What the Professor Said

Emergence of alternative view of alleged anti-Hmong statements raises issues about academic freedom and tolerance.
March 7, 2007

As soon as they started to appear, the quotes seemed remarkably offensive: “Hmong women are better off now that Hmong men are dying off in this country” or “all Hmong men purchase their wives, so if he wants to have sex with his wife and she doesn’t consent, you and I call it rape, but the Hmong guy is thinking, ‘man, I paid too much for her.' " The remarks were attributed to Leonard V. Kaplan, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

But a few weeks after the class in which he was alleged to have said those things, and after students at the law school exploded in anger as the comments were circulated by e-mail, a new view is starting to emerge.

On Monday, Kaplan sent his dean a detailed letter on his version of what happened in class that day. In it, he explains what he remembers saying about the Hmong, why he did so, and also what he didn't say. Generally, Kaplan denies saying some of the things attributed to him, and explains a context for what he did say -- a context that leaves a completely different impression from the quotes that were in circulation for a week, as the dean issued an apology for the hurt the incident had caused, the law school held various forums for students to express their anger, and the Wisconsin press (and this Web site) covered the dispute.

The facts of what actually happened in class that day remain in dispute -- the students who circulated the original report on the comments aren't talking except to tell local reporters that they aren't happy with Kaplan's response. A university spokesman said Tuesday that discussions with students in the class have indicated "contradictory" views of what was said and that there is no known tape of the session. The spokesman said that the university is discussing the situation and that Kaplan is teaching his courses. Professors who know Kaplan and some of his former students have characterized his version of the class as far more credible than the students' complaint, and some students who were in the class have said that the alleged anti-Hmong comments weren't made in the way that was originally reported or in a manner that was bigoted.

As the picture has started to change, some are questioning whether the incident raises issues about academic freedom, tolerance and the challenges of speaking about race and ethnicity in the classroom.

Kaplan's letter -- while firm in denying that he said the hateful things attributed to him -- is also notably restrained and reflective for a man who has been pilloried for a week. A lawyer who also has a Ph.D. in psychology, Kaplan has focused on both law and mental health, and his reply begins by talking about all he has learned in the last week or so about Hmong culture and the challenges the Hmong have encountered. The letter closes with the statement: "I have come to a new awareness of how the statements I did make could be misunderstood and of the pain that this experience has caused. I acknowledge that pain and regret the part that my own limitations played in contributing to it."

In the body of his letter, however, Kaplan says that the class he was teaching -- part of a course on the legal process -- focused on the difficulties facing displaced ethnic groups in the liberal state. He discussed Muslims in Amsterdam, Pakistanis in London, and Algerians in Paris, among others. Then, he writes, "to bring the discussion closer to home," he discussed the Hmong resettlement in the United States.

Kaplan then proceeds to explain how things attributed to him may relate to what he says he actually said. For example, the students' e-mail says that he said "Hmong men have no skills other than killing." Kaplan writes that he did not say that at all, but that he did comment that many first generation Hmong immigrants died prematurely and that one possible explanation was that they "suffered from a loss of meaning as a result of their changed status in the United States."

On the comment about Hmong men and rape, Kaplan writes as follows: "I did in fact refer to instances in the United States where a Hmong man arranged a marriage with the father of a young Hmong woman, without her knowledge or consent, by paying a 'bride price.' Actual cases arose out of such arrangements in which the Hmong man was charged with rape for engaging in marital relations. In an effort to highlight the imperfections of legal formalism, and not to denigrate any cultural practice, I made an ironic comment that those who pay a price for a bride and are charged with rape may believe that they have paid too much."

The letter notes that while Kaplan has been accused of saying that second generation Hmong immigrants are involved in gangs and crime, he remembers saying that the Hmong and many other second generation immigrants (of all ethnicities) see such increases.

In his letter, Kaplan stresses that he is not trying to hide behind academic freedom. "Had I made the hateful comments wrongly attributed to me, I would repudiate them without hesitation. I did not make them," he writes.

