University of California, Los Angeles faculty member Gordon Klein never imagined a routine email exchange with a student this summer would land him at the center of an explosive national controversy. Accused of racism and abuse of power, and ejected from his classroom, Klein faced termination from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, where he taught with a spotless record for almost 40 years.
“I was following university policy meticulously in refusing to discriminate,” Klein said of his email response to a white student who requested Klein loosen his grading policies to help black students during nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd.
Klein said he simply followed UCLA’s Faculty Code of Conduct, which prohibits the failure to hold exams as scheduled. It also prohibits evaluating students on criteria other than their course performance and engaging in race-based discrimination.
But Klein’s message, which challenged the student to critically consider the implications of his request by suggesting a series of hypotheticals highlighting the problems with race-based grading criteria, was misunderstood. Soon, a screenshot of the email was all over social media. Klein’s dean swiftly denounced the message publicly as “outrageous” and an “abuse of power,” and UCLA put Klein on leave, indicating punishment would follow. A petition for the professor’s ouster garnered 20,000 signatures.
Soon however, a dueling petition for Klein’s reinstatement garnered more than 75,000 signatures. And after FIRE intervened — publicizing the case and reminding UCLA of its constitutional academic freedom obligations — the university dropped the case in July, admitting it did not even merit an investigation.
But Klein — a nationally recognized expert in accounting — said the personal cost of the controversy is incalculable.
In a Q&A, Klein tells FIRE his story.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
FIRE: What have the last few months been like for you?
Gordon Klein: The last few months have been very disconcerting and challenging.
I was very surprised, of course, that I became the focus of a controversy. All I was doing was communicating with a student, who I knew quite well from a previous class, and trying to challenge his reasoning when he appeared to encourage me to do racial profiling, identify students based on their race, discriminate based on stereotypes.
And thankfully, I did [reach out to FIRE], because I received incredible assistance, compassion and understanding at a time when I was under attack.
Those stereotypes being, in his view, that his black classmates were less capable than he, a nonblack individual, was in terms of performing in the class.
I thought I was simply challenging him, in a Socratic fashion, to rethink his thought process that grades should be based on a person’s skin color, as opposed to their particular moment of need on an individualized basis.
That created a firestorm, much to my surprise.
FIRE: When did you realize that this was blowing up? What did you do?
Klein: Within hours, word of my email reached people outside of the university and a number of these outside individuals were organized to complain to the university’s higher-ups, including the chancellor and my dean.
And they appear to have overwhelmed my dean with accusations against me. But none of the people accusing me ever identified themselves as knowing me or being one of my students. Some were from elsewhere on campus and some were not even university students.
The dean asked me to call him that evening, which I did. Much to my surprise, the dean was on the phone with me for no more than approximately one minute, after which he hung the phone up on me.
He didn’t give me a chance to explain, and he didn’t want to listen to the context. He simply acknowledged we’d known each other for a long time and that he was sending the case to the so-called DPO, which I later understood to mean the Discrimination Prevention Office. I have taught at the university for 39 years and taught in that time approximately 23,000 students, and I never even heard of the Discrimination Prevention Office because my teaching record and my relationship with students is pristine.
I was deeply disappointed in the dean for not giving me even the opportunity to explain the circumstances.
The following morning he sent out emails telling all of these complaining students who accused me of being racist that I was in fact engaged in misconduct. He characterized me as engaging in conduct that was “inexcusable” and “outrageous.” The next day he sent a message to alumni and faculty which labeled me as somebody who violated the school’s core principles and engaged in “an abuse of power.” That email to the broader Anderson community appears to have gone to tens of thousands of people.
Many of them are my friends, my past students, my colleagues, and business associates in the local community. I was dumbfounded that he did that. Especially because the university has very strict policies on privacy and confidentiality in personnel matters. And it supposedly has very strict policies that favor due process.
That is to say, it wasn’t for the dean to act as judge and executioner. It was up to the dean to refer it to the broader university for further inquiry. And, in the meantime, it was incumbent upon him to remain silent.
