University of Minnesota Comes Through for Dissenting Student

March 25, 2008

With FIRE’s help, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota has been saved from the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity after his professor reported him for disrupting the classsimply because he and the professor had openly disagreed about a number of issues raised during his class presentation.

According to the student, during his presentation he took exception to some of the claims and methods in some of the course readingsa perfectly normal exercise of academic freedom, if not also academic responsibility. He had expressed similar views in email exchanges with fellow students. The professor disagreed, however, and they occasionally interrupted each other during his presentation.

Afterward, the professor complained to Sharon Dzik, Director of the Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity. On March 19, Dzik wrote the student that "According to what she [the professor] has told me it is possible that you may have violated the student conduct code, specifically Subdivision 2 which is Disruptive Classroom Conduct. I would like to talk to you about this to see if we can resolve this informally."

Around the same time, the student says, the chair of the department told him that he should stop going to class. It was left unclear whether he would be required to withdraw and have the withdrawal noted on his transcript.

After consulting with FIRE, the student wrote to his chair, stating in part:

Even if the meeting is only informal, I would like to have a fair chance to think about specifically what is being alleged against me so I am not surprised by anything at the meeting. I do feel that I am being unfairly investigated for normal classroom speech, and it seems to go against my academic freedom and freedom of expression as I understand it even to investigate me, informally or not, for such speech….

It seems quite unfair for me to be told I should not attend the class because of my views and comments, especially since my relationships with the other students in the class are good in other contexts. It seems like I’m being denied an educational benefit just because of my views expressed in classroom discussions that I was asked to lead and in email discussions among students.

The good news here is that the department very quickly reversed course. Working with the Director of Graduate Studies and in negotiations through the weekend, the student agreed to finish the course as an independent study, gaining a promise that the professor would grade him fairly. He also was told he no longer had to meet with Dzik.

While it remains shameful that the student’s views were so unpalatable to the professor that she ended up successfully excluding those views from her classroom, it is heartening that after just a few reminders about students’ First Amendment rights, higher-level administrators finally did the right thing.

Schools:  University of Minnesota – Twin Cities