Last week, the Daily Caller, a right-wing news website, called Florida Atlantic University "the worst place in America to attend college."
The main reason for the condemnation was the school's "speech code."
The "speech code" is some language on the school's website, under the heading "Free Speech and Campus Civility." It is a remarkably bland pronouncement about the balance between lively debate and mutual respect.
(We don't think it even qualifies as a "speech code."
The school does have 20-page "handbook of free speech issues," found here, prepared by school lawyers. CORRECTION: The school does have a speech code, including sanctions, in the FAU student code of conduct, and quite properly forbids 1) "Acts of verbal, written (including electronic communications or internet activity) or physical abuse, threats, intimidation, harassment, coercion, or other conduct which threaten the health, safety or welfare of any person" and 2) "Interference with academic freedom and freedom of speech of any member or guest of the University.")
Still, the "speech code" was picked up on by the watchdog group FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which denounced it as "Speech Code of the Month" for August 2013 and awarded the school "FIRE's poorest, 'red light' speech code rating."
FIRE highlighted one sentence from the "code," warning of its potential for abuse:
What we do insist on, however, is that everyone in the FAU community behave and speak to and about one another in ways that are not racist, religiously intolerant or otherwise degrading to others.
FIRE is truly nonpartisan and has defended everyone from the InterVarsity Multi-Ethnic Christian Fellowship to leftist professor Ward Churchill and may have gone overboard in this instance, most likely triggered by the word "insist."
(In a Facebook comment, Christopher Ely, associate professor of history at FAU's Honors College, pointed out that while the word is "troubling," the preponderance of the statement's language shows that "the poorly chosen word 'insist' is not actionable." "But for form's sake," he continued, "I hope it will be switched to something like 'We support and encourage.'")
It was FIRE's "Speech Code of the Month" award that prompted the Daily Caller's hysterical headline. The website's "Education Editor," Eric Owens, described the so-called code as "draconian" and dismissed its language in support of free speech as "platitudes."
Owens then went on to rehash the string of scandals the school's endured this year: "Owlcatraz," "Jesus Prof," "Traceygate." (All of them well documented here at New Times.)
That's when Professor Michael Harrawood, Associate Professor of English in FAU's Honors College, took Owens to the woodshed, in the comments thread of Owens' blog, nailing him for his distorted account of FAU's annus horribilis.
Here's how it went down:
Michael Harrawood • 2 days ago
I'm very glad you're continuing this coverage, Eric, although along with most FAU faculty, I'm sorry to hear my university named the worst place to go to college. (As compelling a case as you make, and as embarrassing a spring as we've had here, I bet we could find much worse.) Your account of the Stomp on Jesus episode, along with the Channel 5 news clip, errs in a significant way: the student was never "punished" for expressing discomfort with the class exercise. He stayed after class and threatened the instructor with physical assault. The instructor reported the threat, which was witnessed and documented, and that's why the student got questioned. Discomfort with the exercise is, I'm told, the point of the exercise itself.
I hope you'll keep up the coverage of the free-speech policy. I would hesitate to call the FAU Board of Trustees "Marxists," or to assume this new policy is a tactic from the Politically Correct liberals, as some of your comments suggest. But you're right that the stakes are very high on this issue.
Eric Owens > Michael Harrawood • 2 days ago
If there was a threat by the student, why did FAU apologize profusely, twice, including once in a groveling YouTube video? That's a very strange way for administrators to act if they are punishing someone who threatened to assault some one. Don't you think?
FAU's administration has a serious, serious problem. People need to be fired. A lot of people.
As for the commenters at The Daily Caller, their thoughts are their own.
Michael Harrawood > Eric Owens • 2 days ago
Eric. Are you asking me? You're the journalist. The student's threats are a matter of public record. There was another student present who emailed an apology to the instructor. This has been reported by pretty much everybody except you. Your last comment above raises an interesting issue for a college teacher. To what extent can a misinformed thought be genuinely one's own?