As the controversy has continued to play out, some have raised concerns about academic freedom. A group of faculty members called the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights issued a statement (before Kaplan issued his letter): "There is a fundamental distinction between causing offense gratuitously and invidiously, and causing offense as the by-product of the fair-minded pursuit of truth or constructive criticism. A university of the caliber of UW-Madison, with its long history and tradition of protecting academic freedom in the 'fearless sifting and winnowing of ideas' for the pursuit of truth, must take this distinction seriously, lest it surrenders its intellectual integrity."

The statement continued: "We fear, however, that the crucial distinction between gratuitous offense and provocative argument has been lost in the public furor over the Kaplan case. We are dismayed at the law school’s public response to this dispute, as it has addressed only the school's commitment to sensitivity and diversity, while saying nothing about that institution's fiduciary obligation to train minds to grapple with various sides of controversial and difficult issues. Without serious consideration of the importance and meaning of academic freedom on campus among the members of the university community, how can freedom prevail in the face of pressures from both left and right to make universities conform to one or another model of political correctness? We urge that the principles of academic freedom and fairness be a serious part of our community's response to the allegations that have been made concerning Professor Kaplan."

Jonathan Knight, who directs the program in academic freedom and tenure for the American Association of University Professors, said that disputes like the one at Wisconsin do have the potential to raise issues of academic freedom -- especially if there is a rush to judgment. "Plainly administrators should take seriously what students complain about, and see if there is merit about it," he said. But "restraint in public statements" is ideal, even given the pressure to speak out against statements viewed as racist or sexist, he said.

Certain kinds of statements "trigger fast reactions," Knight said. "There have been occasions when the reactions were well founded," he said. "But there have been others that were not well founded or were somehow in between, so a dose of prudence and caution is always useful."

Knight said he was not bothered by administrators acknowledging the pain felt by those offended by something alleged to have been said -- the pain being real even if the person never said the words in question. But Knight said he worried about holding forums for people to express their pain when the facts were still being gathered, as happened at Wisconsin. "That can create its own dynamics, which is a problem," he said. "In creating a forum, inevitably that will suggest that there is a real problem. The forum is not being held to discuss a perception, but what seems to be a reality i.e. that someone has said something that is racist or sexist or vilely offensive."

He added that while it is "laudable for administrators to pay heed to community sentiments, that can come at a quick and high cost to the sense of freedom necessary for faculty to teach controversial and sensitive subjects."

Other experts said that they hoped the dispute would not discourage discussion of race, but might lead professors to talk at the beginning of a course about what to do if something offends -- encouraging discussion before incidents escalate. "All of us have misinformation about people different from ourselves. That's just inevitable because most people grow up in homogeneous communities, so it shouldn't surprise any of us when someone says something that we may think reflects stereotypes," said Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College and author of the forthcoming Can We Talk About Race?

Tatum said that as a professor, she taught courses for years on the psychology of racism and that she wanted frank discussion from students. She would begin the course by saying "we are all here trying to learn and none of us is perfect," and talking about the importance of honesty in discussions. The idea, Tatum said, was to create an environment in which she and her students could say what they believed, and challenge one another's views in the classroom. "I'm not trying to give people permission to be intentionally insensitive, but you need to acknowledge that we are all works in progress," she said.

While Tatum said she didn't know the details of the Wisconsin situation, she said she wasn't surprised. "My best guess is that certainly many faculty members do not set that kind of context at the beginning of the semester and then they end up talking about something that is politically or emotionally volatile and you find yourself wishing you had said that at the beginning," she said. In such a scenario where a professor has talked about the possibility for offense, the offended students might have asked about their concerns immediately, and might have been reassured.

Talking about the way we talk about controversy, Tatum said, also helps create another condition for frank discussion: "We need to have generosity of spirit when we encounter something that offends us because we could be the next ones to say something."


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