Last week publicdefender.com had a discussion on the UCONN Professor Robert L. Birmingham case and some of the discussants were or had been law students at UCONN. The dankprofessor was particularly taken by the following comment-
- Rastaman said:
October 4th, 2007 at 11:01 am | Quote Not strange, frightening! The First Amendment, or free speech, is being systematically reduced to a slogan. A law professor, especially, should not have to be politically correct. Of all places to punish someone for their speech law school is the worst. The chilling effect of this decision on other professors will make the mass of boring, lecture note reading, intellectually stagnant professors the norm instead of the burden.UCONN law is a “wannabe” high end school, plagued by political insiders and government hacks. They can’t even get the library to stop leaking, perhaps the magnanimous wimp Dean can pick up a caulk gun and work on the building. He sure doesn’t have the moral courage to run the law school.
Chilling effect, absolutely. Unfortunately, the Dean has the courage to systematically destroy academic freedom at the UCONN law school and at the University of Connecticut in general. If the UCONN law school cannot even give lip service to academic freedom, it is not to be expected that the other colleges and professional schools of UCONN will be any different.
The only professors who benefit from a university’s adherence to academic freedom are obviously the controversial ones. Take away controversial professors and there is no need for academic freedom. Obviously the UCONN administration is making some headway in creating a faculty of conforming dullards given the apparent faculty law school support of the actions taken against Professor Birmingham. Many alumni, many current students have spoken out against these actions but to my knowledge not one single faculty member has done so. Silence may indicate faculty support or faculty indifference; whether it is indifference or support the non-action of the UCONN faculty in the dankprofessor’s opinion is damning.
Also, let us not forget that Dean Paul and his fellow administrators felt that Birmingham’s “violations” were so serious that he had to be taken out of the classroom immediately; no time for any formal complaint and even a preliminary investigation. Immediate actions were felt to be necessary. Usually, in these sorts of “personnel matters” administrators do not go for a public airing of the problem; obviously such did not happen in this case. The administration even called for a public forum on their so-called case against the professor.
Why such radical and precipitous behavior? For a video malfunction that caused a microsecond view of a partially clad woman? For the discussion of a legal case regarding prostitutes and pimps? For the professor discussing the case for reparations for African-Americans for slavery in a legal remedies case? Some may feel that it was the reparations issue and the professor putting it forward in the context of asking challenging questions. Might some academics and administrators have a hypersensitivity to this issue since it was David Horowitz who argued a few years ago against reparations and put his argument forward in campus newspapers throughout the United States? Some campuses responded to Horowitz’s essay not with a critique but with an attempt to block publication. Horowitz argued that said response demonstrated how too many US campuses did not value academic freedom, and how too many campuses had become too politically correct. Maybe it is now the case at the UCONN law school that the Dean and the faculty have come to believe that Professor Birmingham and David Horowitz are in essence the same. Whatever the case may be, certainly the situation under consideration provides support for the Horowitz belief that all too often universities have become a home for the inane.
As for the dankprofessor’s word on this, the word of the day is prostituting- professors and professor/administrators at the UCONN law school prostituting academic freedom. Or maybe I should add another “p” word, pimping. Professors pimping for administrators in their goal of prostituting academic freedom.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at email@example.com
Guest commentaries should also be submiited for consideration to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor.
© Copyright 2007
The leave imposed on UCONN law school Professor Birmingham was not based on any formal student complaints, but rather Dean Paul imposed his leave based on students comments he overheard. Such was reported in the October 15 issue of the Connecticut Law Tribune. Excerpts from that article follow
“Paul, acting on overheard complaints from students about a racy movie clip shown in Birmingham’s Remedies lecture and in another seminar on Sept. 21, persuaded the professor to take a leave of absence for the rest of the semester.
Students on both sides of the debate have posted comments on various web sites. To some, Birmingham is a “creep,” to others he’s a teacher who “makes you think.” Some said Paul did the right thing by giving a “dirty old man a public wrist-slapping.” Others said Paul disgracefully bowed to “the gods of PC” with the forced leave of absence.
