“My name is Michael Vocino and I like dick.”
These were the words spoken by my philosophy professor, Michael Vocino, as he introduced himself to our class the first day of his Political Philosophy course.
In the fall semester of 2003, I enrolled in PSC341, “Political Philosophy: Plato to Machiavelli” as part of my studies to earn my degree in Political Science at the University of Rhode Island. According to the course catalog, this class was about the “Major political philosophies from Plato to Machiavelli and their influence on such key concepts as justice, equality, and political obligation.” But Professor Vocino’s class focused mainly on the professor’s sexual preference and social beliefs and his vendetta against political conservatives and Christians.
Being a conservative activist both on and off campus in a blue state, I have engaged in many debates that have brought me criticism for my beliefs. Criticism in public debate should be expected as should constructive criticism of intellectual beliefs within the classroom. Yet, when comments are vehement and specifically targeted at one’s core beliefs, and the attacker is a professor with the authority of his position behind him, the idea of constructive criticism can be lost and with it the idea of an education.
Being in a new class with a new professor, I was unsure what to expect on my first day. I did not expect my philosophy professor to open the class with the statement he did.
As he walked into the room from the door he had just closed, Professor Vocino looked at me and -- in front of the entire class -- asked, “Are you queer?” Not sure as to what or whom he was pertaining, I responded with a defensively vauge, “What?” He repeated the question and this time I answered, to his apparent disappointment, that I was not. At that point, the class laughed.
Continuing the introduction of himself to the class, he spoke about how he had not had sexual relations for some time because he was waiting for, “true love.”
As for the course direction, he explained he was only going to teach us about Machiavelli and his main work, The Prince. In other words, he intended to omit all of the philosophers from Plato to Machiavelli that the course was intended to cover. His reason for leaving out Plato? “I don’t like the Greeks.”
In speaking to other students after this opening class, I learned that Professor Vocino’s actions that day were not extraordinary, but typical of his teaching style.
During the semester that followed, Professor Vocino made numerous sexual comments and gestures towards myself and other male members of the class. On the second day of class, Professor Vocino asked me, in front of the class, whether I was uncomfortable knowing that he thought that I was “hot.” I answered in the affirmative. Further along in the semester, as I entered the class with my shorts on, Professor Vocino noted that I had nice legs. To that, I responded that though they may be nice, they were unfortunately hairy.
A few times during the semester instead of giving the usual educational assignments, Professor Vocino asked me, and a few other male members, to try “making out” with other males and tell the class how it felt. While observing an outside student walk by the classroom with baggy-style jeans on, he offered that he wished men would wear tighter pants because he liked “bums.” Often Professor Vocino would ask members of the class for hugs. In fact, he did an “experiment” to see how people reacted to the intrusion on their personal space. This “experiment” consisted of class members standing as close as they could to each other. He ended the “experiment” with students, again mostly male and including myself, standing as close to him as they felt comfortable.
During the semester, Professor Vocino spent much time on the subject of sex, or in his words, “fucking”, often asking students if they were sexually active; if so, how much, with who and when. It was a frequent occurrence for Professor Vocino to talk about “dick” and all of the actions that one can do with said body member. It should be noted that one entire class was devoted to the topic of masturbation.
By the end of the first class, everyone knew that I held politically and socially conservative views. In introducing ourselves to the class, we were instructed to say one thing about ourselves to the class. As I was in the process of forming the lone Conservative student organization on campus, I took the opportunity to promote the new club. At that time, only one student expressed an interest. At the start of the next class this student and I were asked to stand in front of the class and explain why we were Republicans. As this was at a time when the state Governor was negotiating with the professor’s union, we were asked to defend his actions. There were numerous points during the semester that we were asked to defend the Bush Administration’s policies. The debates that followed usually got heated, sparking strong comments from both students and professor alike. A major portion of one class was spent comparing President Bush to a serial killer because he was sending troops to Iraq.
While defending my conservative beliefs, I revealed that I was a Christian. Consequently, I was often pressured to defend President Bush’s faith and the policies resulting from his religious beliefs. Often times Professor Vocino would ask me what “Your Bible” had to say about controversial issues like abortion, homosexuality and war.
