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Stephen Philion first sensed trouble in his "Racial and Cultural Minorities" course at Hamline University during the second week of class. The 24 undergraduate students had been assigned to read an essay by Jonathan Kozol on school segregation in the United States.
The thesis of the piece, which initially appeared in Harper's magazine last September, was that American schools are segregated by race to an extent that would have been deemed unconscionable in the years following the civil rights movement. In the article, Kozol discusses a 10th grade student he met at Fremont High School in Los Angeles named Mireya. She dreams of going to college, but instead has been routed into classes such as sewing and hairdressing.
When Philion brought up Mireya's situation in order to illustrate the problems plaguing the U.S. public school system in poor communities, one of the undergraduates in the class raised her hand with a question. "What's wrong with being a hairdresser?" she wanted to know, as Philion recalls the interaction. "My mother's a hairdresser."
Philion, who was teaching his first class as an adjunct professor at Hamline, was momentarily flummoxed. "My grandfather was a butcher," he recalls thinking. "So what?"
Philion initially filed away the peculiar encounter as a harmless misunderstanding. But what the professor didn't fully understand at the time—though it would become painfully clear in the ensuing weeks—was that he had stepped into the middle of a festering cultural war playing out on Hamline's campus. As the semester wore on, Philion would find his teaching methodology and curriculum repeatedly criticized by students for various purported sins, from focusing too much on the problems of white people to being insensitive toward students' feelings. He'd be hauled before the chair of the sociology department to defend his teaching, and ultimately the two most vocal critics would be removed from his class and enrolled in an independent-study program. (No one at Hamline would reveal the identity of the students to City Pages, citing privacy issues, and attempts to contact them through other students and faculty members were unsuccessful.)
This was not the first time that race and diversity issues have prompted controversies at Hamline in recent years. In fact, the same class, "Racial and Cultural Minorities," prompted a similar backlash the previous year. After students publicly attacked the teaching of Martin Markowitz—a tenured sociology professor who's taught at the university for three decades—he refused to continue teaching the course.
Nurith Zmora, a history professor at Hamline, says she stopped teaching courses in her area of academic expertise, African American history, because students repeatedly questioned whether a white person was qualified to cover such material. She was also criticized for using the term "Afro-American" and for teaching texts by white authors. But she says this kind of racial hypersensitivity is far from unique to Hamline. "It's true about every school here," she says. "This is kind of the big secret that we don't talk about."
Indeed, similar squabbles have been breaking out on college campuses—particularly at private liberal arts schools—for years. At Macalester College, for instance, students took over the dean's office in 1994 and staged a sit-in during a board of trustees' meeting in order to pressure the school into creating an ethnic studies program. The college eventually agreed to create such a program.
Last spring at Drake University in Des Moines, a heated campus dispute erupted over caricatures of blacks, American Indians, and others published in a satirical magazine called DUIN. The school president ultimately apologized for the incident, labeling the publication "a failure of judgment, sensitivity, and civility that is embarrassing and painful to us all."
Fred Adams, a veteran political science professor at Drake, says that this kind of acquiescence in the face of student anger is the norm on university campuses now. "In situations like this, the administration will normally always back the student," he notes. "It's the student-as-customer thing."
Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester, says that when he's seen such controversies erupt on campus it's usually been white male students attacking young, female minority professors. But he adds that political correctness and identity politics, countered by a "cult of white victimhood," have made the classroom a more combustible place. "There's all of that and it comes into the classroom and it makes teaching a more delicate proposition," he says.
Forty-one-year- old Stephen Philion is an unlikely candidate to come under attack for racial insensitivity. The sociologist is married to a Chinese woman and speaks fluent Mandarin and Taiwanese.
Even more to the point, his activism on social justice issues goes back more than two decades. As an undergrad at Fordham University he helped lead protests against CIA policies in South America and the apartheid regime in South Africa. More recently, he's organized support for striking faculty members at the University of Hawaii at Manoa (where he received his doctorate in sociology in 2004) and walked picket lines in solidarity with Northwest Airlines employees. He is a strident lefty—as appalled by Bill Clinton as by George W. Bush. The kind of guy who would be proud to land on conservative activist David Horowitz's list of the most dangerous academics in America.
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