(Jake Summerhays is a senior majoring in Political Science at Columbia University. He is a 2008 FIRE summer intern.)
To be honest, I was caught off guard on that first day of class. I was offended, and for a moment, I considered whether it was going to be beneficial for me—academically or spiritually—to remain in the class. Being a good Mormon boy (or at least making my best efforts), I had been taught that there are some words you just don’t say. I had also never come across a teacher in all my years of schooling who routinely used profanity, much less used it multiple times in the first 15 minutes of the first session of class. Professor Parent, recognizing that his style of teaching potentially could offend some of the 150 students in the room, paused after uttering a few choice words and stated, “Just by way of warning, I curse a little bit more than basic cable. If you can’t handle that for whatever reason, I suggest that you find another class, because I am not going to change.”
Sure, the language was arguably unnecessary and the apology insincere, maybe bordering on being insulting. But in spite of this start, both he and I—and the TAs and the rest of the students—recognized the professor’s right to free speech. I decided to stay in the class; after all, I hadn’t let occasional vulgarity stop me from watching basic cable. Professor Parent delivered on his promise: every lecture was garnished with a few “f-bombs” and other choice words. But in the end, I had a great academic experience. Professor Parent challenged not only our preconceived notions of American history and politics, but also the way in which we were accustomed to learning.
You can imagine my initial shock, therefore, when I heard that Brandeis University Professor Donald Hindley was declared guilty of racial harassment for using the term “wetbacks” in his Latin American Politics class. What makes this story even more ridiculous is that Professor Hindley was not using the word to single out a student or to demean Mexicans in general; rather, he was critiquing the use of the word. But the mere utterance was enough to offend a student who later complained to the administration.
Now, I do not personally blame the student. As a college student, I realize that we are some of the most sensitive people in the world. Some of us believe think that a passing comment, even one taken completely out of context, somehow constitutes a personal attack—an episode of harassment so vicious that we are unable to bear the burden of being in the classroom any longer. Okay, maybe I do blame the student. But I blame the Brandeis administration even more. This administration’s mission statement declares that Brandeis University is a “center of open inquiry and teaching” that “renews the American heritage of academic freedom.” However, it appears that “open inquiry and teaching” does not extend to faculty members innocuously using words that are later taken out of context by hypersensitive students. By catering to false accusations of discrimination and harassment, instead of promoting open inquiry and teaching, the administration of Brandeis has created an environment (a “center of forbidden inquiry?”) where people should fear and second-guess all things they say, which ultimately limits the potential of discourse and the quality of education their university can offer.
Brandeis’ hypocrisy is very disturbing and reflects a growing trend of oversensitivity and political correctness that approaches ubiquity on college campuses today. By limiting speech on college campuses, Brandeis and other universities where censorship is common also limit the ways in which students may learn and grow as people. Instead of preparing their students to excel in the real world, they are creating narrow-minded wimps who complain about anything they confront whose meaning can be skewed to seem even slightly offensive. And that offends me.