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Bill Maxwell

Universities caving to conservative slurs

Remember Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing publisher whose doctored video was responsible for the firing last year of Shirley Sherrod of the U.S. Agriculture Department? You would think people had learned about Breitbart and would be wary of ending another career based on his claims.

Not so.

A Breitbart video has prompted the University of Missouri to ask an adjunct professor to resign. Until last week, Don Giljum, formerly a business manager with the Union of Operating Engineers at the power company Ameren UE, taught a class on the history of labor at Missouri's St. Louis campus. He shared teaching duties with Judy Ancel, a full-time professor on the Kansas City campus. Each session was broadcast over a video link.

Apparently, someone gave Breitbart videos from the class, and the blogger aired two clips on his Big Government website depicting the class as a "how-to college course on violent union tactics." One clip seems to show Giljum asserting that violence "certainly has its place" as a union tactic. The second seems to show Ancel arguing that "violence is a tactic, and it's to be used when it's appropriate."

Breitbart appeared on Sean Hannity's Fox TV show and revealed his true motives: "We're going to take on education next and go after the teachers and union organizers." Indeed, Breit­bart, along with other conservative bloggers, has become an influential member of a nationwide movement targeting university labor studies departments, select scholars, untenured full-time professors and adjuncts.

The case of Giljum is uniquely pernicious in light of Breitbart's reputation. Giljum defended himself, saying that his and Ancel's comments in the edited videos were a combination of various teaching techniques. In some instances, they were describing the views of labor leaders over time, quoting the statements of specific activists and playing devil's advocate to encourage class discussion. Breitbart's editing makes it appear as if the professors are advocating violence.

In her original statement after the controversy flared, Gail Hackett, provost of the Kansas City campus, supported the professors' descriptions of their lectures: "From the review completed to date, it is clear that edited videos posted on the Internet depict statements from the instructors in an inaccurate and distorted manner by taking their statements out of context and reordering the sequence in which those statements were actually made so as to change their meaning. Such selective editing is disturbing and the release of students' images without their permission is a violation of their privacy rights."

Hackett defended the university's commitment to "academic freedom, freedom of speech and the free-flowing discussion of challenging topics in our courses."

"In this particular case," she said, "we also affirm our belief that studying labor unions, their history, and their role in society is an important subject given the role they have played and continue to play in the United States and the world."

All of that sounds fine for a provost, but Giljum said during an interview with Inside Higher Ed that he was told by a dean that she needed him to resign because her superiors had ordered her to ask for the resignation.

"They could care less about me," Giljum said. "I am an at-will employee, and they are focused on preserving funding for the university. … Teachers here are no longer going to be able to express comments, theories or counter-positions or make statements to force students to push back and critically challenge comments and statements of the teachers."

UM officials said that in addition to Giljum and Ancel, many other employees, along with students, have received abusive, demeaning and threatening e-mails and telephone calls.

Clearly, conservatives are challenging the viability of labor studies departments at the nation's universities. The major concern, at least to me, is that the schools are too quick to surrender before ascertaining the facts. Even worse, they cave even after getting evidence that reality has been distorted.

University officials have their own cowardice and lack of conviction to blame for this growing climate of fear and intimidation from conservatives and their ilk in the blogosphere and at Fox.

Universities caving to conservative slurs 05/06/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 6, 2011 7:42pm]

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