University of Minnesota Still in the Hot Seat

January 5, 2010

Here at FIRE we are holding the University of Minnesota to its promise that it will never "mandate any particular beliefs, or screen out people with ‘wrong beliefs’ from the University." We are watching carefully because if some of the university’s professors had their way, this ideological screening would be exactly what the College of Education and Human Development would be doing in its teacher education program.

The university’s promise came last month from the university’s top attorney, Mark B. Rotenberg. We will ensure that the promise is kept by carefully monitoring the university’s subsequent plans. Yet Rotenberg’s letter also included several troubling and even misleading lines that have been highlighted by two FIRE friends and Campus Freedom Network members, KC Johnson and Mark Bauerlein. We urge Torch readers to read their critiques of Rotenberg’s letter and decide for themselves.

KC Johnson, for example, writes:

[Rotenberg] goes out of his way to defend the Education professors’ performance. He accuses FIRE of having based its letter on "an unfortunate misunderstanding of the facts." (Unfortunately, he doesn’t reveal what those misunderstood "facts" were.) He hails the Education process as indicative of the "creative thinking of many faculty members charged with exploring ideas to improve P-12 education and student achievement." Under his own signature, he repeats Dean Jean Quam’s absurd description of a formal task force report as nothing more than "faculty brainstorming"—as if the professors sat around a table over high tea, exchanging ideas off the top of their heads.

[Rotenberg] goes on: "Academic freedom means little if our teaching faculty is inhibited from discussing and proposing curriculum innovations simply because others find them ‘illiberal’ or ‘unjust.’" Carrying his argument to its logical exclusion, Rothenberg apparently believes that "our teaching faculty" shouldn’t be "inhibited" from "proposing curriculum innovations" that are based, say, on the premise that African-Americans are intellectually inferior. Most people would, justifiably, find such a proposal "illiberal" and "unjust"—but if the U of M Education Department proposes it, the university’s general counsel apparently would cite principles of academic freedom to defend such a curriculum.

Mark Bauerlein also has doubts about the depth of Minnesota’s commitment to principle:

As with ed school dean Jean Quam’s explanation of the review process a few weeks ago in the Star-Tribune, Rotenberg’s letter recasts several coercive and biased opinions about race, class, etc. into liberal, open-ended, broad-minded explorations of those matters. […]


[Rotenberg] says that the ed school’s "commitment" to liberal education "was recognized by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education in its 2006 evaluation of the College, which praised CEHD for ‘exposing candidates to a diversity of ideas and viewpoints,’ and for ‘respecting the variability of race/ethnicity, nationality, culture, language, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, disability status, and human potential.’"

Note, once again, the mendacious softening of language. Rotenberg defends the process as one aimed merely at "exposing" students to diverse viewpoints, and for teaching them to "respect" human variations. Would anybody reading the task group’s recommendations conclude that they allow students who have been exposed to [the] "white privilege" argument to dispute them? Does the group allow students to read about "institutional racism" and decide that it isn’t all that important to the algebra classroom?

Not at all. Yes, [one of the task group’s outcomes] says, "Future teachers are able to explain how institutional racism works in schools […]


Clearly, this isn’t education. It’s indoctrination. It warns, "You better ‘appreciate’ these victimizations, or you won’t pass." So, when Rotenberg devotes the rest of the letter to defending the academic freedom of the faculty designers, he betrays his own office. In a stunning, but unsurprising reversal, he suggests that FIRE and other critics are that ones constraining inquiry:

"Academic freedom means little if our teaching faculty is inhibited from discussing and proposing curriculum innovations simply because others find them ‘illiberal’ or ‘unjust.’"

This is a common power play in such controversies, one that turns the intimidators into the intimidated. And people who warn against coerciveness become censors and bigots.

As with Dean [Jean Quam], Rotenberg ought to remember that his duty is not to defend his own faculty, but to defend the principles on which the university stands. The report issued by the Task Group for Race, Culture, Class, Gender is a violation of those principles, and no amount of duplicitous verbiage from the administration will rationalize it away.

Thanks to KC, Mark, and for keeping attention on the situation at the University of Minnesota. The university would be wise to openly and publicly address their concerns. 

Schools:  University of Minnesota – Twin Cities

Cases:  University of Minnesota – Twin Cities: Political Litmus Test for Future Teachers