My name is Michael Wiesner and I am a former student at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. I am writing this article in the wake of an incident in which a teacher at the college recommended psychological therapy to an Arab student who had praised the U.S. Constitution.
On December 1st, a professor named Joseph Woolcock suggested a Kuwaiti Arab Muslim student named Ahmad Al-Qloushi should seek therapy after the student submitted a paper arguing that the U.S. Constitution was a step forward for America and the world. The Foothill College Republicans reported Dr. Woolcock's behavior to the media, and Dr. Woolcock issued a grievance in a further attempt to silence the student.
The college is treating the matter as if it is an isolated incident. They are doing everything they can to distance themselves from the matter. But in truth, teacher intimidation goes to the very heart of the Foothill College bureaucracy. It has become commonplace for the school to silence students with ideas or opinions contrary to those of their professors. Instead of accepting these cases as part of a larger problem, the Foothill College bureaucracy, all the way up to President Bernadine Fong, have chosen to ignore the larger issue and silence individual cases. As a result, intellectual pluralism has been ruined, and Foothill College no longer an institution of free ideas.
Foothill College is not only a place where conservative students like Ahmad are low-tracked by liberal teachers. It is also a place where conservative professors feel free to bust down liberal students like me. The problem goes beyond politics. Foothill College is a place where teachers are free to target students they dislike, out of pique, race, religion, or sexual orientation, with inappropriate comments during class, intimidation, and grade manipulation. I am writing this article because it happened to me, and I have been intimidated into silence about my ordeal for three years. It is Ahmad Al-Qloushi's courage in this matter that brings me to speak about my experience. Ahmad and I are speaking out as two students at the opposite ends of the political spectrum.
I find most of David Horowitz's right-wing views to be offensive. I led an anti-war rally at Foothill College, and I voted against George W. Bush both times. That having been said, intellectual pluralism is not a political issue. We must treat intellectual pluralism as an issue of intellectual freedom. Both liberal students and conservative students ought to be free to express their ideas in the classroom. My story describes the denial of student rights and opinions, grade manipulation and favoritism. It also describes the six-month long battle I fought with Foothill College, and the College's attempt to silence myself, my views, and my retelling of what happened in within a Foothill College classroom.
In the Winter of 2002 I took an Ethics course taught by Professor Dave Peterson. Throughout the course, Professor Peterson was not only biased in his presentation of ethics, but also indoctrinated us with his conservative agenda, and was purposefully offensive toward liberal views and beliefs.
I recall the first time Professor Peterson discussed the 'ethical' position of being pro-life. Professor Peterson equated abortion with the then-popular Andrea Yates case, and stated there was no difference between “a mother who orders a doctor to murder her babies and a mother who drowns her children in a bathtub.” I, along with a number of students, challenged his analogy, and we were told that we were simply wrong and did not understand ethics. He then continued his tirade against abortion, singling out and ridiculing some women in the class, and using them as characters in his examples. On this occasion and many others, several people were so sickened by his explicit examples they had to leave the room. He reduced one woman to tears in the middle of class. (The day of the final, he told this student that it didn't matter what grade she received on the exam, she would receive an F.) His anti-abortion examples were repeated over and over. As students began to feel personally targeted, enrollment dropped to a fraction of the original enlistment. Those who remained realized that to disagree was to be targeted, and remained silent. He once deducted significants points on an essay from a female student because her essay discussed a film from the perspective of feminism. Despite him having suggested that film in writing, he wrote on her paper that she was “not qualified to discuss the matter.”
Finally, at the end of the quarter, Professor Peterson said that if we would bring a self-addressed stamped envelope, he would mail our final tests back to us. I participated in this process because at this time I had voiced my opposition to many of his personal beliefs. He never sent a copy of my exam back to me, which made it very convenient for him to do what he did next.
I received a D in the class. I decided to approach the Professor Peterson for further information. However, the professor refused to return my calls. Whenever I ran into him on campus the following quarter, I repeatedly asked why he would not disclose my grades to me. He would give excuses such as, “My computer is broken, I can't retrieve your grades right now,” or “My desk is very cluttered, when I come across them, I'll let you know.” Finally, he would simply turn and walk away from me.
Professor Peterson's previous attitude had made me cautious about talking to anyone about what happened in his class. However, I read the “Investigation and Resolution of Complaints Regarding Harassment and Discrimination” pamphlet Foothill College distributes. I learned that it is unlawful for professors to retaliate against someone who files a discrimination complaint or refers a matter for investigation.
I believed I was under the protection of the Foothill College, and contacted the then-Dean of Social Sciences, Elizabeth Zoltan. I reported that Professor Peterson would not speak to me regarding the matter, and asked if she would help. The Dean told me she would speak with Professor Peterson.
Professor Peterson responded to me via e-mail, very quickly, with immediate retaliation. His tone of sarcasm in the e-mail was blatant. He lowered my grade from a D to an F. He also wrote, 'Thank you also for bringing this to the attention of the Dean.' The policy I had believed would protect me had been completely ignored by the Professor.
I forwarded the e-mail to the Dean, and believed I would surely be protected under Foothill College's anti-retaliation policy. However, the Dean resisted helping me, and her tone quickly became hostile. I decided to go beyond my grading inquiry, and disclosed Professor Peterson's witch hunt against liberals. I told her about his silencing of our own opinions in face of his “ethical” positions. Surprisingly, the Dean did even less to help. I quickly realized there was no policy to protect intellectual pluralism. The faculty continued to resist any charges.
It turned out that Professor Peterson had given me no credit on two of my three papers, written from a liberal standpoint. He also began to mark me absent for days I attended the full class period. Professor Peterson seemed adamant from the moment I disagreed with him to show me who was the boss.
Professor Peterson had made an active attempt to induce an environment unbecoming of a learning institution, ignored and even took retaliation on one of his students, and was entirely uncooperative through this process. I hand-delivered the entire documentation of my ordeal to Bernadine Fong, the President of Foothill College. The matter was simply swept under the carpet. Professor Peterson still teaches at Foothill College.
Ahmad Al-Qloushi and I speak out as two victims who will not be silenced. In my case, when the Dean and Professor Peterson saw I was not going to be pushed into obedience, they said they would change the F back into a D, but no more. I told the Dean this settlement missed the point of my objections to Professor Peterson. Foothill College ignores the threat to intellectual pluralism by granting individual settlements to students who push hard enough. They proposed changing my F back into a D, and acted as if reversing Professor Peterson's retaliation was an acceptable way to solve the larger problem. Ahmad and I, in our pursuit of the underlying principles of education, speak for the unknown number of victims at Foothill and at universities across the country.
The only benefit to the outrage currently taking place at Foothill College and universities around the country is that there is a clear solution. While Ahmad and I may disagree politically, we both agree that it is entirely inappropriate for a teacher to use his or her authority over a student to both attack the student's political beliefs and silence any opposition. The only way that Foothill College can solve the growing problem of intellectual intimidation and silencing, is if the public urges its board of trustees to protect the students' rights under the Academic Bill of Rights.
E-mail Michael by clicking here.