Earlier this year, Washington State administrators organized and financed disruptive heckling of a student play that some found “offensive.” Despite significant and much-deserved negative media attention, Washington State President V. Lane Rawlins refused to admit he had done anything wrong
Adding insult to injury, Washington State’s College of Education threatened to dismiss a conservative Christian student after he obliged a professor’s request that he make his views known in class. Like many education programs, the College of Education evaluates its students according to “dispositions” criteria, which assess their commitment to vague and often politicized ideas such as “social justice” and diversity.
For a while, we thought things might be getting better at Washington State. First, administrator Michael Tate asked Chris Lee, the student playwright whose rights were trampled, to write a letter clarifying what the university could do to make things right. Lee sent just such a letter, repeating his very reasonable request that Washington State publicly state that heckling is not free speech and that he would be free to put on future plays without interference. But Tate inexplicably refused in a September 28 response. Lee’s next play will be performed next month, despite his own university’s appalling refusal to make sure he is not silenced or threatened again.
Washington State’s Orwellian tendencies became even clearer in a recent story by intrepid reporter E. Kirsten Peters. The university’s latest letter to FIRE promised that the College of Education would no longer use its “dispositions” criteria in an unconstitutional manner, but comments to Peters by Judy Mitchell, dean of the College, make clear that that promise means nothing. Here is the relevant part of Peters’ article:
Would conservative Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia pass the [dispositions] evaluation if he were a student at WSU? “I don’t know how to answer that,” Mitchell said. “I haven’t been in on faculty discussions of how the faculty apply the language (of the PDE) to individual students.”
Wait, what? She really had the gall to say that? As FIRE’s David French pointed out in the story, the dean is to be commended for her honesty, but, as he put it:
[T]he answer is alarming because Scalia shouldn’t fail any “character” test because of his beliefs. The only legitimate test is whether Justice Scalia, as a hypothetical education student, knows the subjects he is teaching and whether he is an effective teacher in the classroom during his student-teaching period.
David continued, “The fact that the dean didn’t give that answer is highly revealing of the whole problem.” Indeed.
Interestingly, Washington State’s student paper is reporting today that the university’s president requested and obtained the resignation of Vice President for Student Affairs Charlene Jaeger, who was deeply involved in the play controversy. It has also come to FIRE’s attention that Brenda Maldonado, the Washington State administrator responsible for buying the hecklers’ tickets, no longer works at the Office of Campus Involvement. And in one last galling detail, Raul Sanchez, the administrator who decided disruptive heckling did not violate Lee’s rights after disparaging him in an e-mail to other administrators, is organizing a “brown bag round table discussion“ to “educat[e] the community” on the topic of “Free Speech of Students.”
It is not clear if Jaeger and Maldonado’s departures are related to their roles in the Lee case. But what is clear is that Washington State has on repeated occasions ignored its legal obligation to the First Amendment and its moral responsibility to uphold academic freedom. FIRE will not let up until that changes.