Foundation takes up case of Meramec student

December 19, 2007

Jun Xiao became so frustrated with his organic chemistry professor at St. Louis Community College at Meramec that he dropped the class—and sent e-mails inviting his classmates to do the same.

He never mentioned his current professor’s name or directly criticized her in the e-mails, though several websites such as www.ratemyprofessors.com allow college students around the nation to comment on their professors by name.

So he was surprised when he received a letter from the college a couple of days later that said he had been placed on disciplinary probation for the 2007-08 academic year for violating the student handbook, including sections about hazing, obstruction or disruption of teaching, and disorderly conduct and defamation.

Now a national advocacy group that defends the legal, religious or free-speech rights of students is rallying behind Xiao’s cause. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has written Paul Pai, president of the Meramec campus, saying that the college’s actions ignore the constitutional guarantees of free speech and due process. The group has asked that the college rescind the probation and remove all mention of it from Xiao’s record.

Pat Crowe, a college spokeswoman, said that there is another side to the story but that student privacy laws prevented her from commenting now. She said the school expects to review the case at a hearing next month.

“We have an established policy dealing with discipline matters,” she said. “We are following the policy and cannot comment until after the hearing is over.”

Xiao, who has appealed his probation, provided the Post-Dispatch with the disciplinary letter, along with several other e-mails and documents.

As part of his probation, Xiao is no longer allowed to contact other students using the college’s e-mail system.

“I cannot even send e-mails to my personal friends,” he said. “This is ridiculous.”

Crowe said the college fully supports the freedom of speech of students, faculty, and staff.

Xiao, who has a doctorate from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, has done post-doctoral research in neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University and Washington University.
He enrolled at the Meramec campus this fall to take pre-medical courses so he can apply to medical school.

He said he received A’s in the four other science classes he took this semester. But he said he dropped his organic chemistry class because he did not like the professor, who could not be reached for comment.

Like him, that professor is a non-native English speaker and was sometimes difficult to understand in class, he said. He approached her a number of times to clarify the material, including during her office hours, but he said she was impatient.

On Oct. 10, he sent an e-mail to his classmates saying that he was dropping the class and hoped to get an “A” in the same class in the spring.

“P.S.” he wrote, “Is there someone who wants to retake the class with me?”

In the second e-mail, sent Oct. 21, he told his classmates about other professors with good reputations who also teach organic chemistry.

He also pointed out that St. Charles Community College offers the same class for about the same price. He added that a friend of his said the professor there is nice, patient, a native English speaker, and has a good reputation. He noted the school’s scholarship opportunities and suggested carpooling.

The probation letter that followed said that Xiao could remain on campus and in his classes.

But Daniel Herbst, Meramec’s acting vice president of student affairs, wrote he could be suspended if he is involved in other incidents.

Herbst noted that he based his decision on information provided by a dean, a faculty member, and multiple e-mails from students. Xiao said Tuesday that he is dismayed Herbst did not seek out his side of the story before giving him probation.

For now, Xiao has already signed up for classes for next semester, including an organic chemistry class, with a different professor.

Still, he wonders about his chances of getting into medical school with a probation on this record.

“If the probation is there,” he said, “the probation will ruin my life.”

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Schools: Saint Louis Community College at Meramec Cases: Saint Louis Community College: Student Punished for E-mailing Classmates