With some irony, now that I’ve been reinstated, when the university is asked by the media to comment on why they made this huge mistake, they invoke confidentiality and say they can’t speak on the matter.
When this happened, it was a very strange time in American society. There were riots taking place across the street from the campus, and I believe UCLA was very concerned about them spreading to campus. I believe that the dean acted recklessly in treating me as a sacrificial lamb in the remote hope he would placate mobs.
It did not. All it did was destroy my reputation and destroy my relationship with my colleagues and friends. Because I come from a family that is very politically liberal, I was concerned that it might destroy my relationship with my family.
FIRE: How did you end up connecting with FIRE?
Klein: I was at the center of this controversy, with 75,000 people signing a petition indicating that the university should rehire me. Among those 75,000 people were a lot of wonderful supporters who I’d never met in my life, as well as past students who do know me, know my character and know my kindness to them in the past and present. Several of them reached out to me and they suggested that I contact FIRE.
And thankfully, I did, because I received incredible assistance, compassion and understanding at a time when I was under attack. Not just attacks professionally, but I was receiving death threats requiring police protection.
The attorney I spoke to at FIRE gave me extraordinary assistance, wrote a letter to the university, gave me guidance on this matter. FIRE set the case out there. I believe that is what alerted the UCLA’s Academic Freedom Committee to independently pursue an investigation.
And the Academic Freedom Committee issued a determination that made it very clear that what was done to me was wrong and that it would have an incredible chilling effect on me personally and, far more importantly, on the conduct of all professors in the University of California System going forward.
The committee specifically pointed to the fact that if your life can be taken away from you and you can be publicly humiliated as I was, no one will dare to do their job well. No one will speak freely. No one will pursue research that might lead to a controversial conclusion. No one will speak in class in a way that will stimulate controversy and discussion. No one will ever address some of the most important issues of our time, such as issues of discrimination, free speech, and freedom of association.
So, I was very grateful for the actions of FIRE, which were a catalyst for UCLA’s Academic Senate’s Academic Freedom Committee to reach the conclusions that they did about the importance of a free exchange of ideas on campus, including ideas that might challenge students to revise their thinking.
Unfortunately, where we are now is that professors are scared to do anything that might be controversial.
I believe it’s important for people in the educational process to be able to propose extreme hypotheticals.
That’s a horrible circumstance, because the nature of a university is the free exchange of ideas. When you feel you can only say one type of idea or feel required to self-censor, you create a lowest common denominator of blandness in the educational process.
I believe it’s important for people in the educational process to be able to propose extreme hypotheticals.
I believe it’s important to be able to ask challenging questions of students.
FIRE: Was that the worst part of this experience? That people believed you were a racist?
Klein: That was, and remains, a horrible scarlet letter that was placed upon me, based on one email that was utterly taken out of context.
The social media crowd deliberately didn’t publish the student’s initial email that I was responding to, because if that letter had been published it would have mentioned that the writer himself was not black. And it would have mentioned that the writer himself was not enduring any particular emotional distress. And it would have mentioned that I previously had sent to the class anti-racist materials.
All of those facts would have led a reasonable observer, reading what I wrote, to recognize that I found the student’s email to be condescending and patronizing toward black students.
In my view, all of my students are capable. All of my students are talented. And I don’t distinguish based on race. I was, frankly, grossly offended that this individual, who I knew to not be black and who self-identified in his email as not being black, would dare insult and characterize his classmates as being lesser in capability, lesser in perseverance, or lesser in talent than him. And so, if there was racism, the racism came from the student who wrote to me. And I challenged that racism.
FIRE: Can you tell me what it was like when you found out you had been reinstated?
Klein: I knew that I would be reinstated because I knew that there wasn’t an ounce of discrimination in my heart or in my communication.
I knew what my contract told me about upholding university values against race-based stereotyping.
I knew I had done nothing wrong.
