We've Got Your Back

When a Polk State professor found himself accused of being anti-Christian, the college's leaders answered back -- and said he was entitled to academic freedom.

May 8, 2015

Sometimes college and university leaders try to avoid the spotlight when a faculty member is under attack. Not so this week at Polk State College, which is standing behind a humanities professor accused of giving students anti-Christian assignments, even as the allegations were picked up by national conservative outlets.

The college's leaders say the case raises important issues for professors' rights in the classroom and for academic freedom. And so when Fox News and conservative bloggers ran critical items about the professor Thursday, the college reached out to tell another side of the story.

“The overall fallacy of your position rests singly on the premise that that an instructor should not require a student to consider, discuss or present arguments that are contrary to his/her personal beliefs,” lawyers for Polk State wrote in their response to complaint filed by Liberty Counsel, which is dedicated to “restoring the culture by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the family,” according to its website.

The complaint alleges that Lance Russum, a humanities professor, discriminated against a 16-year-old dual enrollment student in his Introduction to Humanities class this semester by failing her on specific assignments based on her Christian beliefs and through his otherwise “pervasive, anti-Christian bias.” (The student received an A overall in the course. And she didn't so much have her ideas rejected as she declined to answer the questions on the assignments in question.)

Moreover, Polk State’s general counsel wrote in their response, “Your only substantive allegation with a connection to the college is that the professor allegedly discriminated against your student when he gave her zeroes on four essay assignments. …Your entire letter, which is based upon this hollow and indefensible allegation, legally fails to establish any claim against either the college or its employee.”

Liberty’s complaint relates to Grace Lewis, a high school student enrolled at Polk State through the Florida Virtual School Full Time program. (The complaint refers to Lewis by the letters “G.L.,” but she has since publicly disclosed her name.) Liberty alleges that Russum is a “radical ideologue, bent on imposing his views on students, in violation of acceptable academic standards and the U.S. Constitution.” As evidence, it cites multiple elements of the syllabus and assignments for the online introductory humanities course, including Russum’s notes that “What we take to be the ‘truth’ is just the retelling of the myths of early civilization. The god [sic] of Christianity/Islam/Judaism are [sic] a mixture of the god(s) myths of the Mesopotamians. …The point of this is not to ‘bash’ any religion, we should NEVER favor one over the another, they all come from the same sources, HUMAN IMAGINATION” [emphasis Russum’s].

The complaint also cites Russum’s introduction to the ancient epics, which highlights “elements of homoerotic/friendship, raw human sexuality” and “the use of sexuality and the role of women.” Liberty says that Russum also tried to “deconstruct the Bible by claiming that the discredited position that the Egyptian Book of the Dead is the source material for the biblical Book of Samuel,” for example, and that he discredited Christianity by citing the Crusades and saying that “Christianity proved itself during the Middle Ages to be one of the most violent forms of religion the world had ever seen.”

The complaint alleges that Russum also “assaults the sensibilities” of his students by including a close-up image of the penis on Michelangelo’s David and by highlighting other phallic and potentially homoerotic symbols in Renaissance art.

“Russum then uses Michelangelo as [a] … stand-in for his own beliefs about homosexuality, stating that ‘in the 16th century, Michelangelo is claiming that being in a same-sex relationship is NOT A SIN and WILL NOT keep someone out of heaven,’” Liberty wrote. The complaint also takes a half page to note all of Russum’s Facebook likes, including various atheist and feminist groups, calling such information “compelling evidence that his course material and behavior are not merely ‘pedagogical.’”

Liberty says that Russum has “forfeited his academic integrity” and should be fired. It demands a full and independent review of Russum’s behavior and course content, and that he offer Lewis an apology. It also calls for “appropriate grading” of Lewis’s failed assignments by a different professor and assurances that future courses taught by Russum will be free of “such unlawful discrimination.”

