Saying he was "ashamed and embarrassed," Santa Rosa Junior College President Robert Agrella Wednesday called an instructor's "kill the president" class assignment ridiculous but said the teacher cannot be dismissed for it.
Without naming him, Agrella in a prepared statement said that part-time political science instructor Michael Ballou had shown "unprofessional behavior" by jeopardizing students and using "the classroom lectern as a bully pulpit to espouse personal political leanings."
Ballou, an instructor at the college since 1990, had assigned summer session students to compose an e-mail message using the words "kill the president." The assignment drew attention after a student actually sent the message to Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, which resulted in a visit to the college instructor last week by Secret Service agents. Another student told his parents, who called the FBI.
Ballou was unavailable for comment Wednesday. But in interviews and a letter he has strongly defended the assignment as a way "to bring our underlying fear of government into the open."
"My class assignment brings out the fear each of us is already carrying around and then discusses how people or institutions capitalize on that baggage," he wrote in a letter published in Tuesday's Press Democrat.
Several students had defended Ballou and said they weren't supposed to actually send the messages. The students said the government's reaction to their instructor's assignment "validated his point."
Administrators, meanwhile, had said the assignment put students at risk of violating school policy and of running afoul of a law that prohibits making verbal or written threats on the life of the U.S. president.
Agrella, in his harshly worded statement, said the class assignment "by any reasonable standard jeopardizes students and is ridiculous."
"I am ashamed and embarrassed that a member of the Santa Rosa Junior College faculty has exposed his students and the college to such ridicule, and express my profound regrets to everyone who shares this shame and disappointment," he said.
Agrella referred to "a general outcry to fire the instructor" but suggested that college attorneys had ruled that out as an option.
Given that the college can't remove Ballou for "unprofessional speech," Agrella predicted that the harshest penalty would involve the "wave of criticism" that has hit the college and its faculty.
"This instructor may be protected by the shield of free speech, but he certainly cannot hide from the disdain he has brought upon himself by his own actions in the eyes of the public we serve, and in the view of many of his own colleagues," Agrella said.
Before he released the statement, Agrella said he would have no further comment on the matter. "I'm not going to go into any discussion about it with anyone," he said.
As a part-time, or adjunct faculty member with more than three years of experience, Ballou has the right to continue classroom instruction as long as he has a satisfactory evaluation in his personnel files, according to both an administrator and a faculty union representative.
Such evaluations typically include classroom observation, student input and the assessment of the department chairman and administrators.
Janet McCulloch, incoming president of the college's All Faculty Association, said she will ensure that Ballou receives fair treatment and that all his rights are protected should he face a new evaluation.
But she also conceded that, based on her interpretation of the agreement between the college and its faculty, "there is nothing in our contract that would protect what Michael did.
"He has the right to say what he wants in the classroom," McCulloch said. "It doesn't go to the point of asking students to jeopardize their futures."
She said she agreed with Agrella's statement and concluded, "It's my guess that the vast majority of the faculty are angry and frustrated and ashamed."