Professor Kaplan Speaks Out—And New Questions Abound

By March 8, 2007

One of the big mysteries in the ongoing debacle at the University of Wisconsin Law School has been what, exactly, was said in Professor Kaplan’s classroom on February 15. (For background on this story, see here; for the reaction from the University’s Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, see here.) From the first, the tone of the debate was set by an email from KaShia Moua, a Hmong student, which included alleged quotes from Kaplan. Moua sent her email on February 20, and various news outlets have been repeating the quotes therein for some time now.

On Monday, Professor Kaplan responded with a public letter to Dean Kenneth B. Davis, Jr.a letter that, as Inside Higher Ed observes, is “notably restrained and reflective for a man who has been pilloried for a week.” Kaplan states that “the context is critical. In that class, I was doing my job as a professor of law. I was teaching my law students that the law is an obstacle to, rather than an instrumental tool for, the needs of displaced ethnic groups.” In other words, Kaplan is saying that his aims were pedagogical, and thatfar from seeking to demean or offend the Hmonghe was criticizing the way that they have been integrated into American society. And this is “incredibly offensive and racist,” as Moua claimed?

Kaplan then gives Moua’s “quotes” a thorough fisking. Below, I repeat each of Moua’s “quotes” in bold, followed by Kaplan’s response. (Note: Kaplan is actually responding to a letter sent by offended students to Dean Davis the day after the class; the alleged quotes I reproduce are drawn from the February 20 email, but they are substantially similar in content. Where Kaplan paraphrases the quotes attributed to him by the February 16 letter, I reproduce them too.)

Moua: “Hmong men have no talent other than to kill.”

Kaplan: “The Feburary 16 letter asserts that I said, ‘Hmong men have no skills other than killing,’ and that I commented that Hmong men’s only roles are as warriors and killers. I did not make either of these statements. I noted that many of the first generation of Hmong men died prematurely and that a possible explanation is that some Hmong men suffered from a loss of meaning as a result of their changed status in the United States. I did refer to Hmong men as ‘warriors,’ using that term to express the status they held in Southeast Asia, not to suggest any inherent violent proclivities.”

Moua: “Hmong women are better off now that Hmong men are dying off in this country.”

Kaplan: “Specifically, the letter attributes to me the following statement: ‘What do you think happened after ten years? The Hmong men started to die and women started to do better. Women did handicrafts and other things….’ I did not mention what happened ‘ten years’ later. I did note that some Hmong womenI may have referred to ‘Hmong women’ rather than ‘some Hmong women’began to thrive in cottage industries, and I may have used the term ‘handicrafts’ in that discussion. Hmong women have successfully operated cottage industries. Suggesting that they were skilled in handicraft does not denigrate them or suggest that handicraft is their only skill or competence. Finally, I never said, and I never implied, that Hmong women were better off with Hmong men dead.”

Moua: “All 2nd generation Hmong end up in gangs and other criminal activity.”
Kaplan: “I did say that many young Hmong men were involved in criminal activity. The letter accurately reports that I noted that second-generation immigrants have historically been involved in criminal activity. I shared with the class the observation that almost every generation of immigrants has had some segment involved in crime as a matter of economic necessity. I also shared with the class that I upset my Jewish mother when I once observed within her presence that many second-generation Jewish young men were involved in criminal activity. These examples were directly relevant to my point about the marginalization of ethnic groups within the liberal state.”

Moua: “All Hmong men purchase their wives, so if he wants to have sex with his wife and she doesn’t consent, you and I call it rape, but the Hmong guy is thinking ‘man, I paid too much for her!’”

Kaplan: “The letter further states that I mischaracterized the Hmong dowry system as ‘a Hmong man would go and buy himself a wife.’ I did in fact refer to instances in the United States where a Hmong man arranged a marriage with the father of a young Hmong woman, without her knowledge or consent, by paying a ‘bride price.’ Actual cases arose out of such arrangements in which the Hmong man was charged with rape for engaging in marital relations. In an effort to highlight the imperfections of legal formalism, and not to denigrate any cultural practice, I made an ironic comment that those who pay a price for a bride and are charged with rape may believe that they have paid too much.”

(All emphasis added.) Kaplan also responds to other allegations that were apparently made in the February 16 letter, but were not included in the February 20 email.

This isn’t to say that Kaplan’s version is correct in every detail and the students’ version is utterly wrong. But Kaplan’s letter undeniably creates a very different impression of what happened in that classroom. In light of this, it is important to remember: accounts differ as to whether KaShia Moua was even in the class at the time the comments were made. (The campus newspaper claimed that she was, while the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says that she was not, and that “she compiled the remarks from others.”)

In light of all this, why did Dean Davis feel it was necessary to apologize a mere two days after the email was sent out? (Why, too, did Dean Davis also apologize at a meeting organized by the most offended students during the first week of the affair, at which he also called the incident “a matter of great concern"?) In his apology letter, why didn’t Dean Davis make any comment on the questionable accuracy of the quotes? He did say this: “It behooves all of us to take the time to adequately inform ourselves about the challenges and circumstances facing affected groups before we act or speak on what we might otherwise assume is true.” And yet Dean Davis apparently took no time to “adequately inform” himself about the truth of the very quotes themselves—he appears to have simply assumed they were true. Why?

Why couldn’t Dean Davis say instead that “we withhold from making any judgment or conclusion until all the facts are known”? Did he even bother to ask Kaplan, or indeed any other students, about what was actually said? The rush to apology suggests a perfunctory effort at best, and no effort at worst.

These questions are important to ask, because the administration’s reaction has cast doubt on its ability and willingness to recognize an academic freedom issue when it arises.  With the administration rushing to apologize, is it any wonder that the students who objected most vociferously seem not even to know what academic freedom is? 

Indeed, this is the truly worrisome aspect of the case; the administration’s eagerness to validate the students’ questionable claims with an immediate apology did nothing to promote the discovery of the truth, did nothing to encourage reasoned debate, and did nothing to foster consideration of academic freedom.  (Dean Davis’ apology doesn’t mention academic freedom at all.)

We should all be worried when, at a premiere law school, a group of students is so indifferent to accuracy, so quick to offense, and so unwilling even to consider how the principles of academic freedom might bear on the issue. (I believe, however, that they are in the minority, and that most of the law students there think the matter is wildly exaggerated.)

The University of Wisconsin Law School has a responsibility to teach its students all of these things; by setting such a poor example, it has done quite the opposite. As FIRE Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus Alan Charles Kors has noted, “A nation that does not educate in liberty will not long preserve it and will not even know when it is lost.” How, then, do things stand in Madison?

Schools: University of Wisconsin – Madison