The complaint offers very little information on the failed assignments, and the college said it was limited by federal student privacy laws about how much it could say about Lewis’s work. But Polk State’s legal response says that while Lewis was a strong student when she was on task, she failed entirely to address the question at hand in 4 of 15 essay assignments that together counted for 40 percent of the class grade (a final assignment counted for 60 percent). Several other faculty members independently concluded the same, it says.

Breitbart.com, which picked up the story, sympathizing with Lewis’s complaint, posted what it says is Lewis’s assignment. Although lengthy and well documented, the response appears to critique Russum’s questions about nuns in the 15th century rather than answer them.

Here are Russum’s questions:

1) What is something Lady Julian [of Norwich] is saying/doing that women should not be saying/doing at that time under the Christian mythos?

2) From the article on the nuns, what makes their defiance of male dominance so important?

3) Why did Christianity, and its male gods, want to silence these women?

Russum notes: "You are to only answer the above three questions. SECOND, and this is VERY important, I DO NOT want you to write about how wonderful you think Christianity is now because women can do A, B or C. History is history and facts are facts and your opinion on if it is better now or not is irrelevant for this discussion. This is a HISTORICAL discussion about the Middle Ages. If you really feel the need to express your opinion on how you think Christianity is now for women, you may email me, you may call my office or I would love for you to stop by for a nice cup of hot tea where we can talk about it, but it does not belong in this assignment. The pieces you are reading [are] from some of the greatest expressions of mythology by women ever, the question is to honor that voice in that moment of history."

Here’s part of Lewis’s response:

“In conclusion, the questions assigned are not open-minded questions. They instead are designed to lead course participants decisively to accept that Christianity is false and oppressive of women. Furthermore, these questions are objectively unanswerable, specifically when compared alongside the questions that we were instructed to neglect.”

A spokesperson for Liberty forwarded a news release responding to the college’s memo, which notes that it doesn’t believe Lewis would have gotten an A had it not intervened on her behalf. The college, meanwhile, says that the letter had no bearing at Lewis’s grade.

Russum said in an interview that he has “such gratitude for the way in which [the college has] rallied around the idea of academic freedom. It’s just a testament to what Polk State stands for -- diverse people with diverse beliefs being heard.”

Donald Painter, dean of academic affairs, said students’ safety and comfort were “paramount,” but that once faculty and administrators had carefully determined that neither had been compromised, they turned their attention to preserving the integrity of the “academic process.”

“I think we deal with controversial, sensitive and hot-button issues, and I fully respect that in talking about them in an academic context people may feel a little raw about it, and it may touch on their values -- I have great respect for that,” Painter said. “At the same time, it’s important that we have the ability to freely inquire about these subjects and discuss them, as in, ‘We know this is the popular worldview, so let’s look at the other perspectives.’ That’s at the core of what we do.”

He added, “That’s what higher education is about. We can reach new conclusions and new knowledge as result of that.”

Even though he’ll face no disciplinary action as a result of the complaint, Russum is still facing blowback from the public, since various blogs have run pieces about Lewis’s case, and she appeared on Fox and Friends on Thursday morning. The title of the segment was "Student: Professor Gave Me Zeros for Refusing to Condemn Christianity."

“Students shouldn't be afraid to believe in faith,” Lewis told Fox. “Dropping the class would have been good for me, but it wouldn't have been good for the students coming behind me. …This is not what education should be.”

Russum said he’s received hate mail, some of it homophobic and anti-Semitic, and even a physical threat from those outside the college. Being judged so harshly and in some cases hatefully by people who don’t know him or the kind of teacher he is has been emotionally draining, he said.

“I want my students to have their own thought processes challenged, not give up their beliefs or some of the other things that I’ve been accused of,” he said. Of all the names that have been tossed at him, Russum added, “the only one I’m going to own is feminist. I don’t identify as an atheist, but I am going to own that one and that’s why I do include questions about things such as nuns in the Middle Ages.”

Painter said the college was managing public feedback to Russum, and that he encouraged all interested parties to read all they could about the case to make informed opinions.


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