I was pleased that the Academic Senate, without provocation from me, had investigated this matter on its own and sided fully with my conduct. It indicated that if a student asks a provocative question of a professor, the professor is entitled to respond to that provocative question and challenge the student’s reasoning. I also later learned that the Discrimination Prevention Office had not even pursued an investigation of this matter. It had closed the file without even bothering to speak with me because a clear reading of the email chain from start to finish indicated I had done nothing wrong.
And so, I knew that I would be reinstated. It was simply a matter of time for that reinstatement to occur.
FIRE: But it sounds like things are not back to normal.
Klein: With regard to the damage done to me, there is the old adage, “What do you do to get your reputation back?”
The initial news has been widely disseminated, and lives on the internet forever. When someone gets their reputation cleared, it rarely receives equal prominence in the media or online. So, it remains to be seen how horribly damaged my reputation is.
I’m thrilled to know that most of my friends and relatives, and I hope my colleagues, recognize that the dean’s characterization of me isn’t who I am and that it was simply an extreme portrait in a very difficult time in America where the university needed a scapegoat.
The person I blame is my dean. Unlike people on social media, he had a job to do. Before he destroys the livelihood and the reputation of one of his most loyal colleagues, he has the duty to be meticulous, careful, respectful, and adhere to the university’s rules of confidentiality. He acted recklessly, causing me untold harm, whether it’s death threats or the loss of my outside income.
Indeed, the very day I was reinstated, he sent out another message to tens of thousands of people that again disparaged me, tacitly suggesting I would be reinstated, but that there was some other part to the story that, due to confidentiality, he couldn’t disclose. That was shameless on his part. He knew there was no other part to the story, but he decided to create the illusion that he was overruled by the school but that, if all the facts were known, he was right.
Let me be clear. He was reckless. He was callous. And the school has caused me indelible harm.
There are certain characterizations in this world that are horrific, and deservedly horrific. A true racist should be denigrated in society and should be marginalized.
But somebody who is not a racist but is labeled as such suffers incredible harm.
FIRE: How should universities handle allegations like the one against you?
Klein: In my view, universities surely should investigate any assertions of racism. They should not tolerate it. I support that.
I have been somebody who has volunteered my time at UCLA over the years to programs that mentor underprivileged students, many of whom are from minority backgrounds. I revere those programs, and I revere the university standing up for the value that everyone should be treated equally.
However, there seem to be circumstances of late where universities feel that, instead of defending the importance of the free exchange of ideas or the disciplined due process examination of facts, they react reflexively and condemn someone who has been accused, with little or no basis.
I can’t speak about every situation in the world and every other professor. I don’t know those facts well enough. But I can speak about what happened to me, and I know that my situation was transformed into a horrific, distorted caricature.
FIRE: Can you tell me why you became a professor? What do you love about teaching?
Klein: I am somebody who has been fortunate to be very successful in the business world and in the legal community. I am trained as an attorney and certified public accountant. And it’s always been important to me to be involved in education. My mother was a schoolteacher. I have a brother who is a professor and I have an uncle who is a professor. And we always were raised to be kind to others and give back to others.
My passion for teaching comes from the desire to help others. Kind of a “pay it forward,” because others were kind to me and gave me advice when I was young. I try my best to mentor others, whether it’s to give them substantive knowledge, teach them critical reasoning, or mentor them in their careers. It also is a very self-interested desire to always be around bright, talented, curious, upbeat individuals. Most university students have an abundance of talent and interests, and their varied experiences have enriched my life beyond belief.
I like to tell it this way: Many people go to college, meet dozens of people, and perhaps come away with a dozen or so great friends. I feel like I’ve been a part of 39 years’ worth of graduating classes at UCLA, interacting with about 600 students each year. As a result, I have encountered people from every part of the world, from every race, from every religion, and from every life experience. And that has fascinated me beyond belief.
Some people have hobbies, like sports or art. My greatest joy is interacting with and learning from other people.
I hope I can impart some knowledge to them as well.