Some students have expressed dismay that no law school professors had spoken up in defense of Birmingham or academic freedom. Tom Baker, director of the school’s Insurance Law Institute, said he was not familiar with the details of the controversy, but said: “There are not two schools of thought among the faculty. The law school faculty supports Dean Paul and the administration on this.”
Many alumni are apparently less enthusiastic. Kyle Odin, who graduated in 2003 and is now a lawyer for IBM Financial in Armonk, N.Y., e-mailed Paul to after reading news reports.
“If the discussion about the issue of reparations for slavery can’t be discussed in a law school Remedies class, where can it be discussed?” he told the Law Tribune.
Michael Murshak, who also graduated in ’03, is a patent lawyer in Lansing, Mich. He and many others received copies of Odin’s e-mail to Paul, who arranged a conference call to address the alumni concerns. Murshak said he hoped the call would put to rest some of his “anger and frustration … . But I left the conference call more upset than I was before.”
Paul, who could not be reached for this story, has acknowledged he did not view the video before asking Birmingham to take the leave of absence. He said no formal complaint was made by anyone, but he and Associate Dean Paul Chill took action to demonstrate the college’s dedication to providing a welcoming, diverse and tolerant environment for students.
All three alumni interviewed said that, during the conference call, Paul dodged key questions and didn’t clarify what prompted Birmingham’s punishment.
“There were really two issues that went on here,” said Patrick, the D.C. lawyer. “The issue of the movie, and the issue of the discussion that accompanied it.”
She asked Paul whether he was upset with the movie, the discussion, or both. “The dean refused to answer that question,” said Patrick. “He started off the conference call saying we all knew what had happened and the circumstances around it, but he didn’t actually lay out that, ‘I got complaints about the movie’ or anything specific.”
The dankprofessor’s take on this is that given the political realities in American higher education, I know that I should not be shocked by the actions of the UCONN Law School. But I am shocked that any law school dean would trump academic freedom and freedom of speech in the name of a welcoming environment to students. Fortunately, there are some law students who understand the dynamic of what is going on, that Dean Paul and his supporters have “bowed to the gods of PC”. For a dean who has become a born again PCer, who has joined the PC cult, imposing his will on Professor Birmingham demonstrates that he can walk the walk rather than simply talking the talk. On the other hand the good dean may just be another anemic academic careerist and believes that walking the walk might very well lead the good dean on a pilgrimage to other sacred places of higher education; I would think that Duke would provide him with a most welcoming environment.
Following is the unedited article that appeared on the National Law Journal Online which was originally publishedin The Connecticut Law Tribune. Although this article is somewhat dated, October 3, it is the most detailed report on this case that has appeared in print. Although it is indicated in the article that Birmingham’s classes would be covered by other instructors, later reports indicated that the courses would be dropped. Dean Paul and Dean Chill appear to be the administrators who are calling the shots in this case. It will be interesting to see if the upper echelon UCONN administration continues to support actions that I think are fair to characterize as precipitous. One student noted that it was ironic that this situation occurred in the law school’s legal remedies class. Surreal would also be an accurate term to use.
©2007 National Law Journal Online
Page printed from: http://www.nlj.com
Academic freedom questioned at UConn Law School
Thomas B. Scheffey/The Connecticut Law Tribune
October 3, 2007
The University of Connecticut School of Law has placed veteran professor Robert L. Birmingham on a sudden leave of absence after the quirky but popular scholar showed a film clip in class from “Really Really Pimpin’ in Da South” a training film for prostitution.
UConn Law Dean Jeremy Paul confirmed today that he and Birmingham had a “discussion following an incident in one of his classes,” and decided it was “in the best interests of the school” for Birmingham to leave for the rest of the semester.
Paul called it “a difficult situation” and said he and his administration are concerned with fostering academic freedom, while preserving “a welcoming, diverse and tolerant environment for students.”
