Teaching history not permitted: St. John’s bulldozes academic freedom, punishes professor for posing question about ‘Columbian Exchange’

October 8, 2020

NEW YORK, Oct. 8, 2020 — “Do the positives justify the negatives?”

It’s a standard question asked of history students about a range of topics to encourage critical thinking. But when St. John’s University adjunct professor Richard Taylor posed this question to students during a class about the “Columbian Exchange” — the process of globalization that began in the 15th century — he was accused of racism, removed from his classroom, investigated, and found guilty of “Bias, Discrimination, and Harassment.” All without seeing the evidence against him, and without any opportunity to appeal. 

Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to St. John’s, demanding it immediately rescind the investigation of Taylor, drop the bogus charges, and cease any further action in violation of his academic freedom rights.

“Academic freedom presupposes the freedom to ask the uncomfortable questions,” said Adam Goldstein, the author of FIRE’s letter. “History, as a discipline, is particularly concerned with complicating facile narratives and uncovering uncomfortable truths. Humans and their institutions are twisted and complicated, and academics have a duty to complicate our understanding of both. But at St. John’s, it appears some inquiries are forbidden.”

TAKE ACTION: DEMAND ST. JOHN’S REINSTATE PROFESSOR TAYLOR

On Sept. 7, Taylor taught the Columbian Exchange to his “Emergence of a Global Society” class. As it has in earlier years, Taylor’s instruction focused on early global trade, including trade in silver and potatoes. As part of the class, he also covered the more pernicious aspects of early trade, such as slavery, the abuse of indigenous populations, and the spreading of disease. On his final slide was a discussion prompt: “Do the positives justify the negatives?” A lively discussion ensued. One student said slavery could never be justified. According to Taylor, he clarified that no one is justifying slavery and asked students to consider global trade as a whole, including lives lost to disease and lives saved from famine.

Three days later, the Instagram account “sjuradicals” posted slides stating that Taylor “forced students to formulate a pros and cons list concerning the topic of slavery” and alleged he “poses a dangerous threat to the education of our student body.” The final item urged readers to direct a form letter to the university in order to “bring meaningful justice to this heinous crime committed by Professor Taylor.” The post also mentions Taylor’s service in the Marine Corps and the New York Police Department. Later that day, history department chair Nerina Rustomji informed Taylor by phone that he was removed from teaching.

On Sept. 15, Taylor met with Director of Equal Opportunity and Compliance Keaton Wong, who informed Taylor there were over 300 complaints of misconduct against him. Taylor found this surprising, as there were only 30 students in the class where the alleged misconduct occurred. Wong informed Taylor that St. John’s intended to treat each of the identical sjuradicals form letters as a stand-alone complaint, and that St. John’s could find him in violation of campus policy without identifying which portion of the policy he violated or what specific conduct violated the policy.

On Oct. 5, Wong informed Taylor that he violated the “University’s Policy against Bias, Discrimination, and Harassment” by teaching his class and noted that “the investigation’s finding is final and non-appealable.” Wong’s letter did not identify which part of the over 2,300-word policy Taylor allegedly violated, and Wong refused to provide him with the evidence used to support the finding.

There was also a conflict of interest: Amidst Taylor’s investigation, Wong was also targeted by sjuradicals, who called for her firing based on their perception that she had not done enough to punish employees in the past.

“The school’s refusal to provide evidence or identify specific policy violations make the university’s actions particularly sinister,” said Goldstein. “St. John’s might want to ask a history professor about other authority systems that would punish you based on vague wrongdoing with no evidence.”

Taylor is set to meet with Interim Dean Gina M. Florio tomorrow to discuss “next steps.”

“St. John’s University is wrong for removing me from teaching,” said Taylor. “By asking students to think about history on both a macro level and a micro level, the idea is that they will look at history from a long-term perspective. The exercise was one in which there is no correct answer, only what the student feels. What I would like to happen is that I am allowed to continue to teach at St. John’s University and given my classes back immediately. How are young adults expected to become critical thinkers if we do not push them to think critically at the college level?”

While St. John’s is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment, it repeatedly promises to protect free expression and academic freedom in its policies, and states that “St. John’s University believes that there is no compromise whatsoever between Catholic identity and freedom of inquiry.”

“Under any basic conception of academic freedom, the choice of whether and how to confront controversial material in a pedagogically-relevant context is left to faculty members, not administrators,” wrote Goldstein in FIRE’s letter. “St. John’s promises this right to its faculty and must not violate those promises. Doing so casts an unacceptable chill over faculty rights and exposes the university to considerable legal liability.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Daniel Burnett, Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

Simon Geir Møller, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, St. John’s University: mollers@stjohns.edu

TAKE ACTION: DEMAND ST. JOHN’S REINSTATE PROFESSOR TAYLOR


Schools:  St. John’s University

Cases:  St. John’s University: Professor Accused of Violating Bias Policy for Asking Students to Debate Global Trade