his lawyer not to comment.)
Speaking generally, Early said, "we feel that academic freedom is essential to a high quality environment, but the use of profanity when it is not directly connected to the subject matter is something that is not covered by academic freedom." Early said that the use of profanity would be O.K. in cases such as where the words are part of the lyrics of a song being studied.
Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, agreed that profanity should not generally be used in classroom instruction. But he said that some sense of perspective was needed when it is, and that a student complaint about profanity should be a time for a faculty member to be warned, not suspended. Bowen noted that Vice President Cheney had used the same profanity on the Senate floor and "he didn't get fired."
Dodson also raised the question about perspective. He noted that when he was serving in Iraq, he learned about the comments that Ward Churchill, the controversial University of Colorado professor, made about 9/11.
Said Dodson: "If Ward Churchill can say whatever the heck he wants, a professor should be able to use some profanity from time to time, especially if it helps him teach and get through to the students."