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Prior to signing on at Hamline, Philion had taught race issues at various other local colleges—St. Olaf, Metropolitan State, Augsburg—and had not encountered any difficulties. Rachleff is familiar with Philion's academic work and endorses his qualifications. "I have read some of his scholarly work, particularly his work on labor in China, and I think it's extremely good," he says. "I don't have any doubts that he is a legitimate scholar."
Philion was aware of the problems that Markowitz had run into the previous year, but did not know the details. He figured it would be better not to start the semester with any preconceived notions about what kinds of difficulties he might encounter.
During the third week of his "Racial and Cultural Minorities" course, the topic again turned to education. Philion was making the case that upper-class college students arrive at school with more resources at their disposal than their poorer counterparts. For instance, a wealthy kid who enrolls at St. Olaf College can hire a tutor and not worry about finding a job, while those from less privileged backgrounds will likely have to sandwich their studies around work shifts. Once again, Philion didn't see anything remotely controversial about this argument.
But the student who had previously questioned his characterization of hairdressing as a career track was again troubled by Philion's remarks. "So what you're saying is poor students aren't smart enough to do the reading," he recalls the student commenting. Philion was again mystified by the remark, believing that the student was deliberately misconstruing his arguments in order to make him look bad. "I just felt like, gosh, I guess I have to be really clear about my arguments here," he notes.
During the fourth week of class, however, the problems snowballed. The students were in the midst of reading excerpts from Caste, Class, and Race by Oliver Cox. According to Philion, his initial antagonist was now joined by an ally. Both women were of Asian descent. They complained that the sociology class was too heavily skewed toward black-white relations and ignored other minority groups.
Jackie Kath, a student in the class, backs up this characterization. "That's what started their whole beef with him," she says, "that we had been studying African Americans for so long."
Philion attempted to assuage the students' concerns by explaining that other minority groups would receive greater scrutiny later in the semester, pointing out works such as Peter Kwong's The New Chinatown and Peter Nabokov's Native American Testimony on the syllabus. He further argued that black-white relations were essential to setting the framework for examining the experiences of other minority groups in the U.S.
At one point, Philion recounts, in defending his teaching methodology, he told the students that he rejected the "smorgasbord" approach to teaching race relations, whereby each ethnicity is given equal class time. This only landed him in further hot water, however, when the students complained that he was equating racism with food. Baffled by this line of reasoning, Philion countered by explaining that he was using the term to indicate a "hodgepodge" and that he wasn't speaking of food at all. But this still did not placate the students.
"They could find something wrong with the word 'hodgepodge' if they wanted to," he says. "Whatever argument works at de-legitimizing the authority of the professor in the eyes of the other students."
Following this fourth class, Philion concluded that he had a problem on his hands that was not going to go away. "That's when it became very clear that both these two students who sat together were upset with my class, were upset with the way I was teaching, the arguments I was making," he says.
The following week the two students were conspicuously absent. At this point, Philion says he contemplated discussing the situation with the chair of the sociology department, but ultimately demurred. He was in the midst of applying for full-time, tenure-track positions at various universities and feared that highlighting the problems he'd encountered in the class would somehow hinder his chances. "As an adjunct now, I'm in a funny position," he notes. "What if I'm reading too much into this and the next week they come to the class and everything's okay?"
Instead Philion decided to find out what had happened in Markowitz's classroom the previous year.
One evening in early December of 2004, a missive written by undergraduates Maisue Xiong and Colin Smith was posted on office doors around Hamline. It laid out criticisms of the "Racial and Cultural Minorities" course as taught by veteran professor Martin Markowitz. The critique also appeared as an op-ed piece in the student newspaper, the Oracle, under the headline, "Professor ignoring diversity, students." It accused Markowitz of disrespect toward minority students and unwillingness to allow open discussions of racism in his class. The subtext wasn't hard to discern: Markowitz was a racist.
This provocative, public attack on a respected, tenured professor immediately caused a stir on campus. Many professors were disturbed by the public nature of the dispute, fearing that they could be subject to such attacks themselves. "I think most people saw it as a personal thing and that made them very uncomfortable," says Michael Reynolds, an English professor at Hamline. But Reynolds says that he was intrigued by what the students had to say and saw the incident as an opportunity to discuss issues of race and diversity on campus. "I thought, how gutsy," he recalls. "I like debate."