A recent academic situation at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) in Western PA is raising my concerns about academic capitulation to right-wing proponents who deliberately conflate free speech with bullying behavior.
On February 28, Lake Ingle, 23, a senior religious studies major from Tyrone, Blair County, attended the class “Self, Sin and Salvation.” The course instructor, Dr. Alison Downie, is an associate professor with ten years of academic experience and a Ph.D from Duquesne University. That day, she required students to view TED Talk presentation by Paula Stone Williams, a transgender woman.
Ingle did not agree with the views and concepts presented that day. Dr. Downie deemed his disruptive behavior an academic violation. In Ingle’s words
“The next day, the professor told him he had been referred to the Academic Integrity Board. The accusations, according to the referral, included “disrespectful objection to the professor’s class discussion structure,” a “refusal to stop talking out of turn” and “angry outbursts in response to being required to listen to a trans speaker.”
Ingle was required to apologize to the other students and the professor before being allowed to return to the class, a course he needs in order to graduate. Ingle did not apologize but appealed his suspension to the IUP Integrity Board.
The University and Dr. Downie were circumspect when speaking with the media. Ingle took his original information, including his suspension letter, to numerous outlets. The reaction was fierce with misleading and inaccurate headlines like “Student barred from class for claiming there are two genders.”
Unfortunately, IUP succumbed to the pressure and suspended the academic investigation of Ingle’s behavior in the classroom. IUP President Michael Driscoll issued the statement.
In a prepared statement Monday, Mr. Driscoll said he had decided to “indefinitely pause” the disciplinary proceedings and allow Mr. Ingle to return to class. Mr. Driscoll said the emotionally charged nature of the dispute and media attention led to a “spate of invective, threat, obscene phone calls and misinformation.”
“As a result of how things have played out, I am afraid that the thoughtful, dispassionate review of the matter is impossible,” he said.
So rather than allow the process to play itself out, the President stepped in – because he’s afraid people can’t be fair given the circumstances? He doesn’t trust his own system so rather than wait a few more days to let it play out and then intervene, he just shut it down.
What’s more, there’s an additional layer of patriarchal manipulation at play here.
“Mr. Driscoll said he asked a senior faculty member with “significant experience in the First Amendment and a long career as a successful classroom teacher” to join the class. He said the university may reopen the formal disciplinary process “if these steps do not yield positive results.”
So IUP capitulates to the right-wing by assigning a monitor to make sure a feminist faculty member with ten years of experience can properly maintain order in her classroom rather than allowing the student conduct process to play out and make a determination.
Dr. Downie made an educational decision based on her experience, training, and previous engagement with Ingle in this classroom. She’s not a new academic instructor. She was following protocol established by IUP. Now there’s no opportunity for anyone to institutionally review the situation and determine if Dr. Downie’s judgement was sound. Ingle, the other students, and Dr. Downie suffer because of that break-down or perhaps interference.
What’s more, she has to be subjected to a monitor because of the behavior of a white male cisgender student, first in the classroom and then with the media. That’s very insulting to Dr. Downie and a troubling precedent right out of a Margaret Atwood novel. It certainly puts a damper on the class for the other students. And it sets a terrible precedent. Will Dr. Downie be required to submit her syllabi and learning materials for approval to ensure no further controversies will play out?
Ingle learned that if he stirs up enough hornets’ nests, he will get his way. It is a lesson very familiar to anyone in academia when it comes to privileged white cisgender men. What’s equally important is what Ingle has not learned. He has not learned how to engage ideas that differ from his own beliefs in a manner that is respectful and useful. How is he going to function in the workplace as a new hire if this is his go-to defense of his beliefs? How is he going to adapt to a world filled with diverse experiences and cultures if he can’t control himself for the duration of one classroom lecture? What about when his supervisors are women of color or trans men or Muslim? Has IUP prepared him to critically think about how he moves in the world or just how to get things done the way he wants them to play out?
President Driscoll wants us to buy into the belief that he has to protect Mr. Ingle’s First Amendment freedoms based on other decisions by the Integrity Board that Driscoll found troubling. Rather than modify the process, he just trumped it.
Do I really need to say more? Is the comparison of Driscoll’s tactics to the behavior of our current President doesn’t sum up the way things are heading in Indiana, Pennsylvania – what will?
We do have to pay close attention for the sake of the other students in that and every class shared with Mr. Ingle. We have to pay attention to how a First Amendment class monitor could alter the educational setting. We have to urge Mr. Driscoll and his Trustees to not take the easy way out to soothe people behaving badly.
See, I think President Driscoll is heading down a dark path. But I’m not calling him names and I’m not urging you to call his office. He obviously can’t handle that sort of heat. He might assign a First Amendment hawk to every class helmed by a woman or anyone who is not a white cisgender heterosexual man. Or he might have to actually navigate the realities of a deliberate attempt to falsely equate religious liberty with the oppression of LGBTQ persons.
(I know that is not the case here, but it could be next – this one creates a false equivalency between first amendment rights and educational settings.)
He’s a jagoff, that’s for sure. But I’m not sure we should expect any better right now. Well, of course, we *should* but pragmatically speaking – bullying is the national mantra. So pay attention, folks. I’m sure Dr. Downie is not having an easy time of it right now and Ingle’s trickster tactics won’t make things easier for her.
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