Life After Controversy

July 31, 2005

Saint Xavier University history professor Peter Kirstein admits sending the e-mail wasn’t his finest moment.

You may remember his Halloween 2002 missive, the one in which the professor angrily denounced the “baby-killing tactics” of the U.S. Air Force and called the academy cadet to whom he was writing a “disgrace” to his country.

His comments sparked a national outcry at the time, among the first in a succession of Internet-fueled, “out-of-control liberal professor” outrages.

Conservative and military Web sites posted the e-mail throughout cyberspace. Thousands of complaints nearly shut down the Mount Greenwood university’s e-mail system for a month.

Kirstein, a 30-year teacher at the school, was suspended from teaching for the rest of the semester — and many critics loudly called for him to be fired.

But nearly three years later, the strident pacifist said the e-mail — and the controversy it generated — hasn’t torpedoed his career, as he and others expected it may.

He’s booked more speaking engagements in the past 30 months than during the rest of his academic career combined.

He’s now viewed as “a leading Iraq War critic.” He’s often described as such in pre-speech advertising. He sits on serious-minded panels to discuss historical precedents and academic freedom. There weren’t too many of those invitations coming his way before the e-mail.

Leaning back in a chair in his Saint Xavier office, cluttered with peace posters and books on non-violent resistance, Kirstein smiled as he reflected on the past few years.

“This was not a career-ender,” he said. “It was a career-maker.”

The incident began with a short, polite e-mail sent to several history professors from an Air Force Academy cadet looking for help publicizing a seminar on civil liberties in the post-Sept. 11th climate.

Kirstein, admittedly caught in a foul mood, shot back his notorious response.

The tenor was set in the very first sentence: “You are a disgrace to this country and I am furious you would even think I would support you and your baby-killing tactics of collateral damage.”

Oh, my.

He carried on from there, with references to “Air Force cowards” and “imperialists.” He even managed to blame the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks “in part for what you and your cohorts have done to Palestinians, the Viet Cong, the Serbs (and) a retreating army at Basra.”

The professor closed simply with, “You are unworthy of my support, Peter N. Kirstein, Professor of History.”

The e-mail shocked the first-year cadet on the receiving end.

The cadet, Robert Kurpiel, shared the e-mail with his friends and family. They quickly sent angry e-mails back to Kirstein. Within hours, Kirstein’s e-mail found its way onto the Web, passed among military bloggers and posted in conservative chat rooms.

A couple dozen forceful e-mails landed in Kirstein’s inbox by the next day. The professor, known for his energetic and wide-ranging teaching style, could sense something was coming, so he told then-university president Richard Yanikoski.

And it was just in time, as folks angry at Kirstein quickly found his boss’s e-mail address. About 100 e-mails came directly to Yanikoski the first two days.

As Kirstein’s e-mail began to get play on conservative talk-radio and in the mainstream press, the tide of complaints threatened to swamp the university. Up to 500 e-mails and a couple hundred phone calls poured in each day.

Kirstein apologized four days after sending the e-mail, but the furor didn’t stop.

The issue was no longer just between Kirstein and an 18-year-old cadet. Both the Air Force Academy and the cadet had forgiven him.

“As far as we’re concerned, this was settled almost three years ago,” Academy spokesman Johnny Whitaker said this month. “The basic thing we do in the armed forces is to defend the right of people to say what they want. We defend his right to say what he did, but it doesn’t mean we agree with it.”

Kurpiel, the cadet, could not be reached for this article. An e-mail sent to his mother also went unanswered.

Complaints continued to arrive weeks after the e-mail, though. The professor’s e-mail lives on in the Internet. The university still gets a few complaints every month.

University put in ‘delicate’ spot

People who experienced the vitriol that smothered Kirstein in those days say the criticism seemed overwhelming.

Yanikoski, who has been teaching some courses at Loyola University since retiring from the Saint Xavier two years ago, said he never expected the incident to blow up the way it did.

“I was embarrassed by it, both for him and for the university,” said the president emeritus. “From the first moment, though, I was protective of his freedom to speak and critical of his poor choice of language.”

