For the first time since graduate students staged a sit-in during a class they said exemplified what’s wrong with race relations at the University of California at Los Angeles, the course met again late last week. But in an apparent attempt at compromise between the aggrieved students and the instructor, its configuration was changed – raising concerns among faculty advocates and those students alike.
Students previously had met as a group with Val Rust, professor emeritus of education, leading the dissertation course in the Division of Social Sciences and Comparative Education. On Thursday, following a last-minute announcement, three additional professors with varying scholarly backgrounds, including race and ethnic studies in education, joined Rust on a “panel” of professors to oversee the remainder of the course. Students will attend individually at scheduled times with select, assigned classmates to defend their dissertation proposals.
The announcement followed a flurry of proposed configurations from department faculty, including for students to attend individually with Rust as a sole professor and for the students to meet as a group with Rust and the three other professors sharing grading duties, outlined in emails obtained by Inside Higher Ed. In the final email, sent by Rust, he describes the new configuration as a "rare opportunity" for students to get feedback from multiple professors, and says he will serve as the chair.
Last month, Call 2 Action: Graduate Students of Color staged what it called a “teach-in” following the dissertation proposal presentation of one of its members in the course. The students read a letter of complaints they had against “the professor,” – they didn’t name Rust – including that he had created a hostile learning environment for minority students by shaking a student’s arm during a heated conversation and correcting grammatical errors they said undermined their scholarly advocacy.
For example, said Kenjus Watson, a Ph.D. candidate in education specializing in a race and ethnic studies, Rust insisted that another student’s references to “indigenous” be lower-case. To do so disregarded the student’s “scholarly advocacy,” he said. Rust also began a class with a lesson on agreement in capitalizing racial terms, although some students in the course had cited scholarly precedents for capitalizing “Black” but not “white,” given the different histories of such groups in American education.
The graduate students cited as a catalyst to their protest a recent independent report on treatment of minority faculty experiences at the university, detailing “widespread” concern among minority professors over a deteriorating racial climate, and a viral video produced by black undergraduate males about their scarcity on campus.
In a forwarded email to department colleagues, Rust also said the students had objected to his practice of “being rather thorough in the papers (dissertation proposals) the students were submitting to me and they said the grammar and spelling corrections I was making on their papers represented a form of ‘microaggression.’ I have attempted to be rather thorough on the papers and am particularly concerned that they do a good job with their bibliographies and citations, and these students apparently don't feel that is appropriate.’”
Among other details of Rust’s account, Watson objected to the notion that grammar and spelling incidents had triggered the protest. Their concerns were ideological, he said, noting that Rust had in fact made few corrections and praised their work in written comments.
For those reasons and others outlined the Students of Colors’ letter, Watson said that he and his fellow protesters had requested in a meeting with the education department chair that Rust be replaced by a professor more capable of leading discussions around race and ethnicity. Must of their work relates to that subject, he said, while Rust specializes in comparative education.
Rust declined to comment on the new course format.
Douglas Kellner, the head of the academic division who sent some of the emails outlining the proposed course configurations, and who is serving on the new panel with Rust, did not return requests for comment. Louis Gomez, chair of the school’s Education Department, also did not respond.
In an emailed statement, Ricardo Vazquez, a university spokesman, said that Rust, “in consultation" with Kellner and others, including the dean of the school, “has agreed to chair the mock oral examinations for students in the [course.] They also came to a clear consensus that, in addition to Professor Rust, three distinguished faculty from [the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies] will also participate as active members in the mock oral examinations. This will provide students an opportunity for an enhanced educational experience as they complete their course.”
Watson said he and other students of colors had expressed a preference to division leaders that Rust be removed from the course, given what he called a lack of ability to facilitate discussions among students who bring to bear “critical frameworks” in their work. He also said the new format amounted to a kind of segregation, with only scheduled students invited at specific times. On Thursday, Watson and two other student protesters delivered a letter to saying as much to the class. It also included a detailed account of what they said had occurred throughout the course.
And because the student protesters have said Rust's class is but one among many on campus where minority students have felt uncomfortable, Graduate Students of Color will continue to advocate for minority students' rights into the new semester, he said.
Greg Scholtz, head of academic freedom, governance and tenure for the American Association of University Professors, said the peer review is the “key ingredient” to a recommended resolution following students complaints against a professor. It's unclear exactly how much there peer review there was in this case, given that some involved in discussions held leadership positions within the school.
According to AAUP principles and standards, he said, determinations related to a faculty member’s status or professional performance should be made primarily by other faculty members, not “unilaterally” by administrators. Additionally, any faculty member who believes that he or she has been treated improperly should have recourse to faculty review.
John Ellis, emeritus professor of German literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and president of the California Association of Scholars, a faculty group that backs a traditional curriculum, said he was personally unfamiliar with the details of the resolution. But, as reported, he said it sounded like a "disgraceful capitulation to bad behavior," referring to the sit-in. Ellis said the students' initial concerns were without merit, given that a professor's job is to teach and correct students.