I think many faculty and students at FAU share your feeling about the admin and BOT. I'm a little solaced by the retirement of Saunders and Angela Graham-West, and hope this will represent a move away from the bullying and coercive tactics the university admin seemed to have adopted last year.
The thing is that you have a great story here, without the rhetorical flourishes. That video apology was horrible, a terrible mistake, and it effectively threw an underpaid and overworked instructor under the bus. (You surely know that the Stomp exercise is from a textbook, is canonical, and has been done in classrooms for more than 30 years. The instructor didn't make it up.)
You also didn't report that after she hit the student with her car, Saunders demanded apologies from the student and from the Jupiter Campus. The student and her peers, all undegrads at the Wilkes Honors College, stood strong. But the Jupiter admin wrote and published an equally groveling apology to the president, posted it on the Honors College home page and emailed it to the whole FAU community. Effectively throwing our students under the bus. There was a faculty pushback against this, another email expressing faculty support of the students, both of which involved threats of closing down the college and many of us losing our jobs. This also is in the press and a matter of public record.
Eric Owens > Michael Harrawood • a day ago
Michael -- It's shoddy to say that the threats are a matter of public record. Try this: some version of the events may include threats. Other versions definitely do not.
The facts are that FAU apologized profusely and suspended Poole, not the offended student. That student was, in fact, absolved. Was he not? So, you have no argument there.
If it is true that the offended student threatened anyone, however, then that just means that on top of everything FAU is also hilariously spineless.
There is no questions that FAU continues to be a terrible place. It makes for good stories, though. Boring universities that just educate and don't have tinfoil-hat profs and presidents hitting students with fancy cars are much less exciting.
Michael Harrawood > Eric Owens • a day ago
Eric. Thanks for this exchange.
Shoddy? If it is true. . . ? Dude, this information is out there: you just haven't looked for it. Spin this any way you want: but you haven't reported the whole story here. There's your shoddy right there.
I'm on your side of the spineless argument. So are most faculty and students here. I don't know about hilarious. But it does not follow from this that 'FAU continues to be a terrible place'. In writing this, you've gone for a quick-kill snarky column where you had an opportunity to go after the facts. It's absurd (and snarky) to assume that these events define an institution where thousands of students, mostly from the middle and lower-middle class, matriculate through a curriculum flung across several campuses. They get jobs, build lives and careers based on what they learn here. I don't know of another institution with as ambitious a mission. I don't know of another with a residential Honors College built into the middle of a commuter campus system. The Wilkes Honors College, where I teach, has a particularly high placement rate for graduate and professional programs, and was particularly honorable in resisting a bullying administration. At my college, as in most of the university, faculty and students take our work very seriously and love what we do.
You're right also that this last year produced more than its fair share of comedy -- depending on which side of the fender you're on. And I'm hoping you'll continue to follow the free speech business. The real story is better than the one you're reporting here. I'm asking you to do the work up front and get a better idea of what's going on and what the stakes are. The truth is that all big institutions work too much in the dark, and those of us on the ground need journalism that throws light on these issues. Nobody needs to hear how we're all 'hilariously spineless.' There is a local column here online called The Fireant [sic] that you might want to check out as a resource. If you haven't already, I mean.
Eric Owens > Michael Harrawood • a day ago
Michael -- I, too, have appreciated the exchange. I am particularly keen to see how this fascist "free speech" policy works out. My email address is attached to all of my articles, but it's email@example.com. Please keep me updated, for good or ill.
We have little to add, at this time, to Harrawood's excellent commentary. (We do like Owens' snarky little "fascist" throwaway, typical of the frat-boy privilegistas at the Caller.) We do appreciate Harrawood's kind reference to our column. We would like to buy him a drink.
UPDATE: For more on Owens' work as the Daily Caller's "Education Editor," specifically his "snickering and winking about child sexual abuse and outrageous breach of trust," see this.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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