Thursday, January 19, 2012

FIRE and Syracuse U's Attack on Freedom of Thought

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is in my opinion one of the most admirable organizations involved with higher education today.  FIRE is dedicated to preserving freedom of thought and expression in colleges and universities. These institutions should require no such effort, but unfortunately many of them have dedicated themselves to policing the thinking of their students and faculty, instead of promoting the free and open exchange of ideas.

FIRE has now managed to  help a student whose rights have been violated by Syracuse University's School of Education in one of the most outrageous attacks on liberty perpetrated by any academic administration.  Matthew Werenczak, a white graduate student in the school, was engaged in his student teaching at a local middle school. A local community leader complained in front of Werenczak and another white student teacher that city schools should hire more teachers from historically black colleges, rather than from Syracuse.  Werenczak understandably took this as a racially prejudiced remark and he described the complaint as "racist" on his Facebook page.  In response to this posting, the administration of the School of Education called him to a meeting and required him to seek counseling for "anger management," attend a course on "cultural diversity," write a reflective paper showing that he had seen the error of his ways, and then have the School of Education review his paper to decide whether he could continue in the graduate program. He completed the steps required, but Syracuse effectively expelled him anyway.

This case should make any reasonable person's jaw drop in astonishment. Werenczak's "wrong-doing" was objecting to a racially offensive comment, not making one.  Syracuse apparently believes that its students not only do not enjoy freedom of thought or speech in its classrooms, but that they cannot even exercise these freedoms in non-university media, giving the institution the power to police the minds and voices of students everywhere and at all times.  If any student at any time expresses views inconsistent with officially mandated doctrine, the university can mandate re-education to enforce orthodoxy. Even then, Syracuse maintains no due process, so that a student can be arbitrarily expelled. 

The good news is that Werenczak was readmitted to the School of Education at Syracuse within hours after FIRE took up his case. This makes me thankful that FIRE exists. But the very fact that the organization would need to defend a student against such appalling behavior by the regime at Syracuse to me indicates that there are serious problems with its commitment to the type of liberty essential to higher education. That the events at Syracuse only offer an extreme example of pressures for intellectual conformity at institutions across the nation may be an indictment of academia in the United States today.


  1. Yeah, I know Matt Werenczak. He's an internet tough guy, and doesn't mind expressing anti-black sentiment among friends...and in prior Facebook posts which were only deleted after he decided it might affect his career. If the school responded this way, my guess is that it was in response to the whole picture, not some innocuous comments. He deserves to be disciplined many times over for his cowardice and racism, if not specifically for these comments.

  2. Interesting how Anonymous had to post as Anonymous while accusing someone of racism. Proof? No, that's not needed; it's enough today to accuse someone of racism. It's quickly becoming the pedophilia of the 21st century.

    Now, if Syracuse did have ample proof which demonstrated Matt W.'s history of (truly) racist remarks, then we wouldn't have a story, and FIRE never would have gotten involved in his expulsion. The existence of such proof seems dubious, however, given that SU only pointed to the one post.

    I would be more aghast at this story had it occurred at a SUNY or a UC. Being a private university, however, Syracuse paradoxically possesses the right to step on the rights of its students. This is an interesting philosophical bind for a young libertarian like myself, but, in the end, Syracuse (where I attend) is private, and should thus be allowed to expel whomever it wants. Fortunately, the matter was solved by a private non-profit. It's good to see institutions working things out without the need for Federal interference.

    As far as the background issue goes, I actually sympathize with the offending teacher. I agree that, in an ideal world, the leaders and teachers of the inner city black community would come primarily from the black community. In many places, this kind of leadership exists. In Syracuse, it apparently doesn't, and the teacher was griping about it in a way that made the white tutor feel uncomfortable. The white tutor voiced his discomfort. End of story. It was up to these two individuals to hash out (or not) their discomfort, and to find common ground amidst their griping.

    If the Syracuse SOE administration has nothing better to do than start expelling students for online griping, I'd wager the class of 2012 will be the smallest graduating class in the history of the department.

    But apparently it's only a particular type of griping the administration is interested in . . .

  3. I thank Seth Long for contributing such an insightful and intelligent response. I agree entirely with his first two paragraphs.
    In the third, he makes a good case for the reasonable argument that Syracuse, as a private university, has the right to set its own policies and enforce those as it sees fit. Presumably, those who strongly disagree with the chosen direction of this private corporate actor can choose to invest their time and money elsewhere in the free market of higher education institutions. Part of my answer to this might be that Syracuse, like almost every other putatively private university in the United States, is really only nominally private. Arguably, the higher education industry in the U.S. has been so heavily subsidized by government over the past half century, that all major institutions have become quasi-public entities.
    Part of the problem to the imposition of doctrinal uniformity by colleges and universities is that the free market of ideas among universities is as endangered as the free market of ideas within universities. One of my concerns is that these government-supported corporate entities (both public and nominally public) are all preaching the same doctrine, varying only in how much coercion they use to enforce the doctrine and how arbitrarily they punish nonconformists.
    But this question of whether Syracuse, as a private body, has or should have the legal right to behave in an outrageous manner is really not at issue here. Perhaps it might have been if this had become a court case, rather than a matter of informal pressure by the FIRE and its supporters. As it is, legality is not strictly relevant. In this post, I make some pretty strong value judgments about the mandated orthodoxy and arbitrary procedural practices at Syracuse. I would be opposed to the mandates and the practices even if these were clearly legal. But, again, if it were only Syracuse, I’d just advise people to stay away from that place in upstate New York, where the winter weather is awful anyway (spring is very nice, though). What really bothers me is, as I say, that the events at Syracuse are only an extreme example of a widespread ideological perspective of command and control. So, I see and appreciate Seth’s philosophical bind, but have a somewhat different take on it.
    I agree entirely with Seth that the local community leader had to right to say he’d like more black teachers. I also think that Matthew Werenczak had the right to find the remark offensive and to say so. In turn, other people could find that response offensive (although, like Seth, I would hope they would not do so through anonymous ad hominem attacks). All of us should be able to say what we please, but none should be required to please us.

  4. After mulling it over throughout the day, I think Dr. Bankston makes a persuasive point about "private" universities being only nominally private, given the amount of federal dollars flowing through their halls and coffers. And, as he rightly points out, the issue is not so much legal as it is ideological.

    I think Anonymous's post is a good example of the real issue at stake. Cries of "racist," "reactionary," or (dare I embellish?) "hegemonic neo-colonialist" seem to always pop up whenever an individual voices anything besides a certain academic orthodoxy. Honest debate and argumentation are only allowed within strict parameters; certain questions are just not asked. And if they are asked, they are certainly not answered. It's actually quite refreshing to see that Dr. Bankston has built an impressive career by tackling difficult questions and not settling for easy, orthodox answers. I can only wonder if such questions will continue to be asked by the next generation of scholars . . .