Freedom to Discuss Virginia Tech?

Emmanuel College dumps instructor -- setting off debate over academic freedom, due process and profanity.
April 24, 2007

Emmanuel College last week urged all professors to talk to students about the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech. One adjunct who did so for about 10 minutes -- but not in the way Emmanuel envisioned -- was promptly fired and barred from the campus.

Nicholas Winset and his supporters see his dismissal as a violation of academic freedom and an example of the way colleges may overreact to a nationally traumatic event. Winset also says that key details about his class discussion provide context that has been lacking in some initial reports on the incident. He has posted a detailed discussion of the class that got him fired on YouTube and he discussed the situation in detail in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Winset's course was in financial accounting and he brought up Virginia Tech Wednesday because the Boston-based college was urging instructors to discuss the situation to reassure students. Winset, who is in a transition from a business career to one in academe, said that he tells students on the first day of class that he's not the most formal of professors and may swear in class from time to time, and that if they aren't comfortable with that, other sections of the course may be better. On Wednesday, he said that he started class by saying that there would be an exercise related to Virginia Tech.

During a period of about 10 minutes of discussion about Virginia Tech, Winset said he picked up a marker and made a "bang bang bang" noise, and that a student made a "bang bang" noise back at him. During the discussion, Winset said he told students that "his heart goes out" to the victims' families, but that he didn't agree with the idea that this is a national crisis for students.

He said that students do not face a real danger of being killed by a mass murderer any more than they are in danger of being hit by lightning. He said his students were scared by the Virginia Tech killings, and that's because people who run places like Emmanuel and the national press like to focus on tragedies like the one last week, rather than talking about issues like rape or AIDS, which pose real dangers to many college students but don't tend to make CNN much. Further, he said that he suggested that press accounts of the victims have focused on those viewed as most photogenic and tragic (which he said has a strong correlation with being white in American society). He told his students, he said, that if all of the victims had been poor, minority individuals, press interest would have been lessened.

He critiqued the way some proponents of gun control have used Virginia Tech to argue their points. He said he called for students to have an "open mind" about gun control. "Do I really like the idea of every idiot in the country having a gun? No, but I'm not sure i like the idea of reasonable people not having them either," he said.

Per his pattern, Winset said that he probably called the killer in last week's shootings "an asshole" and he makes no apologies. "I think it's appropriate."

After the discussion, Winset returned to the regular material, and didn't see any signs that he had offended any of his students. On Friday, he received a dismissal notice by messenger, banning him from campus immediately. He said that Emmanuel had previously offered him two courses for the fall semester, but that he'll be an adjunct at another college, which he declined to name given the current controversy.

Winset said that the college never asked him what had happened in class, but that he suspects that the reports the college received about it came from a student who is failing. (A college spokeswoman said that Emmanuel tried to call him on Thursday and Winset, who was away from his home number on Thursday, said that when he arrived Friday, he had messages from late Thursday afternoon and his dismissal notice.)

So why did the college fire Winset? Emmanuel first released a statement saying that it responded to "an inappropriate incident" in which "an adjunct faculty member made statements regarding the shootings at Virginia Tech University which prompted students and parents to contact the administration with complaints."

The statement went on as follows: "Emmanuel College has clear standards of classroom and campus conduct, and does not in any way condone the use of discriminatory or obscene language by any member of the college community. Emmanuel College, like other colleges in the country, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of or mimics the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech. At Emmanuel College, the well-being of our student body is a primary concern, and the action taken, which was to dismiss the adjunct faculty member, reflects this belief."

A spokeswoman for Emmanuel, asked what specifically led to Winset's dismissal and whether he had any due process rights, said that the college would say nothing beyond the statement.