I have never been embarrassed by my beliefs. There have been occasions when students have expressed an interest in learning more about the Christian religion and I welcome the chance to speak with them. However, while I welcome the chance to express my religious beliefs, there are times and circumstances that can make the same expression difficult and nerve-wracking. Having your own professor attack you is one; having a majority of your classmates do so is another. Many times throughout the course I became apprehensive and intimidated as I was subjected to harsh and extreme and emotional criticisms.
For example, I made it known that I felt that the term “fucking” was inappropriate to be used in the classroom. Following Professor Vocino’s prompt, one student confronted me stating that she was offended that I would seek to “protect women” by asking people to refrain from the use of that kind of speech. I felt instantly defeated by this unexpected line of attack. In response, I quietly explained that I found it to be an inappropriate use of the term, and that I felt that there should be a little more professionalism within the classroom. I explained that just as there are professional standards in any workplace, there should be standards in the classroom and especially in regards to what was appropriate for a teacher.
Professor Vocino often singled me out to explain why I would want to refrain from engaging in “fucking” until I was married. I would always respond that I wished to refrain from “sex” and/or “sexual intimacy” until marriage because such relations were God’s gift to marriage. My explanations were always received by Professor Vocino with a derogatory smile.
Since students are known to be a little adventurous, Professor Vocino would always spend the first portion of class on Mondays attempting to find out what we did over the weekend. The conversation would be spent on drinking habits, drug habits, and of course, “fucking” habits. It was almost like clock work that I would be expected to explain what I did over the weekend, and why I did not want to drink heavily and use drugs. This would usually spark up another debate within the class, often resulting in the conclusion that I need to “live a little.”
The most frequent criticism of my Christian belief was its position against homosexuality. At the time of the course, the debate over same-sex marriage was receiving much national attention, particularly in neighboring Massachusetts. As the designated Christian and conservative spokesperson in the class (and not always wanting the task), I was required to defend these positions. At one point, after finishing my explanation, Professor Vocino responded contemptuously, “What the fuck does it matter?”
As the semester progressed, I began to feel hated within the classroom. I found myself wanting to avoid class because I did not want to be attacked. I wondered about all the campus regulations which emphasized “diversity” and “sensitivity” to and respect for the Other. I wondered why these regulations didn’t apply to people’s hateful attitudes towards me.
The fear I experienced was intensified by Professor Vocino’s own attitudes towards me. He would often deliberately mischaracterize Christian beliefs in order to provoke me to respond. One such occurrence was when Professor Vocino asked me why I and other Christians “hate fags.” It took a lot of effort to explain why it is incorrect to state that Christians “hate fags.” My difficulty stemmed in part that I was a student and he was my professor. I was conscious of my lack of knowledge and experience, compared to his level of expertise in Biblical history and text. The fact that the accusations he was making were harsh and extreme increased my discomfort.
Professor Vocino also argued that “According to [the Christian] religion, [Christians] should be stoning me to death” because Professor Vocino was homosexual. This was of course referencing Leviticus 20:13, part of the old Jewish law. This understandably got many students angry. Due to the overwhelming odds and the rising emotions in the room, I did not think to respond with Christ’s words “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone."
Another such occurrence where I felt very removed from the class was when Professor Vocino remarked that there should be security officials escorting women into abortion clinics because the “wacko Christians” were outside and dangerous.
Professor Vocino said on another occasion that fundamentalist Christians were ruining America with their beliefs and were depriving people of their rights. According to Professor Vocino, Christians were “wrong”, “crazy”, “nuts”, “idiots”, etc.
Ironically, Professor Vocino often stated that he loved Jesus. He often said that he would like to attend church again. After repeatedly hearing this, I took a chance and publicly invited him, and anyone else, to attend my church for a special Thanksgiving service. Professor Vocino responded with a compromise proposal, which was he would only come to church with me if I went to a gay bar with him. This proposal was made during class and many students became upset with me because I would not agree to visit a gay bar.
Wishing to explain my reasons, I sent Professor Vocino an email that I truly wanted him to attend church with me and that I was willing to listen to his thoughts over coffee. He responded saying that unless I went into what he called the “lion’s den of iniquity”, as did Daniel, and go with him to a gay bar, then he would not attend.
