PULLMAN, Wash., September 21, 2005—A new trend in campus censorship is emerging: this summer, Washington State University used “dispositions” theory to punish an education student for his political and religious expression. The university relented only after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) became involved.
“Dispositions” theory, increasingly in vogue in education programs, requires professors to evaluate their students’ commitment to concepts such as “social justice” and “diversity” in conjunction with their actual scholastic achievement. Just last month, FIRE had to intervene when Brooklyn College professor K. C. Johnson was threatened with a secret investigation for questioning the use of the theory at his college.
Then, Washington State’s College of Education threatened 42-year-old student Ed Swan with dismissal for allegedly violating two vague “disposition” standards. Swan was also subjected to mandatory diversity training—all because of clearly protected speech.
“‘Diversity’ and ‘social justice’ do not mean the same thing to everyone,” remarked David French, president of FIRE. “By using such vague and politically charged criteria for evaluating future teachers, colleges all but guarantee that students will be punished for their opinions rather than evaluated on the basis of their abilities.”
At Brooklyn College, Johnson publicly called “dispositions” theory a method of enforcing ideological conformity. In response, his own faculty union held an “emergency academic freedom meeting” at which he was threatened with a secret inquisition into his views. Since college administrators refused to help him, and he had faced a similar inquisition in 2002, Johnson sought FIRE’s aid. Shortly after going public, FIRE received notification that the college disavowed any secret investigation.
Meanwhile, across the country, Washington State University’s treatment of Swan was providing a chilling example of why “dispositions” concerned Professor Johnson. When one professor specifically invited him to “write what you really feel” and “feel comfortable in class,” Swan did so. He noted, for example, that he is a “conservative Christian,” believes that “white privilege and male privilege do not exist,” and opposes gun control. Swan then received negative evaluations on “dispositions” commanding him to be “sensitive to community and cultural norms,” “appreciate[e] and valu[e] human diversity,” and “sho[w] respect for others’ varied talents and perspectives”—expressly because of his beliefs.
These poor evaluations led Washington State to subject Swan to diversity training and order him to sign an agreement to abide by all the “dispositions” to his professors’ satisfaction, under penalty of dismissal. After FIRE informed Washington State President V. Lane Rawlins that this agreement represented an unconstitutional loyalty oath—in this case, loyalty to the university’s approved political viewpoints—Washington State quickly agreed to rescind the requirement. It also later agreed not to use “dispositions” theory in an unconstitutional manner.
“We are happy that Washington State has agreed to stop misusing its ‘dispositions’ requirement,” FIRE’s French continued. “But WSU should abandon such broad and vague standards altogether, as they will almost certainly lead to future abuses.”
“FIRE will continue to monitor Washington State closely, along with the use of ‘dispositions’ theory nationwide,” concluded FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “Too many education departments seem to be eager to use this theory to construct unconstitutional systems of ideological coercion.”
Swan’s case comes at a time when Washington State has shown an embarrassing lack of respect for the rights of its students. Its administration continues to refuse to make amends for financing a group of students’ disruptive heckling of a controversial play this spring. Responses to recent open records requests reveal that the university not only financed the disruptive heckling, but also helped plan it.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Washington State University can be viewed at thefire.org/wsu.
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
V. Lane Rawlins, President, Washington State University: 509-335-6666; firstname.lastname@example.org