Then late Monday, Emmanuel issued a second statement, with more detail. This statement said that Winset "was dismissed because he was reported by several witnesses to have violated the standards of conduct and civility we require of all members of the college community. According to students in his class, Mr. Winset staged a dramatization during a financial accounting class, mimicking the shootings at Virginia Tech and disparaging the victims as rich white kids combined with an obscene epithet. He did not do this as part of an open debate with his students. His insensitivity toward the students who were murdered at Virginia Tech expressed during class time, but far afield from the subject matter of his course, and his use of obscene and discriminatory language which is not tolerated from students, faculty
or staff at this institution, led to his dismissal from his adjunct position."

The college also released a statement from Tom Wall, professor of philosophy and chair of the Faculty Senate, who said, "This is not an issue of academic freedom. In my 38 years at Emmanuel College there has never been a case in which academic freedom has been violated. In fact, Emmanuel has a broader sense of academic freedom than many institutions since we encourage the discussion of controversial issues in all of our disciplines -- as long as the discussion is carried out in a fair and civil manner. This was decidedly not the case in Mr. Winset's class. Creating fear and anger in his students with outrageous and disrespectful behavior and language is clearly about power. In no work place would such behavior be tolerated."

Reached Thursday night after Emmanuel released the second statement, Winset reiterated that his comparison of the media treatment of black and white victims of various tragedies is a legitimate point of social commentary, and that he did not believe his students "were frightened by a magic marker." He said that students are encouraged to argue with him about all issues he raises in class, and that some disagreed with his analysis of Virginia Tech.

Winset said he was stunned that the head of the Faculty Senate would back the administration without talking to him, and said he objected to the language in Wall's quote. While Winset said he does not believe he has or would scare a student, he said professors should anger students by raising tough ideas, and that Wall's reference to Emmanuel as a work place was telling. "They think it's a business and if you offend the clients, you've done something wrong," Winset said. "Well it's not just a work place. It's a university, and universities are different."

Several of Winset's students are angry -- not about his lecture, but about his removal. Peter Muto, a sophomore business management major, said he wasn't at all offended by the discussion, and wonders why more students weren't asked for their views on what happened that day. "I have numerous friends in the class, and none of them took offense to this, nor were any of them scared or freaked out," he said. Muto said Winset is his favorite professor in part because of his informal tone. He is bright, funny and talks with students "like a regular person," Muto said, unlike professors who "give boring lectures every class."

Muto said it was "outrageous" that Emmanuel fired Winset, and that students are being forced into another section just as the semester is drawing to a close.

Winset said he was bothered in numerous ways by Emmanuel's first statement. Among other things, he said, they have "banned joking," which isn't what he did in class that day, but which he doesn't think the college has any business banning. By raising the issue of discrimination, he said, the college is "using the standard PC thing -- if you are in doubt, call your opponent a bigot and see if it sticks."

And while Winset freely admits to swearing, he questions whether he is really the only one at the college who has ever used an "obscene" word, in whatever definition the college would use. "Sometimes I curse in my class. Sometimes my students curse in class. My students and I curse outside of class," he said. "When I curse in class, I slap myself and say 'bad teacher.' "

As for academic freedom for adjuncts, Winset said it is "abysmal" at Emmanuel if an adjunct can be fired without a hearing based on saying some unpopular things one day in class. "The whole point of tenure and free speech is to protect speech that is unpopular. If it is popular speech, you don't need to protect it."

Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom issues for the American Association of University Professors, said he had concerns about the Winset case. "At a minimum, the administration should have met with the instructor" prior to taking action, he said. It's a "terribly serious" matter to make a dismissal decision based on some student and parent complaints, without providing an opportunity to respond, Knight said.

As for what Winset did in class, Knight said that "the administration wants to have it both ways and it's unacceptable. They want to say 'we want you to discuss this matter, but to discuss it in a particular way.' "

There is a risk of colleges' taking offense at things professors say or do after a tragedy like the Virginia Tech killings, Knight said, and there is "a risk of overreaction." He said colleges can't expect everyone to agree on what an event means or how it should be discussed. "There is no playbook about how people should react and how they do react," Knight said. "How they do react cannot fit into any easy prescription of what is appropriate."


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