SYRACUSE, N.Y., January 19, 2012—Syracuse University’s School of Education has readmitted a graduate student it had expelled from its teaching program after he complained on Facebook about a racially charged comment made in his presence by a community leader. Syracuse had told Matthew Werenczak that his only chance for reinstatement was to undergo a special course of diversity training and counseling for “anger management”—all because he expressed annoyance over a community leader’s complaint that student teachers were coming from Syracuse rather than historically black colleges. Within hours of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) bringing his case to the public, Werenczak was readmitted.
“Syracuse kicked a student out of school for complaining on Facebook about comments he thought were racist, and only reversed its decision in the face of public outrage,” said FIRE President Greg Lukianoff. “It’s long past time for Syracuse to live up to its promises of free speech and stop treating its students as second-class citizens.”
On July 20, 2011, Werenczak was student teaching with Danforth Middle School when he was introduced to a member of the city’s Concerned Citizens Action Program (CCAP). Shortly afterward, in the presence of Werenczak and one other white student teacher, the CCAP member, who is black, said that he thought that the city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges. Werenczak later discussed the remark on Facebook, saying, “Just making sure we’re okay with racism. It’s not enough I’m … tutoring in the worst school in the city, I suppose I oughta be black or stay in my own side of town.” Werenczak further wrote that “it kind of offends me that I’m basically volunteering the summer at Danforth, getting up at 630, with no AC, to help tutor kids and that’s not enough.”
Werenczak was summoned to a meeting with administrators shortly before the school year began, but he was not charged with any infraction of Syracuse’s rules and never received a disciplinary hearing. On September 7, however, Social Studies Education Coordinator Jeffery A. Mangram sent Werenczak a letter stating that the School of Education (SOE) was effectively expelling Werenczak because of his Facebook comments. In order to gain a mere chance of “re-admittance,” Werenczak was required to seek anger-management counseling, complete diversity training, and write a paper demonstrating growth “regarding cultural diversity.”
Hoping to return to school as soon as possible, Werenczak fulfilled these unjustified requirements by December 14. As of January 3, however, SOE had not yet even formed a committee to review his case, and Mangram then warned Werenczak not to push SOE or it might “further delay the process.”
FIRE wrote Syracuse University Chancellor Nancy Cantor on January 10, pointing out that the school’s action profoundly violated Syracuse’s promises in its Student Handbook that “[s]tudents have the right to express themselves freely on any subject” and that “Syracuse University … welcomes and encourages the expression of dissent.” Cantor failed to respond, so FIRE took the case public yesterday afternoon. Within hours, Werenczak received a letter readmitting him to the School of Education. Syracuse’s separate letter to FIRE attempted to place the blame on the School of Education’s accreditor, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).
“It’s quite disturbing that Syracuse called this ordeal the ‘standard process,'” said FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel. “Is it normal to expel someone without issuing charges or having a hearing, then to require psychological counseling and mandate diversity training for just the chance of readmission—all because of Facebook comments? I doubt the School of Education’s accreditor will agree.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.