A professor's alleged remarks in September set off an investigation at Brandeis University that has left some faculty members skeptical, students divided and the class itself monitored -- for the time being -- by an administrator.
The incident recalls one this year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison , where a law professor was accused of making anti-Hmong comments, and the details he later provided placed those comments in a very different context, one contested by some who brought the complaints in the first place. At Brandeis, a university named for a defender of freedom of expression, the episode took place in a class on Latin American politics, and the statements in question centered around a single word whose connotations have historically caused pain to Mexican Americans.
The word was "wetback," an insult describing illegal immigrants from Mexico. But as is often the case with powerful words whose use has been intertwined with painful history, it could all boil down to the context of the professor's utterance -- and that context is in dispute.
According to the professor, Donald Hindley , who has taught in the politics department for almost 47 years at the university, the word came during a historical discussion about racism against immigrants. "When Mexicans come north as illegal immigrants, we call them wetbacks," he told the Brandeis student newspaper, the Justice , in describing his comments. He says he wasn't saying that's what they should be called, but what many Americans do call them. ( Inside Higher Ed spoke briefly with Hindley, but he did not return subsequent calls for clarification.)
That's not how some students in the class -- at least two -- interpreted it. They "individually and independently" approached Steven L. Burg, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics and the chair of the department, "to register serious concern and complaints about things that had been said by professor Donald Hindley in class and in the case of one of the students, directly to the student," he said. (Since the proceedings of the subsequent investigation are still confidential, it is not certain whether all the students responded to the same incident.)
Now, Hindley had circulated letters addressed to him by Provost Marty Krauss as well as the human resources office, creating what Burg called an "e-mail campaign" against the university's decision, which found the professor in violation of anti-discrimination policy. The decision mandated that an assistant provost monitor the class for an indefinite but temporary period of time, and it ordered Hindley to complete sensitivity training. About 13 students, or a third of his class, staged a walkout to protest the professor's treatment, according to the Justice, and the professor is also filing a formal appeal to the decision.
Many of the criticisms of the university's response have focused on the process behind the investigation itself and the lack of consultation with faculty leaders. Speaking after taking part in a faculty meeting, Burg characterized those involved in the decision as having "acted extremely carefully" and responsibly under the existing rules. At the meeting, however, the Faculty Senate chairman disputed the process itself and questioned whether it was implemented correctly. "We were following the process as we understood it," Burg said, despite complexities in coordinating anti-discrimination policy as mandated by law and as outlined in the faculty handbook.
“It’s a balancing act, we all recognize it’s a balancing act," he said, but some faculty members at the meeting displayed "almost knee-jerk suspicions [about the] motivations of the administration.”
After hearing the students' complaints and taking "careful notes," Burg said he felt the allegations were severe enough to pass on the concerns to the dean level. (In less serious situations, he might simply direct students back to the faculty member, he said.) The dean then determined that the case should be referred to the human resources department, where the anti-discrimination policy is administered. An official there conducted an inquiry, Burg said, that involved interviews with Hindley as well as with the students. "The whole process is supposed to be confidential," he said, to protect students from potential retribution and shield accused faculty members from damage to their reputations.
After the investigation determined that the students' claims were substantive, another series of meetings determined the appropriate actions to take. "The provost issued a letter to Professor Hindley describing the steps being taken in response to this determination, consistent with the university's moral and legal obligation to take prompt and effective remedial action," Burg wrote in a statement describing the process. "Professor Hindley chose to make the issue public by reading the letter out to his class and initiating a campaign of e-mails."
In a comment  posted to an editorial on the Justice's Web site titled "Prof. Hindley deserves better," a former student wrote, "Through humor and through sarcasm Professor Hindley is able to keep learning exciting. He is a brilliant mind with years of teaching experience. Sometimes his sarcasm did seem on the edge, but at the end of the day, if you had been coming to class regularly, you knew where he was coming from."
Jonathan Knight, who directs the program in academic freedom and tenure for the American Association of University Professors, said he hadn't heard of a single instance in which an administrator had been assigned to oversee a professor's class after allegations of misconduct.
"Any time a complaint is made by a student or someone else that a faculty member has crossed the line in the classroom, that of course potentially raises a question about academic freedom because the obvious next question is whether, in fact, what the professor is alleged to have said is protected under principles of academic freedom," Knight said. "The principles of academic freedom allow for a good deal of room, as it were, for professors to express themselves in ways that they think appropriate to the particular class and subject."