According to three students who were either present in Birmingham’s Remedies class on Friday, Sept. 28, or spoke with students who were, the sometimes provocative professor asked students to make a case for slavery reparations in light of the fact that much of Africa is beset by war, famine and AIDS. Some students were so upset and offended by the topic — and images of barely-clad exotic dancers in the “Pimps” film — that they stood up and walked out of the class.
The legal case under discussion was the 2004 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit case of U.S. v. Charles Floyd Pipkins, a.k.a. Sir Charles, and Andrew Moore Jr., a.k.a. Batman. Pipkins and Moore were appealing their convictions on Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges as Atlanta pimps of juvenile girls as young as 12 years old. Pipkins speaks in the “Pimps” film.
The 11th Circuit opinion explains that prostitutes are free to choose a different pimp. Birmingham asked the 50 students in his Remedies lecture class whether that means they were not held in involuntary servitude — one of the counts in Pipkins’ and Moore’s RICO indictment.
Part of the problem with Birmingham’s film demonstration, according to witnesses, was due to the video equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction. “He’s not very good at operating the video equipment, and it didn’t stop when he wanted it to,” said one student. “It continued to show these dancers in tassels and a G-string, and stopped with a close-up of the G-string.”
A law school administration source familiar with the situation said that Birmingham stopped the film at the objectionable G-string segment a second time that day, when he used the film in his class on the Nuremberg trials. “It wasn’t just a one-time `wardrobe malfunction,’” the official said.Birmingham could not be reached for comment for this article. But in a formal apology to students, he wrote, “I regret that I did not cut off the film at the end of the interview of Mr. Pipkins in time to prevent the adjacent material from appearing on the screens. I apologize to those of you whom I offended. I apologize as well that I did not emphasize the presupposition of our discussion: the extreme enduring suffering that slavery entailed.”
On Oct. 1, Associate Dean Paul Chill met with students, in this semester’s first “Query The Dean” session, to discuss Birmingham’s actions and the administration’s reaction.
“It’s ironic that this was all about a remedies class,” said one female law student. “People were upset with some of the images in the film, and what Professor Birmingham said. But I think they were even more upset by what the administration did to him.”
One minority student added, “Two wrongs don’t make a right here. Lots of other professors have said provocative things without any reaction from the administration like this. I think Dean Chill and Dean Paul are punishing a professor they don’t like in the name of protecting minority students’ feelings.”
The students spoke to the Law Tribune on the condition that they would remain anonymous.
Two recent graduates appeared at the Oct. 1 session and spoke up in Birmingham’s defense. “A lot of people are really mad,” said a female law student.
Students praised Birmingham’s efforts to spark critical thinking and his provocative use of the Socratic method. “He’s one of very few professors who don’t teach like it’s purely a vocational school,” one said.
A female student, however, noted that she had a female African-American classmate who “was very angry and offended” by Birmingham’s class, because “the wounds haven’t healed” from discrimination that student suffered in her youth.
Looking For A Replacement
Birmingham has an unfortunate backdrop to contend with. Earlier this year, SmokingGun.com posted photos from an off-campus party themed “Bullets and Bubbly.” The photos depict white UConn law students sporting tiger claw tattoos, “do-rags,” 40 oz. beer bottles and T-shirts emblazoned with “THUG LIFE” and “SNAP, SNAP, SNAP.”
In the soul-searching that followed that incident, students debated whether Student Bar Association officers in the photos should step down.
“I think the administration was trying to apologize for the stereotyping [at the] Bullets and Bubbly party,” said a student who would only speak on condition of anonymity.
Paul said no student formally complained about Birmingham. He said students were divided over whether Birmingham’s behavior deserved a sanction or whether he should be protected under principles of academic freedom. Black and white students, Paul added, were on both sides of the divisive issue.
Paul said Dean Chill is working diligently to find a new lecturer for the 50-person remedies lecture class and to find alternative instruction for three 18-person seminars Birmingham was teaching.
“A friend of mine was taking 10 credits from Birmingham — he was teaching more than any other law professor at the school,” one third-year law student maintained.
