WSU student claims discrimination because of conservative views

November 12, 2005

PULLMAN, Wash. — Ed Swan considers himself a basic social conservative, opposed to gay marriage, affirmative action and the notion that affluent white men are responsible for a lot of social injustice.

The Washington State University student also opposes abortion and wrote “diversity is perversity” in the margins of a textbook.

Swan’s attitude prompted his professors in the WSU College of Education to order him into diversity training, and almost caused Swan, 42, to be kicked out of the teacher training program.

He fought back by contacting the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a Philadelphia-based group that battles political correctness at universities.

“They want liberals out there teaching kids,” Swan complained about the College of Education. “To me, it seems mainstream opinions got me in trouble.”

Officials for the university say they are taking a fresh look at the criteria used to determine if prospective teachers are fit to lead a classroom full of children.

The evaluations are designed to identify future teachers who might introduce inappropriate material – whether about politics, religion or other hot-button issues – or would be uncomfortable among some groups in classrooms.

“We want prospective teachers to realize they are going to be teaching all children,” said Judy Mitchell, dean of education. “We want to make sure a teacher appreciates and values human diversity and others’ varied talents and perspectives.”.

Among other questions, the WSU form asks professors to evaluate whether a student exhibits an understanding of the complexities of race, power, gender, class, sexual orientation and privilege in American society.

Four times Swan’s teachers failed him on this question. He was threatened with termination from the teacher training program in August after teachers said they feared he could not withhold his opinions in a classroom. He was ordered to a training session with the Office of the Vice President for Equity and Diversity.

Swan described it as a “grilling session” that did not go well.

Melynda Huskey, who works in that office, declined to comment on Swan’s case.

“We do quite a bit of diversity education,” Huskey said.

Swan was also told to sign an agreement to respect community norms and appreciate diversity. He refused and the university withdrew it after receiving complaints from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which argued that it was an unconstitutional intrusion on Swan’s freedom.

Swan, who is married and has two children, is no longer in danger of being flunked, a development he attributes to the foundation’s intervention.

The owner of a landscape company in the small central Washington town of Othello, Swan has been commuting to WSU for several years to get a teaching degree. After finishing classes this month, he will spend 3 1/2 months student-teaching in Othello, which is overwhelmingly Hispanic.

George Juarez, superintendent of schools in Othello, said they were not aware of any problems regarding Swan.

The idea of evaluating whether future teachers will be effective has been widely adopted in recent years, largely because of prodding by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which evaluates teaching programs around the country.

Each college decides on its own what skills and attributes a teacher should have, said Jane Leibbrand, a spokeswoman for the council. She said 33 states have developed similar evaluation forms for teaching candidates.

“We’re trying to get to the softer side of teaching,” she said. “Some people are brilliant in the subject matter, but scream at their students, show favoritism, it’s things like that we are trying to get a hold of.”

This week, the National Association of Scholars demanded that the federal government look into the criteria the council uses to accredit education schools, on the grounds they may be violating free speech rights.

The association, based in Princeton, N.J., claims 4,000 professors, graduate students and administrators as members. President Stephen Balch said some of the criteria amount to “political tests.”

“Students can be required to embrace a particular view of `progressive social change,’ and even to become political activists in the pursuit of it,” Balch wrote to the U.S. Department of Education.

The WSU evaluation form was created in 2002, Mitchell said. Since then, 1,364 students have been evaluated and only 34 were not recommended for teaching certificates, Mitchell said.

In a letter to the foundation on Sept. 9, Mitchell wrote that the college would review its use of the forms and be careful not to apply them to political views.

Swan contends that while the forms may be intended to promote tolerance, they can be used to squash unpopular opinions.

“Those forms are a hammer,” said Swan, who doesn’t believe he should have to compromise his personal views to get a degree.

“I haven’t said a lot that should be too alarming,” Swan said. “I may be a little more conservative than some. The college to me is very, very liberal.”

David French, the foundation’s director, predicts that similar conflicts will emerge across the country.

The foundation intervened in a similar conflict at Brooklyn College, where some students complained they were retaliated against for complaining about a classroom showing of Michael Moore’s political charged documentary “Fahrenheit 911.”

“What matters is that you know your subject well or perform well in the classroom,” French said. “If you are talking about homophobia in physics class, that’s bad teaching.”

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