Because of Professor Vocino’s extra-curricular preoccupations, the time we were able to spend in class discussing the actual subject matter was limited. We did read Machiavelli’s The Prince and a guide to the author. We were also required to write a brief review of a third book, Machiavelli and Us, written by Louis Althusser, a French Communist who strangled his wife and ended his career in an insane asylum. A mid-term was given and at the conclusion of the semester we were required to give a short presentation relating Machiavelli’s principles to some portion of our life.
Though we did cover Machiavelli, Professor Vocino chose to run the class largely through student presentations. Instead of Professor Vocino explaining The Prince, each chapter was gone over by the assigned student.
Although the course was described as “Political Philosophy: Plato to Machiavelli,” and was meant to cover 2,000 years of political philosophy, our syllabus only had three books. Each of the three books had to deal with Machiavelli. As someone who wished to learn about political philosophy, I felt extremely frustrated by the end of the course. Instead, everything relating to Machiavelli was redirected to Professor Vocino’s obsession with sex.
I was deeply troubled throughout the semester. I spoke with many family and friends about the situation, so as to make sure that I was not overreacting. By the time I became uncomfortable enough to want to drop the course, it was past the point where I could do so without penalty or sign up for a new class. Wanting to keep my credits, I stayed in the class. However, I periodically chose not to show up.
I was often advised that I should confront Professor Vocino with my concerns. Since I was extremely apprehensive about the entire matter, I did not confront Professor Vocino for quite some time. It was not until I received the email about the “den of iniquity” that I decided to approach him. I worked in a law office to finance my education. I was advised by the lawyer I worked for to write a letter putting Professor Vocino on notice that I was very uncomfortable with his behavior and requested that he only speak to me on matters dealing directly with the course subject matter. Professor Vocino refused to sign the letter, as he felt that he did nothing wrong. When he received the letter, he apologized for making me feel uncomfortable and stated that he would honor my wishes.
Yet, this newfound respect was brief in duration. When he resumed his usual provocations, I decided to go to the Chair of the Political Science Department. I took along the other conservative student who was sometimes criticized with me. I was pleased to learn that she was appalled by Professor Vocino’s behavior. As my friend and I were uncomfortable dealing with the matter before the conclusion of the class, we met with the Chair immediately following the last day of class. Following our meeting, we were assured that Professor Vocino would be spoken to and that his teaching in the Political Science Department would be suspended. To my knowledge, this promise has been met. I was greatly impressed with how the Department handled the matter.
At the beginning of the next semester, I was contacted by the Discrimination/Affirmative Action office at the University. At their request, I explained my concerns with the director of the office. I was advised that I was entitled to file an official complaint with the University. Should I have chosen to file a complaint, an official investigation would have followed.
At the time, I chose not to file an official complaint. My reason was that I merely wanted Professor Vocino to know that his actions were wrong. I felt that it was only fair to give Professor Vocino a “second chance.” I hoped that he would possibly learn from his mistakes. I was informed that the office would be speaking with Professor Vocino. I was advised that should Professor Vocino contact me again, I should contact the office.
Thus, Professor Vocino is still teaching and very active at the University of Rhode Island as he is associated with the Film Studies Department and the University Library. I have been told by numerous students that Professor Vocino still teaches in the same fashion as he did in my class.
Recently, Professor Vocino and a fellow colleague responded harshly to a column that I wrote for the student newspaper. The reason for such criticism was due to a comment made based on statistics from The Center for Disease Control.
As a columnist, it is understood that I open myself up to public criticism. Even so, Professor Vocino’s criticisms were unprofessional and threatening.
Though previously advised of his actions against me and, to my knowledge, being advised not to contact me, Professor Vocino once again vehemently attacked my beliefs. In his public response to my column, Professor Vocino described me as the “face of hate” and stated that columns such as mine “cause murder, beatings, humiliation and more for LGBT community members.” (LGBT is an acronym for the Lesbian Gay Bi-Sexual Transgender community.) He also reiterated his slander that I believe homosexuals “should be punished…as [instructed in] Leviticus where the prescription is that gays should be stoned.” The backlash among the general student population at the university against my mis-represented beliefs was harsh.
Distressed, I went again to the Discrimination/Affirmative Action office. But this time I was advised there was nothing that the office could do.