College flunks professor over test

By September 14, 2006

The background for three questions that angered many at Bellevue Community College started like this: “Condoleezza holds a watermelon just over the edge of roof of the 300-foot Federal Building, and tosses it up with a velocity of 20 feet per second….”

Forget velocity — the question set off protests at the college, which is near Seattle, and infuriated civil rights groups. While no last name was given, people took the question as a reference to the secretary of state, and combining her name with watermelon was viewed as racist. The professor who wrote the question apologized, and the college’s president and board apologized. But now the college is trying to suspend the professor for a week without pay, and he is challenging the decision as inappropriate.

Peter Ratener, the professor, has appealed to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for assistance, and that group is now organizing an outcry in response to the college’s response to the outcry Ratener created.

“Given the reaction of the community and the college, one might think Ratener was guilty of committing a serious crime, rather than writing an accidentally offensive math problem,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE. He called the suspension — which currently is on hold pending appeals by Ratener and the faculty union — “unfair and a violation of the First Amendment.”

The test question that set off the furor actually was given first in 2004, without incident. This year, another professor used the question on a practice test, and a student’s complaint led to widespread publicity and demands for apologies.

Ratener said that he frequently includes celebrity names on his tests, to relieve student tension, and that he has used Bill Clinton and Madonna, among others, in this way. He originally wrote this question with the name Gallagher, a comedian known for smashing watermelons. But when he realized that many of his students wouldn’t know Gallagher, he substituted Condoleezza. He said that name is “a fascinating name to me,” and that race and politics had nothing to do with his choice.

In an apology he issued — to students, colleagues and Secretary Rice — he said that he still should have realized the potential problem and caught it. “The responsibility is ultimately mine alone,” he wrote. In the apology, he talked at length about his sadness and shame at having upset so many people and embarrassed his colleagues. And he repeatedly talked about his commitment to equity and respect for people of all kinds.

The college’s investigation of the matter led to a finding that he should be suspended for a week without pay. The finding noted that in 25 years of teaching at Bellevue, Ratener had never before been accused of racial insensitivity, and that he had apologized for the test question. But the finding also said that Ratener should be held to a high standard as an educator, that he had not attended many of the programs the college offers “regarding cultural issues and the impact of stereotypical thinking on the perpetuation of racism,” that the question had damaged the college’s reputation, and that it had “created disruption.”

A spokesman for the college noted that the college’s contract with faculty members includes references to actions that disrupt educational activities. The spokesman said that because there are efforts under way to mediate the conflict and it involved a personnel matter, he didn’t want to comment on any of the details. But as to FIRE’s statements that the college’s punishment violated the First Amendment, the Bellevue spokesman said, “we feel differently.”

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Schools: Bellevue Community College