In academia today, “academic freedom” protects those who compare the 9/11 victims to Nazi higher ups, but it does not cover a professor with the temerity to challenge the beliefs of Muslim students in a single encounter which constituted, in the words of his boss, an “assault on their dignity.”
Thomas Klocek, a part-time adjunct professor at DePaul University, knows this first-hand; he was unlucky enough to fall on the wrong side of the political correctness fence.
With no current income and facing the possibility of losing the health insurance he desperately needs for a serious kidney condition, he has decided to go public with his fight. Klocek considers his case a matter of academic freedom; the school insists it’s a health issue. The Muslim students who had the 20-30 minute run-in with him that precipitated his suspension charge racism.
Although every party involved frames the overall matter differently, multiple conversations with each side reveal that the facts are what are least in dispute.
Here’s what we do know. After 14 years of continuous employment at the Chicago-based college, Klocek was suspended with pay for the rest of the fall quarter last September, and then stayed suspended—this time without pay—through the winter quarter.
Despite having, by all accounts, an unblemished record during that span, DePaul summarily dismissed him from his duties after the school learned that he had “insulted” and “demeaned” several Muslim students at a campus fair for extracurricular groups.
After a handful of these students approached the dean just over a week after the incident and demanded that Klocek be canned, the school complied. Acting without a hearing—as is required by the rules, except in an “emergency”—Dean Susanne Dumbleton relieved Klocek of his teaching responsibilities for the quarter.
DePaul spokesperson Denise Mattson characterized this parting of the ways as a “mutual decision,” which makes it curious that Klocek sat out the winter quarter as well, this time without pay. Further undermining the “mutual” contention is that when asked if the dean considered suspending him an “emergency,” thus obviating the requirement for a hearing, Mattson replied, “Yes.”
So what had Klocek done that made his dismissal so urgent that it was considered an “emergency”? While one might expect a he said, she said scenario, both of the main parties involved largely agree on what transpired.
On September 15, 2004, Klocek was strolling through the student activities fair at DePaul’s downtown campus when he noticed a flyer showing Israeli tanks destroying Palestinian homes. “It was very one-sided,” he explained, “and I wanted them to think about the bigger reality.”
He put on his professor hat and tried to do what teachers do: he tried to get them to think. And that’s what has lead to his downfall.
Approaching the Students for Justice in Palestine booth, Klocek engaged the students. And then he enraged them. Depending on who’s telling the story, Klocek either earlier or later in the conversation said something to the effect of that while not all Muslims are terrorists, all the terrorists currently operating in the world today are Muslims.
That’s not an entirely true statement—look at the Irish Republican Army for just one example—but then again, he was quoting a fairly prominent Muslim, the head of the al-Arabiya satellite television network. And while you can quibble with the full accuracy of the claim, you can’t deny its essence.
Same goes for what the Muslim students consider his other truly offensive remark, that there is no Palestinian ethnicity and that the term really only became prominent in media coverage in the last 20 to 25 years. There has been in various forms a region—though not a country, and certainly not an ethnically homogenous state—known as “Palestine” going back to the Ottoman period, but “Palestinian” is more of a regional identification than an ethnic one. And while older than two decades, its usage only became common in the 20th century.
Eight days later, some of the students involved met with the dean and cried racism. They asked for his head. They got it.
The school adamantly maintains that it’s about the behavior—even Klocek admits he raised his voice, though not to the point of yelling—and claims that it indicates his health problems are hindering his performance, particularly his judgment. When asked to name any other questionable behavior by Klocek, though, Mattson hid behind medical privacy—which has nothing to do with disclosing his classroom actions that also supposedly contributed to the decision to suspend him.
The logic is certainly interesting. He stated beliefs clearly outside the acceptable mainstream in academia, therefore he must be nuts. Thus, they’re not punishing him for the content of his remarks, but the fact that he was crazy enough to utter them.
It also appears that the school’s stated rationale is not based on an accurate accounting of what actually happened.
DePaul’s spokesperson had said that Klocek cursed at the students. Salma Nassar, SJP president and the student who did most of the talking during the incident, says he didn’t. Mattson also said that Klocek had flipped the students the bird. Nassar, again, says otherwise. She says that Klocek bit his thumb—which could be taken as an insult by Arabs, but which has its roots in Shakepeare (“I bite my thumb at thee”). The professor, for his part, adds that he merely flicked his thumb from under his chin, an old, non-profane Italian gesture expressing frustration.
And on what was stressed as the core of the contention that Klocek was unfit to teach—that the students felt scared and intimidated—the school seems to have gotten that wrong, too. When pressed about whether or not she or the others felt “scared” or “threatened,” Nassar said no. She explained that they were “a little bit intimidated.” But what student has ever gone an entire college career without once feeling “a little bit intimidated” by a professor?
Which brings us back to the content of Klocek’s comments. The students, in both remarks in the school newspaper and in a mass e-mail, were clearly most concerned by what they perceived as the professor’s ignorance and racism. Dean Dumbleton, in a letter to the school newspaper seemed mostly motivated by such complaints, writing that Klocek had “demean[ed] the ideas” and “freedom” of the Muslim students and “dishonored” their “perspective” by “press[ing] erroneous assertions.”
Showing that the charge of racism is the ultimate kryptonite on college campuses, the dean delved into flagrant hand-wringing: “I sincerely regret the assault on their dignity, their beliefs, their individual selves, and I continue to be saddened by the fact that they have experienced such pain at the hands of someone taught at my school, which has defined commitment to social justice as one of its core values.”
Blame the Muslim civil rights groups, particularly the Council on American-Islamic Relations, for conflating in the public mind legitimate political discourse with bigotry. Or blame academia for a culture so twisted that Colorado University’s president would rather resign than fire Ward Churchill, the infamous professor who called 9/11 victims “little Eichmanns.”
Dean Dumbleton is probably guilty on both counts. And if her idea of academic freedom is to summarily suspend a 14-year veteran for politically incorrect remarks, then maybe she should follow the lead of CU’s president.