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Professor Suspended for Condoleezza Math Problem

Today’s press release discusses the case of Professor Peter Ratener at Bellevue Community College (BCC) in Washington state. Ratener was in the news last spring for having composed a math exam question featuring someone named Condoleezza dropping a watermelon from the roof of a federal building.

On April 15, BCC’s Board of Trustees condemned Ratener in a public statement that said, “We…are deeply offended by the conduct of a math instructor at Bellevue Community College and strongly condemn this offensive behavior. This behavior is a gross violation of BCC’s mission and core value of respect for diversity.” The Trustees then urged the president of BCC to take disciplinary action.

Ratener himself issued an apology, saying to the BCC community, “I’m very sorry I have offended you. That was not my intention.” Ratener went on to explain that he first chose the comedian Gallagher for the question, but changed the name to “Condoleezza” because he thought it would be more easily recognizable for students. He vehemently maintains that the invocation of the racial stereotype was accidental. BCC even recognized in a letter that any offense was “unintentional.”

BCC nonetheless suspended Ratener for a week without pay, prompting him to contact FIRE. We wrote to BCC President Jean Floten on August 28, stating, “In a milieu as diverse as the modern academy, speech is bound to be misinterpreted, and offense is virtually unavoidable. Free speech needs breathing room in order to thrive.” In other words, a professor with 26 years of service to the college should not be harangued, then professionally and financially punished for making a politically incorrect gaffe.

BCC has already publicly castigated Ratener, acknowledged that the offense was unintentional, and Ratener has publicly apologized. Why, then, have BCC administrators decided it is necessary to suspend Ratener for a week without pay? As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in today’s press release, “This punishment is not only unfair and a violation of the First Amendment, but also totally unnecessary.” Whatever BCC’s intentions may be, FIRE is fully committed to seeing justice prevail for Peter Ratener.

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