Washington Post: Stanford Ed School Hounds Blogger

July 24, 2009

Jay Mathews of The Washington Post has a great column on the Stanford University Teacher Education Program’s (STEP’s) shameful treatment of a dissenting student blogger, Michele Kerr.

Michele’s Kerr’s strange odyssey began shortly after she was admitted to STEP in 2008, when Kerr attended an open house for admitted students. When asked, she said that she did not entirely agree with what she perceived to be STEP’s "progressive" approach to education, but that she intended to learn from STEP and keep an open mind. That apparently wasn’t close enough to the party line for STEP Director Rachel Lotan, who soon summoned Kerr to meet with her multiple times and started to talk about Kerr’s "potential" admission — as though Stanford might at any time revoke its offer. Kerr then found out that STEP administrators had engaged a lawyer to discuss what could be done about Kerr. My organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, reminded Stanford that it couldn’t revoke admission just because the student had opinions that differed from STEP’s ideology.

Given that her tenure at Stanford started with the school backpedaling on whether or not she had really even been admitted, we were none too confident she would make it through her year at STEP. Our first letter resolved matters for a few months, and Kerr continued to blog about her experiences as a future certified teacher in California. Although Kerr never crossed the line in any area like maintaining the confidentiality of student records, Ed School administrators made enough trouble for her that she removed references to Stanford and password-protected her blog. This wasn’t good enough for Associate Dean of Student Services Eamonn Callan, who repeatedly demanded the password so that he could investigate the blog.

Meanwhile, other STEP staff were apparently building a case to get her expelled as "unsuitable for teaching." Callan and Lotan even told her that she could be charged with "intimidation" and "chilling" her classmates’ speech for sending an e-mail to her fellow STEP students defending herself against students who had voiced complaints about her outspokenness. Formal proceedings were on the horizon, and it seemed inevitable that Kerr would be pushed out of the program one way or another.

That’s when FIRE sent a second letter to Stanford and Kerr filed grievances that went into detail about STEP’s shameful actions. We made sure to point out that the different abuses were potential violations of Stanford’s own promises of free speech and even of California’s "Leonard Law," which promises First Amendment protections to students at private colleges like Stanford.

Thankfully, after our second letter, Stanford Ed Dean Deborah Stipek intervened and assigned Kerr a new supervisor who was not determined to oust her. I am pleased to report that Kerr successfully graduated in June.

Jay Mathews summarizes it all this way:

I wish the supervisors of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) at that university’s School of Education had checked with me before they decided Kerr’s views and her blogging were inappropriate for a student in their program. They appeared to have decided her anti-progressive views were disrupting their classes, alienating other students and proving that she and Stanford were a bad fit. Kerr says they tried to stifle both her opinions and her blog, and threatened to withhold the Masters in Education she was working toward, based on their expressed fear that she was "unsuited for the practice of teaching."

Kerr’s eventual triumph over such embarrassingly wrong-headed political correctness is a complicated story, but worth telling. In her struggle with STEP, she exposed serious problems in the way Stanford and, I suspect, other education schools, treat independent thinkers, particularly those who blog.

Despite the fact that my chosen career path is as a watchdog against collegiate abuses of student and faculty rights, I have an undeniable soft spot for Stanford, my law school alma mater. I am therefore deeply disappointed and embarrassed by the education school’s behavior. I am, however, pleased that higher-up administrators at Stanford intervened and brought some fairness and common sense to STEP’s treatment of Kerr. Administrators at Brandeis, Bucknell, Johns Hopkins, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and Colorado College could learn a lesson from Stanford. Still, nothing about this case makes me want to shout "Go Cardinal!" Let’s hope Stanford takes a serious look at its education school and that other colleges around the country get the message that debate, dissent, disagreement, and even unflattering blog posts are signs of a healthy educational landscape, not an infirm one.

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