The NY Times editorialized today on radio station WBAI pulling the plug on a broadcast of the recording of late poet Allen Ginsburg reading his poem, “Howl”. Such represented a retreat by WBAI as being in the forefront in innovative radio programming. According to the Times, this retreat came about as a “result of fear that the Federal Communications Commission would levy large obscenity fines that might bankrupt the small-budget station.” Such did not represent an irrational paranoia by WBAI since a few offended listeners could very well be enough to bring down the wrath of the FCC on WBAI. As the Times noted, the FCC had already fined CBS $500,000 for a nanosecond telecast of Janet Jackson’s nipple.
Now joining this censorship fray is the law school of the University of Connecticut which not only pressured one of their professors, Robert L. Birmingham, to not teach all of his classes for this Fall semester, but the law school dean went on to cancel all of his scheduled classes for the semester leaving his enrolled students in an academic never never land.
Why the excommunication of the good professor and the canceling of all his classes? The Hartford Courant reported that Professor Birmingham showed a film clip of an interview with a pimp convicted in a court case called U.S. vs. Pipkins. However, it was not the interview itself that the UCONN law school found to be problematic, but it was what appeared immediately after the interview- a scene of a scantily clad woman; Birmingham then immediately pressed the button to freeze the film. It was the instant view of the scantily clad woman that was enough to upset a couple of students and end Professor Birmingham’s teaching for the foreseeable future.
“We believe it is in the best interest of the university not to escalate the situation and would like only to say that Professor Birmingham showed a relevant interview in class,” said Heather Kaufmann, Birmingham’s attorney. “He stopped the film at the completion of the interview. Period. The suggestion that the questionable material was shown intentionally is both troubling and dishonest.”
But whatever the intentions of the professor may have been, such did did not matter to the UCONN law school administration. What only mattered was an instant second of offense that supposedly was experienced by a couple of students. There was no FCC pressuring UCONN to take this action; no authoritarian organization threatening the university. The impetus for UCONN to take actions that undermine the principles freedom of speech and academic freedom was political correctness run amok. The dankprofessor believes it is outrageous that a law school can make such short shrift of these principles, principles which some Americans, both inside and outside of academia, still believe are worth preserving.
If you wish, you can write to me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Guest commentaries should also be submitted for consideration to the same email address.
Barry M. Dank aka the dankprofessor.
© Copyright 2007
The Hartford Courant has published numerous comments by students and others regarding the “suspension” of Professor Birmingham. Meriting special attention is the comment from a student enrolled in the class in question, see UCONN law student, Wallingford, CT. His comment should be regarded as weighty since he was there, and he reports that law students have been left out in the cold with no class to go to. If such be the case, then once again students are being screwed by administrators who consider themselves as acting as agents of students in the goal of protecting their right not to be offended.
A University of Connecticut law professor who is described in this Hartford Courant article as being colorful has apparently been found to be too off color for the UCONN administration and is being pressured to take a leave of absence. More on this story as it becomes known to the dankprofessor.
I am honored that Professor John Bonnell has sent us this post sharing his perspective on sexual harassment in contemporary academe. I particularly welcome guest commentaries during this time when I am traveling and have a minimal amount of time to be on on the computer.
Jon Bonnell writes-
A few reflections upon Brian McFillen’s assumption, in the blogpost for
September 7, that “Things seem to have improved since I entered college in
the late 90s, as universities have gotten a grip on what constitutes sexual
harassment and what does not.” If my own experience is representative,
McFillen’s view must be modified with the understanding that colleges may
have improved their grip, but what they wield with that grip is a cudgel.
That is to say, they unscrupulously and, one must say, eagerly flail
targeted instructors and professors with charges of “sexual harassment,” no
matter how farfetched or simply false these charges may be.
