Academic Freedom or Academic Abuse?

Students say a film professor at Sonoma State hides behind faculty rights while violating their rights in the classroom. The details suggest the case is complicated.

 
June 1, 2021
 
Sonoma State University
Ajay Gehlawat

Current and former students at Sonoma State University want a professor removed from the classroom, not just for what he’s teaching students in his film classes, but how he’s teaching it. They say he’s mean, treats women particularly poorly and screens gratuitously violent and sexual films without any warning.

A petition with more than 900 names -- many of them current and former students of the professor, Ajay Gehlawat -- calls on Sonoma State to take urgent action against him.

Gehlawat hasn’t commented publicly on his case and wouldn't talk with Inside Higher Ed.

The students who want Gehlawat suspended or even fired describe their case and cut-and-dried: they acknowledge the general concept of faculty academic freedom but say he’s using it to harm students in various ways, over and over, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to continue to do that.

For the university, which has been dealing with the Gehlawat case over many months, it’s more complex, involving not only academic freedom, antidiscrimination laws and changing obligations to students’ well-being, but also due process, diversity, departmental fit and union and other issues.

Gehlawat teaches interdisciplinary studies, film and theater in Sonoma State’s Hutchins School of Liberal Studies. Many of the students in that school go on to become elementary school teachers. Sonoma State has a separate film program, housed in the School of Arts and Humanities, where teaching expectations are arguably different. While Gehlawat is, by many accounts, less than personable, academe has long avoided judging scholars’ fitness by their collegiality, as doing so compromises academic freedom. Whether professors should use content or trigger warnings in their classrooms, when or how, also remain unsettled questions across academe -- including at Sonoma State.

‘India’s Daughter’

This list of issues is not exhaustive. So here’s an illustration of what the university is grappling with: in New Delhi in 2012, a group of men so brutally assaulted, sexually and otherwise, a medical student riding a bus that she later died from her injuries. The Indian press initially referred to the woman, Jyoti Singh, as Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless,” and the moniker became a rallying cry among Indians fed up with gender-based violence.

The BBC aired a documentary film about the incident and its aftermath in 2015, but the film was effectively banned in India for legal reasons and, also likely, political ones: Singh’s death led to national outrage and embarrassed the government. So it’s significant that Gehlawat showed the film in his classroom, where he teaches courses on contemporary Hindi cinema, Bollywood and globalization, feminism in film, and more.

Yet some students say Gehlawat was wrong to require that they watch the documentary, called India’s Daughter. Not only did Gehlawat not warn them or sufficiently contextualize why they were about to see what they did, these students say, the film itself was problematic.

“Objectionable content, hazy motives and perverted views were exactly what students have experienced in Gehlawat’s classes when being subjected to his required content, including his choice to teach this banned film, India’s Daughter without context,” reads the student-led petition against Gehlawat. To support this argument, the students cited an Indian blog post that rehashes many of the original arguments for censoring the film in India.

By contrast, the professional reviews of India’s Daughter have been positive. They’ve agreed that the 63-minute film is graphic, but also truthful and necessary.

According to the petition, when students complained to Gehlawat about his teaching, he responded, “I can teach what I want!” and forced students to keep their Zoom cameras on while he replayed graphic clips.

“Students reported that these experiences were devastating -- that the images stayed with them and replayed incessantly in their minds and that his overt oppressive demeanor with regards to the subject matter caused extreme amounts of stress, and are still causing anxiety in their daily lives,” the petition says. “For the students impacted there is loss of sleep, loss of time and focus, and physical conditions similar to a woman who has been sexually harassed or violated.”

Beyond Course Content

Clara George, one of the students who helped draft the petition, wrote that “After multiple times being blatantly ignored by Ajay, I was hesitant to speak in class which impacted my participation grade. However, when I did speak my comments were often disregarded in order to acknowledge another male perspective.” And when Gehlawat “did recognize my participation in the class,” she said, “he would often gawk or laugh at my comments. I felt degraded and dehumanized by his comments, as well as humiliated in front of my classmates.”

Other students’ accounts quoted within the petition says that Gehlawat’s class triggered or even caused post-traumatic stress disorder.

Most of the comments from those who signed on to the petition aren’t any more glowing. One, from a former student, says Gehlawat forced her to come to class with a fever in March 2020, as COVID-19 was spreading but before widespread lockdowns, to deliver a paper by hand. Another, from a former student from outside Hutchins, the liberal studies program, said the professor “was extremely unprofessional and only cared about the films themselves rather than his actually living breathing students. When male students would ask questions they were welcomed with open arms but it was as if women didn’t exist.”

