Students rally around suspended professor

March 6, 2006

LANCASTER – Stephan Williams taught history with wit and casual style, his students said, but his bosses weren’t charmed.

Williams became noted at the Lancaster Campus of Harrisburg Area Community College for classroom discussions on Abraham Lincoln’s sexuality. He used the occasional curse word. A student described him as "a guy you could almost see yourself sharing a beer with while talking about history."

Williams no longer teaches at the school in East Lampeter Twp. The former head of the history department was suspended in January, on the first day of the semester, for using a slang term for sexual intercourse in class.

Several HACC students and professors said administrators bowed to pressure from a few students only to offend dozens more by suspending one of the most popular professors on campus. Some students said that, since the suspension, many of them have become shy in classrooms. They say they’ve also noticed their professors are more timid with subject matter.

Williams would not comment on his suspension, citing the advice of his attorney.

HACC officials also would not talk about it, citing confidentiality in personnel matters, but spokesman Patrick Early said the college has the obligation to protect academic freedom and to preserve a good learning environment.

To some, the issue is another test for free speech on America’s campuses.

Greg Lukianoff, the interim president of Freedom of Individual Rights in Education, said bureaucrats interested in creating a noncontroversial learning environment have taken over campuses.

He said they limit speech by calling it "harassment" instead of "offensive language," which is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

"Being offended is part of college," Lukianoff said. "The joke I make is: If you make it through four years of college without being offended, ask for your money back."

Word of Williams’ suspension spread quickly across Lancaster County to Millersville University, where Terry Christopher, of Stevens, said his professors curtailed lesson plans and spent hours talking about what they call a "disturbing situation."

Steven Peterson, who heads the School of Public Affairs at Penn State Harrisburg, said teachers should find ways to motivate students without using language that could offend someone.

Williams’ students defended his language, saying he rarely swore and never used expletives in a derogatory way.

Annie Ruttkay, a nursing major from Manheim Twp., and Donald Dodson Jr., of Lititz, signed up for history classes because Williams taught them. Christopher, a former student, said Williams’ subject command and teaching style inspired him to go into teaching.

Professor Michael Essig, a co-worker of Williams, said some students think they can buy an education like they do cereal, but that’s not what college is about.

"What they buy is admission," he said. "What happens after that is mostly up to them."