E-mails demanding Kirstein’s ouster forced Yanikoski into what he describes as a “delicate” position. There are strict national guidelines, put out by the American Association of University Professors about academic freedom and what sanctions can be given for questionable speech.

Yanikoski argued that Kirstein’s comments — though not directed at a student under his supervision — were inappropriate and an unwelcome reflection on the university. Twelve days after the e-mail was sent, Kirstein was suspended for the remaining six weeks of the semester.

Outside pressure had nothing to do with Yanikoski’s decision, he said.

But that didn’t stop Kirstein from telling anyone who would listen that he was being victimized for his anti-war stance. The suspension was an effort to intimidate him from speaking the truth, he said.

“I wore my suspension as a red badge of courage,” he said. “I feel I’ve been punished for my political beliefs. They didn’t know who they were dealing with, though.”

Kirstein views himself as the target of a malicious, nationwide campaign to silence “progressive” voices, especially those in academia. Many organizations seeking to end academia’s “left-wing bias” point to Kirstein as the prime example of how far out-of-the-mainstream some liberal professors have become.

But for all the attacks on Kirstein, some circles also came to view him as a martyr, someone who stood up for freedom of speech and refused to bow to political pressure.

One of his biggest supporters was the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a group known more for supporting conservative students who feel they’ve been mistreated by liberal professors than for sticking up for the angry leftists.

The group’s founder and chairman, conservative Alan Charles Kors, said he disagrees with every word in Kirstein’s e-mail, but academic freedom shouldn’t be a left-right, red-blue issue.

“It seems to me doubly important for people on the left and the right to defend the principles of freedom of debate when those principles are threatened,” he said. “If we don’t defend each other, there will be no one to defend us when the time comes.”

‘Peter loves controversy’

Kirstein’s cry of victimhood confounds and troubles Yanikoski, who said Kirstein got the exact punishment he should have expected.

“Peter loves the controversy,” said Yanikoski, who will take over Aug. 15 as president of the Washington-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. “He has become a celebrity, in part, because of the controversy.”

The university’s current administration backs the sanctions, too. Intellectual freedom is important, but so are decorum and sound judgment, said Rose Milkowksi, the university’s vice president of enrollment.

“There needs to be a balance of academic freedom and academic responsibility,” she said. “(Professors) need to remember that when they’re speaking outside of the university … they still represent the university.”

Supporters and critics alike see Kirstein differently.

His students seem split by his flamboyance and confrontational teaching style. On Ratemyprofessor.com, the 50 or so former students who rated him appear to either love him or hate him.

Depending on who you ask, either he’s “narrow-minded” and a “complete schmuck” or he’s “insightful” and “outspoken.” He even won the university’s 1997 teacher of the year award.

Kirstein, despite his anti-military attitude, served in the Army Reserve while a graduate student at Saint Louis University. He did so to avoid the draft and service in Vietnam. As an Army private, Kirstein once was forced to clean the latrine after carving a peace sign into his helmet. Shortly thereafter, he was honorably discharged for a case of severe hay fever.

Kirstein clearly enjoys the spotlight and his newfound fame. He doesn’t shy away from highlighting what most people would see as a career low-point. He even details the controversy on his resume.

It’s given him a voice, one he thinks more people are coming to understand as the Iraq War drags on and U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians die every day.

And he’s not tempering his views, either. He even suggested to a Daily Southtown reporter that the best way to end the Iraqi insurgency would be turn the country back over to Saddam Hussein. Trying President Bush for war crimes at the Hague would be a nice way to tie up the conflict, too, he argued.

Opinions like that used to just be fodder for his history class discussions. Now, they’re gems from “a leading Iraq War critic.”

“Those first few weeks (after the e-mail) were the most difficult of my life,” he said. “But you have to view these things as a springboard to even more effective advocacy. Resistance isn’t always pleasant.”

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Schools: Saint Xavier University Cases: Saint Xavier University: Reprimand of Professor for Anti-Military Comments