The Wanted Man

When a couple of students objected to the course materials in Stephen Philion's race and culture class at Hamline University, he thought the trouble would pass. Wrong.

During that evening's class, Philion says that he was extremely apprehensive about further incurring the wrath of students. Rather than open up the class to discussion, he spent the three hours lecturing. "I found myself in that class being very cautious," he recalls. "As I was talking, I felt very uncomfortable about that."

But after spending a week stewing about the situation, Philion determined that he was going to engage the controversy rather than continue trying to shirk it. "That was when I decided, you know, fuck it," he says. "Next week I'm going to say what's on my mind."

Philion opened the class with a critique of the types of student activism that he'd witnessed on Hamline's campus. He questioned why Hamline students were protesting the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, rather than the larger issue of U.S. military imperialism. Similarly, he criticized student activists for getting riled up about the Chinese occupancy of Tibet, while—as he saw it—staying comparatively silent on America's current Iraqi misadventure. In addition, he voiced dismay at the treatment of Markowitz during the previous academic year.

This line of engagement, Philion admits, was deliberately provocative. He knew that the two students who had been most vocal in challenging his teaching methods would take offense to his critique. Indeed, when he paused the class for a break, the two students picked up their belongings and left.

The final confrontation played out a week later. Just before the start of class, Philion says, he opened an e-mail from the chair of the sociology department informing him that she would be sitting in on his class that evening. This time, by Philion's estimation, with the chair watching, it took just 20 minutes to drive the aggrieved students out of class. It was the last time that they would attend.

Student Jackie Kath largely backs up Philion's version of events. She says that the two disgruntled students repeatedly sabotaged the class with their complaints and occasionally stormed out of the room when they didn't get their way. "Mr. Philion would just tell it how it is," she says. "I think he was in the right the whole time. I don't know how else you handle the situation."

Kath had some issues with Philion's teaching style, but she found the class valuable. "I thought he was really smart and had really good ideas," she says. "But I did think he was a little unorganized. The chalkboard would be a big blur at the end of class."

Timothy Brennan, a professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota and author of the recently published book Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, reviewed the syllabus for Philion's class. "There are very varied materials here, and very interesting ones that would give undergraduates a terrific introduction to the problems flagged in the title of the course," he writes via e-mail. "So I'm very sympathetic with the teacher in this case."

Brennan further points out that these types of picayune arguments divert attention from the real issues of racial discrimination and social inequality, whether on college campuses or in society at large. "These disputes among racial minorities or between racial minorities and left professors is just what the more conservative forces in the U.S. love," he notes. "It leaves real Neanderthals off the hook."

Philion assumed that the two disgruntled students would simply drop his class and the situation would be over. He says that the department chair fully supported his actions, agreeing that he had done nothing wrong. But after the issue was taken up by school administrators, a very different resolution emerged.

According to Philion, and supported by e-mail correspondence, the two students were given a special deal. They would continue to be enrolled in the "Racial and Cultural Minorities" class, but would complete the coursework under the guidance of another professor, Colleen Bell. Philion would have no say in what grade they ultimately received in his class and they would not be required to attend his lectures. "I have no idea how they were judged," says Philion. "It was done entirely independently of this professor." What's more, the terms of the deal were not to be disclosed to anyone.

As Philion saw it, the university was trying to keep the issue under wraps in order to prevent another Markowitz-like public controversy from erupting. He says that Alzada Tipton, associate dean for the college of liberal arts, who ultimately dealt with the situation, has refused to meet with him about the decision. "The last thing they want is dialogue," he says. "It's what they're most fearful of."

For the most part, officials at Hamline declined to cooperate in the reporting of this story. The primary people involved in the controversies over the "Racial and Cultural Minorities" course—including Tipton and Embser-Herbert—referred questions to the public relations department. JacQueline Getty, the college's media-relations director, denies that there is any story to be told. She insists that these were routine private disputes between professors and students. In addition, Bell did not respond to numerous e-mails and phone calls.

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