This week, Ferris State University suspended tenured professor Barry Mehler after an out-of-context clip of an introductory class video went viral. In the clip, he wears a “space helmet,” uses profanity to parody a scene from the often-profane television show “Deadwood,” and says that students’ grades were predetermined under the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.
Mehler’s provocative teaching style might seem eccentric, or even erratic, to someone who sees a contextless clip of it floating around on the internet. One wouldn’t be unreasonable in wondering whether Mehler actually is just assigning students random grades and using profanity because the pandemic broke him.
“I was confused at the beginning of the class, and then I figured out I was going to like this class a lot.”
But with context — or even just watching the entire video — it’s clear Mehler is being sardonic, not serious: He explained how students could earn an ‘A’ (demonstrating that Mehler was joking about randomly assigning grades) and used the “Deadwood” clip as a humorous example of how to avoid plagiarism. All common syllabus week fare.
To remove any doubt for those who might be misled by an out-of-context clip, Mehler posted a new video yesterday explaining the introductory video was a “scripted performance” that “gets the students excited for the semester,” and that he grades his students “based on their work and their understanding.” Mehler quotes a few students who reacted positively to his video, including one who said, “I was confused at the beginning of the class, and then I figured out I was going to like this class a lot.”
Not only did it turn out that many of the online malcontents complaining about the video got it wrong, but the Ferris State administration knows they got it wrong — because they previously praised and rewarded Mehler’s idiosyncratic approach.
At least until a clip of his lecture — selectively edited to remove Mehler’s discussion about plagiarism and his explanation that he was parodying “Deadwood” as an example — went viral. Only then did administrators throw Mehler — and, as we explained earlier this week, the First Amendment — under the bus.
Yesterday, Mehler’s lawyer — Matthew Hoffer, who was retained to support Mehler by FIRE’s Faculty Legal Defense Fund — sent a letter to Ferris State’s leadership. The letter explains that senior administrators were not only aware of the video, they embraced Mehler’s teaching style, metaphorically and literally:
For starters, Dr. Mehler has 30 years of distinguished service to the University. He is well known for “The Show,” previously entitled “Sympathy for the Devil” and more recently, “More Bad News” (both brought to you by Camel Cigarettes). Dr. Mehler’s provocative teaching style, including his use of profanity, is well known to the University and cherished by its students. The Show has been brought to the University’s attention on multiple occasions and has been celebrated beyond just Dr. Mehler’s classroom.
After noting that a colleague wrote a letter in support of a merit increase in pay for Mehler (noting that his “methods . . . may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I know from talking to student[s] that those who ‘get it,’ and most do by the end of the semester, enjoyed the experience and they do learn to think”), the letter continues:
The University, for its part, agreed and granted the merit increase for Dr. Mehler.
In approximately 2016, the then Dean of the College of Arts, Sciences and Education, Dr. Kristi L. Haik, along with . . . interim Dean, Trinidy Williams, sat in on Dr. Mehler’s introductory course session. That session included the use of the Deadwood scene as an example of plagiarism, complete with profanity and the line, “no limber-dick cocksucker of an administrator is going to tell me how to teach my classes, because I’m a fucking tenured professor.”
Did Dr. Haik take offense? Of course not! Her response was to give Dr. Mehler a hug, tell him how wonderful The Show was, and exclaim that she wished she had an instructor like him when she was in school.
Mehler’s faculty colleagues also understood his provocative and sardonic approach:
In 2017, Dr. Mehler was nominated (not the first time) for a Distinguished Teaching Award. Members of the committee responsible for conferring the award individually attended a number of Dr. Mehler’s lectures, all of which included The Show for the semester, profanity and all. The committee placed Dr. Mehler as a finalist for the award.
And so did the students:
Following the video, Dr. Mehler was met with packed classrooms full of students ready to learn. The students got it! Why can’t the University?
Good question. Unfortunately, the university is not backing down, insisting that it needs to conduct a full investigation and remove Mehler from the classroom.
If you’d like to help save Ferris professor Barry Mehler, all it takes is two clicks — or, three if you want to share this clever URL with a friend (https://www.thefire.org/saveferris):
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).