I have been subjected to four kangaroo-court like “investigations,”
beginning in 1998. In every instance, some student disliked my diction or
my anecdotes, and claimed as a consequence that I had no right to be
teaching college English. None of the objectionable terminology was ever
directed to or against a specific student. (For example, in 2003 I was
suspended from teaching without pay for examining James Joyce’s story “The
Boarding House” in a fashion I have used for over three decades. I used the
word “bitch” to imaginatively fill in an unspecified “free allusion” made by
a party-attending character with regard to a nineteen year old sister of
another party-person. A female student complained. The college accused me
of “sexual harassment” and conducted an “investigation.” Note that the
student did not accuse me of “sexual harassment;” Macomb Community College
did! I was found “guilty” of employing language that was inherently
demeaning to and harassing of any woman. No woman should ever have to hear
what I might say in Anglo-Saxon, the college pontificated. Especially the
word “bitch.” The faculty union wholly supported the college’s charge and
punishment.) The College has learned that its blatant disregard for law and
for the meaning of the phrase “sexual harassment” will be supported not only
by the majority of faculty but by the federal judiciary, and all inferior
tribunals. And, as I have learned, simply to be accused of “sexual
harassment” is already sufficient proof of guilt. The College has learned
this, too, and does not hesitate to foster such deception.
Perhaps Brian McFillen’s erroneous assumption is promoted by another
aspect of these curious developments. The College (as do other
institutions?) suppresses all public discussion of such complaints,
“investigations,” charges, and punishments. It does this because to be a
“victim” of “sexual harassment” is comparable to being a victim of rape, and
all such victims are entitled to strictest confidence and anonymity. When I
was suspended in 2004 for utilizing a personal anecdote to illustrate panic,
my own panic, an illustration that the College deemed was sufficiently
“sexual” to constitute “harassment,” the College successfully prevailed upon
the American Association of Arbitrators to NOT publish the arbitrator’s
finding, even though the “victim’s” name did not appear in the decision.
(By the bye, the College had punished me a few years earlier, in part, for
using the same anecdote, but the objection then was my employment of the
Anglo-Saxon “balls” instead of the proper Latin, “testicles.” In 2004, the
College decided the anecdote itself was “harassing,” regardless of the
diction. A dramatic illustration, incidentally, of Justice Harlan’s correct
assertion in 1971 [see COHEN v. CALIFORNIA, U.S.. SUP. CRT., the famous
"Fuck the Draft" case] that a government which stooped to banning words will
soon be banishing ideas. Exactly my experience. A further curiosity in
this assault on my “academic freedom” was the fact that the complaining
“victim” placed this anecdote THIRD in her list of objections, holding
accounts of a policeman who killed himself with his own revolver while
“playing” Russian roulette and of a rooster beheaded in 1947 in Colorado-a
fowl who subsequently refused to die-as more disturbing. But the College
could construe no sex in her first disaffections. To the College’s credit,
it did not do in 2004 what it did in 2003. It did not telephone dozens of
my students to discern whether I simulated coital thrusts against my desk;
whether I “flipped off” all the students in my class; whether I labeled the
women in the class as “cunts.” Finding no support for these conjectures
evidently chilled the College’s enthusiasm in subsequent “investigations.”)
Maybe the “disinfectant of sunshine” is not so successfully thwarted on
other campuses as it is on mine. (When I wrote, in 2005, to Attorney
General Micael Cox, asking him to point out to the College its perversion of
F.E.R.P.A. and other federal regulations on privacy, he wrote back to say
the State of Michigan has no interest in my “private” dispute with the
College.) Maybe McFillens’ sanguine conclusion is justified elsewhere in
the nation. But I’d bet the other way. One of the attorneys active in the
2003 investigations of my treatment of Joyce has since been named a Dean at
the third largest university in Michigan. In 1998, when Macomb College
began its witch hunt of my person, it retained only one attorney, part time,
to look after its interests. Now it has an entire Office of the General
Counsel, with at least a half dozen full time attorneys diligently
“defending” the College. The proliferation of lawyers in the lucrative
halls of academe promises more bad news for believers in authentic
individual rights and freedoms. Civil libertarian counsel Harvey
Silverglate has described college campuses as the most unfree places in
America. I can find no reason to disagree.
Professor of English, when not debarred by bogus charges of “sexual
- academic freedom
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