New Outrages at St. Louis Community College

January 8, 2008

As FIRE reports in a press release today, St. Louis Community College at Meramec (STLCC) just doesn’t understand that it should quit while it’s behind.

We reported in December the startling circumstances of this case: student Jun Xiao e-mailed his classmates about withdrawing from anorganic chemistry class and retaking it with another professor, he e-mailed them again later about taking Organic Chemistry II at another school, and—of course!—he was put on disciplinary probation and banned from e-mailing his classmates. In fact, the e-mail ban was imposed before Xiao even knew that there were charges against him. When he showed up for a meeting the next day, on October 24, he was handed a letter stating that he already had been found guilty of hazing and other offenses.

Xiao, who holds a Ph.D. from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and has postdoctoral training from MIT and Columbia (he enrolled at STLCC to fulfill medical school entrance requirements), asked several times for written copies of the evidence against him and was refused every time. After his appeal had been denied by Daniel Herbst, the same person who had found him guilty in the first place, Xiao turned to FIRE and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri (ACLU-EM) for help with his second appeal.

At first, STLCC was going to hold the appellate hearing without providing him the information that the Student Handbook required—you know, the easy stuff:

1. Charges against him;

2. Date, time, place and description of the violation;

3. Name of the person or persons requesting disciplinary proceedings;

4. Name of any and all known witnesses in the case; and

5. Date, time and place of the hearing.

To add insult to injury, STLCC was even considering holding the hearing without him. After FIRE wrote to STLCC on December 4, the hearing was postponed. Xiao still wasn’t given any copies of any complaints or evidence against him.

Finally, on January 5, Xiao received a letter (dated January 2) from the chair of the Student Appellate Hearing Committee, Denise Sperruzza, notifying him of a hearing to occur on January 11 (this Friday). The letter included STLCC’s capitulation with regard to Xiao’s e-mails. Herbst chose to dismiss “all allegations relating to your inappropriate use of [e-mail]” in that “you may have a constitutional right to send e-mails to other students.” I’m glad to know that students at STLCC now may be allowed to e-mail one another.

That could have—and should have—been the end of the whole ridiculous affair. But instead, Sperruzza’s letter stated that Xiao’s disciplinary probation would remain pending his appeal because of “the remaining allegations of misconduct”—of which Xiao was unaware until receiving the letter.

As we state in our press release, Xiao believed—even after Herbst had denied his appeal—that all of the charges against him stemmed from his e-mails to his classmates and from an exchange he had had with a dean, Gloria Adeyemi (who has since retired, as planned, for independent reasons). The letter, however, informed Xiao for the first time that the charge for “obstruction or disruption of teaching” charge was based on “delaying the class with repeating of questions regarding material that had either previously been covered in the course or knowledge that you should have had prior to coming into the course.”

That’s right. At STLCC it might be a violation if you ask too many questions to make sure you understand the material in class. English is Xiao’s second language. I wonder how many other ESOL students at STLCC will start to cower in fear about asking their STLCC professors to repeat course material more clearly. Oh, and so far I have seen no statement about the prerequisites for Organic Chemistry I at STLCC.

The January 2 letter also informed Xiao that the “disorderly conduct” charge stemmed from an alleged incident “when you were verbally abusive towards the Chemistry secretary.” This also was news to Xiao when he first heard the details, he says, after his appeal had been denied.

The timeline does not look so good for STLCC on this one. According to STLCC, the alleged incident occurred on October 10. The secretary did not file any complaint. On October 17, Xiao says, he met with STLCC’s president, Paul Pai, about class issues, and on the same day a brief e-mail was sent to Adeyemi and other administrators by a third party who said he had overheard the alleged conversation. This e-mail is the only written evidence against Xiao that STLCC has been willing to provide—which was provided in writing only to the ACLU-EM, not to Xiao—and not until yesterday, January 7! Then, on October 18, Xiao e-mailed the Physical Sciences Department chair, Andrew Langrehr, about whether an alternative Organic Chemistry II professor would be teaching in the spring, and on the same day, Adeyemi circulated the accusatory e-mail to Langrehr, to several administrators, and to Xiao’s organic chemistry professor. On October 21, Xiao sent the second controversial e-mail to his classmates, and finally on October 23, Herbst contacted him with the first notice of the e-mail ban—without mentioning the alleged incident with the Chemistry secretary. The October 24 letter also does not mention the alleged incident, and neither does Herbst’s denial of Xiao’s first appeal.

It is well past time for President Pai to close this case and hold his staff accountable for the outrages committed against Jun Xiao. Given STLCC’s record so far, Pai should be worried that as the violations mount, STLCC’s embarrassment will grow—and Xiao will have more and more grounds on which to take STLCC to task, if not also to court, where people really do believe in due process and freedom of speech.