Battle over students rights comes to head

October 1, 2005

A national civil liberties group is defending a Washington State University undergraduate because the College of Education threatened to terminate him from the education program this fall after he expressed conservative religious and political views in class last school year.

Edward R. Swan, 42, describes himself as someone who goes to church each Sunday. He values both the U.S. Constitution and the Bible and has strong ideas about what both documents mean. Swan doesn’t support Affirmative Action programs, and he doesn’t believe gays should adopt children. He thinks men and women are naturally different and suited to different roles in the family.

Swan’s religious and political ideas put him out of step with the faculty of the teacher preparation program in the College of Education, who are seen by many at WSU as social liberals and political progressives. Some of the college’s own literature states it has “a strong commitment to social justice and diversity,” and it aims to help its students in “advancing advocacy for those marginalized in our educational system.”

“It’s not just our college here at WSU. The whole teaching profession believes in a social justice approach to educating all children,” said College of Education Dean Judy Mitchell.

In August, just before classes for the fall term started, Swan was informed by the College of Education that he had failed four evaluations of his character. Four such failing marks put him in jeopardy of immediate termination from the program.

Mitchell declined this week to discuss Swan’s failing marks on his professional dispositions evaluation, citing the confidentiality of student records and federal privacy law.

“But I can say that we are required to evaluate students in terms of their character,” Mitchell said.

The state requires WSU’s College of Education to sign off on each student’s “good character” at graduation. For the past four years, a system based on “dispositions theory” has been in place in the college to evaluate a student’s character. Each semester, faculty fill out a “professional dispositions evaluation” form for each student they have in class, Mitchell said.

Photocopies of Swan’s PDE forms provided by Swan show he got failing marks from four faculty members last school year. He passed several other PDEs from other faculty, he said.

Even Swan’s critics on the faculty see him as “highly intelligent,” and he has earned good grades during his WSU career.

Swan realized last fall his personal opinions put him in a small minority at the College of Education, where social and political matters often are discussed in class in the teacher preparation program.

“I asked one of my professors if I should say what I think in class, or if I should say more what they wanted me to say,” Swan said in an interview this week. “She said to say what I really feel, so I did.”

Swan describes himself as a “traditionalist.”

“What I believe in is that everybody should be treated the same by the law,” Swan said. “In the past, with slavery and things like that, there was white privilege in this society. But that’s not the case now.”

Voicing such opinions, among others, led Swan into trouble last winter when he learned he had accumulated two failing PDEs. The faculty in the College of Education told him he must meet with Melynda Huskey, WSU’s assistant vice president for equity and diversity. Huskey is the director of WSU’s office for Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and their Allies and serves on a committee of faculty and administrators that considers issues significant to trans-gendered students.

Swan said he left the meeting feeling that Huskey was confrontational and made the matter a personal one.

Huskey was out of town and unavailable for comment this week. Antoinette M. Ursich, division chief of the Attorney General’s Office at WSU, said Huskey would be unable to respond in any event due to the federal privacy legislation known as FERPA.

At that point, Swan thought the worst was over. But this summer he was informed by mail he had failing marks on two new PDEs, bringing his total failures up to four. That put him in jeopardy of termination as a student within the College of Education.

One faculty member flunked Swan on the PDE because the professor had seen that Swan had written the phrase “diversity is perversity” in Swan’s copy of a textbook. No other justification was given for the failing mark, according to paperwork provided by Swan. One instructor wrote in a letter attached to her PDE form that Swan was a “White Supremacist,” and that he wore a camouflage hunting cap to class and talked about hunting, both of which alarmed her, also according to photocopies provided by Swan.

“Out of the four faculty who gave me bad PDEs, only one met with me,” Swan said. “I didn’t even know about the other ones, they just put them in my file without telling me. And that’s against the rules that are written on the PDE form.”

Swan admits he is a hunter but rejects the idea he is a racist.

“I have four biracial children,” he said. “I’m from Othello, where most people are Hispanic. I’ve lived there most all of my life, so most of my friends and most of the people I work with are Hispanic.”

Swan is a self-employed landscaper in Othello. He commutes during the week to Pullman. He hopes to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in education and teach at the elementary school level in central or eastern Washington.

