Victory for Freedom of Speech at Stanford: Student Graduates Despite Ed School Efforts to Revoke Admission, Investigate Private Blog, and Declare Student Unfit for Teaching

By on July 24, 2009

As we noted in today’s press release, Stanford University’s Teacher Education Program (STEP) has finally let dissenting student-blogger Michele Kerr graduate. Stanford tried to revoke Kerr’s admission after she voiced disagreement with "progressive" views held by STEP administrators, but FIRE intervened and resolved the issue. Kerr also was blogging about her thoughts and experiences as a future certified teacher. Stanford School of Education administrators demanded the password to her private blog and threatened to expel her for her opinions and teaching philosophy. The shameful story of Kerr’s travails is featured online in The Washington Post today by education columnist Jay Mathews, chronicling a year-long ordeal in which STEP tried a variety of things to drive Kerr from the program and prevent her from attaining teacher certification.

Kerr’s saga began in March 2008, when she attended an open house for admitted students and stated in public conversation that she did not entirely agree with what she perceived to be STEP’s "progressive" approach to education. Her promise to keep an open mind was not enough for STEP Director Rachel Lotan, who soon summoned Kerr to meet with her multiple times. Although Kerr had already accepted STEP’s offer of admission, Lotan ominously kept referring to Kerr’s admission as merely "potential."

Kerr’s concern was further justified when a misdirected e-mail she received revealed that STEP officials were planning to "strategize" with the program’s lawyer, apparently to revoke Kerr’s admission. FIRE wrote Stanford President John Hennessy on May 23, 2008, outlining the situation and demanding that Kerr’s binding admission offer be honored. FIRE noted Stanford’s Statement on Academic Freedom, which states that "[e]xpression of the widest range of viewpoints should be encouraged, free from institutional orthodoxy and from internal or external coercion." Senior University Counsel Lauren Schoenthaler responded on June 5, confirming Kerr’s admission.

Kerr’s trouble did not end there. Associate Dean of Student Services Eamonn Callan made repeated unique and unreasonable demands to investigate Kerr’s private, password-protected blog about her thoughts and experiences as a teacher. In a formal letter on December 16, Callan and Lotan also threatened to charge Kerr with "intimidation" for sending an e-mail to her fellow STEP students regarding her treatment by Stanford and her response to students in her program who had voiced complaints about her outspokenness. Callan’s and Lotan’s letter said they were following "the STEP Guidelines for Reviewing Concerns Regarding Suitability for the Practice of Teaching." We had no doubt that administrators were attempting to build a case for throwing Kerr out of school because of her expression.

In a second letter to Hennessy on January 26 of this year, FIRE outlined many additional steps that STEP officials had taken to try to rid themselves of Kerr by holding her to unique standards of expression and conduct. We asked that Stanford "recognize its legal and moral commitments by immediately and unequivocally abandoning attempts to monitor Kerr’s blog, withdrawing threats to punish Kerr for ‘intimidation,’ and ceasing efforts to fail Kerr out of STEP because of her protected expression and her protected beliefs." Kerr also submitted grievances going into detail about STEP’s actions.

In response to FIRE’s letter, senior Stanford administrators intervened and guaranteed Kerr fair treatment. The School of Education put Kerr under a new set of supervisors, and she graduated successfully on June 14. Now that she has also found a job, Kerr’s travails at STEP are over. Her story is chronicled today in a 2,000-word article by Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews, who frequently disagrees with Kerr on educational issues but who was drawn to her story. As Matthews says in the article: "Students could learn from the kind of arguments Kerr and I have. There is much to be gained from challenging ill-examined assumptions, in class, in this column and in the ed school value systems that made Kerr’s pursuit of a teaching degree such an ordeal."

Attempting to keep Kerr out of STEP for espousing viewpoints STEP administrators did not like is no way to show teachers what it means to be open to all kinds of learners. Like STEP, too many education programs today are teaching by words and deeds that only one orthodoxy or ideology is acceptable in future teachers. Actions like STEP’s are no way to prepare teachers to cultivate effective citizens in our democracy. Fortunately, senior administrators stepped in to set things right for Michele Kerr. Now, what about all those other education schools that demand conformity to specific values, motivations, dispositions, and beliefs?

Schools: Stanford University Cases: Stanford University: Education Program Tries to Keep Outspoken Student from Enrolling, Demands Access to Private Blog