A fellow professor within Hutchins also signed the document, saying Gehlawat “is a brilliant lecturer, and the tenure system and academic freedom are extremely important.” Yet out of concern for students and as someone with PTSD, she said she believes “reasonable warnings for graphic content, or selection of alternative content with equal educational value, and respect for our students, is of great importance.”

Trigger Warnings

There’s a larger discussion about trigger warnings happening at Sonoma State. In March, the Academic Senate approved a joint statement on the teaching of sensitive materials co-proposed by the academic freedom subcommittee, which Gehlawat chairs. The statement includes resources for professors who wish to use or learn more about teaching sensitive material and teaching students who have experienced trauma. But the statement emphasizes that using trigger or content warnings is a personal and professional choice.

“Exposure to certain graphic images/discussions can elicit reactions associated with trauma; however, the classroom is not the appropriate venue to treat PTSD or trauma, both of which may require professional treatment,” the statement says. “Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms when the goal is to expose students to new ideas; to have them question beliefs they have taken for granted; to grapple with ethical problems they have never considered; and, more generally, to expand their horizons contributing to an informed and democratic society. In addition, as professors, we have the academic freedom to include whatever course content we deem necessary to address our course standards.”

Associated Students, the student government at Sonoma State, opposed the joint statement, arguing that instructors should be required to teach with students who have experienced trauma in mind. The student government also said the joint statement wasn't really about best practices, because it “fails to address research from a variety of academic fields that indicate the value of warnings for trauma-informed teaching.”

A group of administrators, including the interim provost and student affairs, counseling and disability officials, also formally asked the senate to reconsider the joint statement. They argued that on-campus experts had not been sufficiently aware of or consulted on the statement and that the document conflated “the treatment of trauma and the use of trigger warnings in course syllabi.”

“Trigger warnings are not treatment,” the administrators wrote to the senate. “They acknowledge the possibility students may be adversely impacted by some material, allowing students to make informed decisions about whether a course is a good match for their learning needs and about whether they should seek appropriate accommodations.” Various campus offices “can work with faculty to craft supportive measures that do not interfere with course content,” they also said.

Ongoing Discussions

The senate did reconsider the statement and voted to rescind last month. Jeffrey Reeder, chair of the faculty and chair of modern languages, said that the senate originally endorsed the statement because it was “presented in such a way that senators believed that our university's offices of Counseling and Psychological Services as well as Disability Services for Students were fully supportive of the [statement] and its rationale.”

After the original vote, he said, “officials from those two offices learned of that and subsequently issued written statements to the senate indicating that their position vis-à-vis the statement had been misrepresented.”

Reeder said that Sonoma State has a strong academic freedom policy but that the senate will likely continue exploring the matter next academic year.

Gehlawat did not respond to a request for comment. Leaders of the campus faculty union, on whose executive board Gehlawat sits, did not respond to requests for comment, either.

The California State University system faculty union is powerful. Here’s an example: CSU San Marcos found that Chetan Kumar, an associate professor of information systems, had sexually harassed a former teaching assistant and acted inappropriately with several students, according to recent investigation by Voice of San Diego. The university moved to fire Kumar, but his union defended him. San Marcos eventually agreed not to fire Kumar if he dropped his appeal and promised to stop talking to the women who complained about him.

At Sonoma State, an investigation into Gehlawat’s behavior based on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination in federally funded education, is ongoing. Students who complained about Gehlawat to the administration and others who sought to leave his class this spring were granted a new course section and instructor so that they could continue the class. Gehlawat’s contemporary Hindi cinema syllabus for Spring 2021 was reviewed by other scholars, and it was deemed acceptable, according to information from the university.

That syllabus, for the record, mentions sexual violence. "While overlapping at times with Bollywood productions," it says, listing all required films, "these contemporary Hindi-language films frequently eschew Bollywood’s formulaic elements to engage more directly with a wide range of issues, including gender inequality, sexual violence, drug abuse and educational opportunity, to name but a few."

Sonoma State is limited as to what more it can say about an ongoing personnel matter. Hollis Robbins, dean of arts and humanities, said, “This has been a top priority for me. We’ve been sure that students are able to complete the semester successfully, and to support those students who are getting a great deal out of Professor Gehlawat’s class.”

“Inclusion is often challenging,” Robbins continued. There are “competing issues of student success and changing expectations about the content of traumatic material in the classroom,” all “at this time of heightened political concerns and social justice concerns in the classroom.”

 

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