At the start of this semester, Swan was presented with a choice by the faculty. He could sign a special contract or be kicked out of the college. The contract listed four items Swan must complete this fall, ranging from participating in diversity training sessions, to completing certain projects at the faculty’s direction, to potentially receiving above-normal scrutiny during Swan’s student-teaching in a classroom in the Tri-Cities later this fall.

“I told them that if I sign something, I keep my word. So I asked if I could turn this all over in my mind for a day or two,” he said.

The committee agreed and in the interim Swan contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, headquartered in Philadelphia.

FIRE immediately intervened on Swan’s behalf.

“We told Washington State University that it cannot use standards that are ideological, or that are so vague that they become ideological in practice, when evaluating a person’s character,” FIRE president David French said in a telephone interview this week. “The standards on WSU’s PDEs are becoming more common across the nation because they flow from language in accreditation organizations.”

“But the language is incredibly dangerous because it undercuts a citizen’s right to free speech and a free conscience,” French said.

FIRE expressed its views of constitutional law and federal case history in a long letter to WSU President V. Lane Rawlins Aug. 29.

Almost immediately, Swan’s situation changed. The faculty told Swan he would not have to sign the contract he was given, nor would he be terminated. Mitchell wrote to FIRE in September saying the PDEs and their content are under review.

It remains unclear, though, what will happen if Swan or other students accumulate negative PDE forms this semester.

“We are still using the PDEs … there is no specific time-frame for modifying them,” Dean Mitchell said this week. “The language in the PDE form comes from three sources: the state of Washington code and interpretations of it, our accreditation organization and what it tells us we must do, and from general professional standards our faculty have flowing from their professional organizations … by law, we have to evaluate each student’s character, and this is how we are doing it.”

Mitchell disputed the idea that Swan’s working-class background was one of the elements that led him to fail his PDE evaluations while other more sophisticated or educated conservatives might pass.

“I think our faculty are fair to people of all backgrounds,” she said.

Mitchell emphasized the College of Education is trying to find and train teachers for the public schools who will be committed to be as useful as possible to all students in their classrooms, regardless of varied backgrounds and culture.

That goal is a legitimate one, said two WSU faculty members who teach about constitutional law and civil liberties in the political science department.

“There’s no right to a state job, like being a public school teacher,” said faculty member Cornell Clayton. “It’s a benefit, not a privilege.

“The state can impose a character test – and beliefs can be part of that test. But you can’t keep people from state jobs because their beliefs may not be what you’d like,” Clayton said.

Mitchell Pickerill thinks the language in the PDE forms may be problematic. “The question on the form is written in such a way that it reflects faculty biases,” Pickerill said.

Pickerill sees the PDE’s language as one expression of the culture of “political correctness” within the university.

“There can be a ‘political correctness’ of the right as well,” he said. “But this is the politically correct left at work, it appears to me – any policy the College of Ed uses must be narrowly tailored so that it could pass legal review, and I don’t know whether this one is.”

Would conservative Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia pass the PDE evaluation if he were a student at WSU? “I don’t know how to answer that,” Mitchell said. “I haven’t been in on faculty discussions of how the faculty apply the language (of the PDE) to individual students.”

That answer impresses FIRE in two respects.

“I commend the dean for her honesty,” French said. “But the answer is alarming because Scalia shouldn’t fail any ‘character’ test because of his beliefs. The only legitimate test is whether Justice Scalia, as a hypothetical education student, knows the subjects he is teaching and whether he is an effective teacher in the classroom during his student-teaching period.”

“The fact that the dean didn’t give that answer is highly revealing of the whole problem.”

FIRE will watch what happens to Swan in school this fall and when he goes to look for a job after graduation.

“If the negative evaluations are not cleansed from his file, it will surely impact his job search, because few school principals and superintendents will be interested in a constitutional dispute,” French said. “That’s one reason why the College of Education must abandon its PDE criteria.”

French is also concerned about what will happen within the College of Education once Swan leaves.

“Without a whistle-blower being there, the next student could end up failing because he is a Muslim and his views of gender differences and homosexuality won’t be to the liking of the faculty there,” French said.

“Again, that’s why the College of Ed must abandon the criteria in the PDE form. What they have now is ideological – it’s a loyalty oath, like in the old days of McCarthyism.”

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Schools: Washington State University Cases: Washington State University: Use of Dispositions Theory to Enforce Ideological Orthodoxy