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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.
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."
The issue largely lay dormant until the beginning of February, when Markowitz's 1,400-plus-word rebuttal was published in the Oracle. As Markowitz described the dispute, it began when Xiong approached him after class and questioned his curriculum and teaching style. Specifically, she thought that the course was "too Jewish" and that the professor was "oppressing her voice."
Markowitz explained in his letter to the newspaper that the class spent two sessions discussing a book about Jewish migration to the U.S. in the early 20th century. In addition, he devoted two sessions to the Holocaust and screened a documentary about Hasidic Jews in New York. (The class met a total of 28 times during the semester.)
Markowitz also bristled at Xiong's assertion that he was "oppressing her voice." "She conveniently fails to acknowledge the many times she participated in class discussions during the semester," Markowitz wrote. "She discussed elements of her culture during an extended session when members of the class each talked about something relevant to their own backgrounds. She asked for and received permission to discuss in class matters concerning the Hmong people."
Markowitz closed the letter by excoriating those who had criticized him. "We might want to examine very carefully the obvious satisfaction derived by a sanctimonious few who seem to always know what the university should do regarding, for example, matters of ethnicity, equality, and diversity," he bristled. "Claimed certitude can be and too often is a thin disguise for misguided zealotry."
Markowitz's letter provoked a spirited debate on campus. Numerous letters to the editor and editorials—in support of both positions—ran in the Oracle in the ensuing weeks. The newspaper itself was pilloried for publishing Markowitz's lengthy rebuttal, since op-ed pieces are normally limited to 500 words.
An anonymous pamphlet, headlined "Naming the Elephant," circulated on campus attacking Markowitz (although not by name), the school newspaper, and the university. "Hamline's own institutionalized racism ensures that the experience of a white male professor is given more credence than the experiences of students of color," the pamphlet stated. "The penalty for uprooting racism and naming it publicly has been severe. The dominant message has been that the act of revealing racism on Hamline's campus is far more abhorrent than the mistreatment of students of color."
In March, spurred in part by these events, some 35 undergraduates, dressed head-to-toe in black, staged a silent protest at the Hamline University Student Council demanding greater respect and representation for minority students. According to the account in the Oracle, a flyer was circulated during the protest with the heading, "Students of Color Demand a Voice!"
In the wake of this outcry, Markowitz informed the administration that he would no longer teach the "Racial and Cultural Minorities" course. There was even talk of simply eliminating it altogether. But ultimately it was decided that the class would be taught by an adjunct professor the next year.
Like Philion, Markowitz is a staunch liberal with a history of activism in social justice causes. In the late '70s, he served as chair of Hamline's cultural diversity committee and was active in pressuring the school to recruit more minority students and faculty members. Markowitz refused to be quoted for this story, saying that it would be too painful to revisit the issue. Fellow professor Nurith Zmora confirms that the attacks were devastating to Markowitz. "He didn't sleep for nights," she says. "He was really wrecked."
The two main objectors from Markowitz's class also decline to comment on the fracas. Maisue Xiong initially agreed to meet with a City Pages reporter, but then changed her mind. Colin Smith responded to an e-mail inquiry but declined to be interviewed. "I am now nine months removed from the situation and have lived out of state," he wrote. "Currently I am not as in touch with the situation at Hamline."
Prior to his sixth week's class, Philion received an e-mail from the chair of the sociology department, Melissa Embser-Herbert. She informed him that the student who had initially caused problems in the class had requested a meeting between the three of them. When Philion asked for some indication of the meeting's agenda, he was informed via e-mail that the student's concerns were threefold:
1. The notion that there exists a hierarchy of oppression.
2. Pedagogical concerns, e.g., being told whose writings were "of value" v. lack of opportunity for students to work through the arguments, with each other, and reach a conclusion.
3. Perceived disrespect re: student perceptions.
Philion describes the meeting, which took place just prior to class, as "very, very melodramatic," with lots of crying on the part of the student. Philion says that his syllabus was criticized by the student as being too Euro-centric and too white. When he pointed out that only one of the authors studied in the class was white, the line of attack shifted. Now the student complained that he was disrespectful and failed to "validate" her opinions. The upshot of the meeting, ultimately, was that everyone would take a step back and try to proceed amicably.
But Philion came away from it convinced that the only way to placate the student would be to run a therapy session rather than an intellectually rigorous course. "Let's have a kumbaya moment," is how he describes the attitude. "Let's model our classes after Oprah. I really think that's what they want. I'm dead certain of it."
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.
Garvin Davenport, Hamline's vice president for academic affairs, downplays the controversies. "We have offered a racial and cultural minorities course in our College of Liberal Arts for more than 30 years," he writes in an email. "Of the nearly 50 students who took the course in the past two years, a small number were engaged in a disagreement with the professors over the content and methods of the course. Whether or not this makes a full-blown controversy, I do believe that acknowledging and working through such issues is what education is all about in a democracy. In my 40 years as a Hamline faculty member, I believe that we have always taken seriously this responsibility. Needless to say, we must also consider these particular incidents to be private matters between the students and faculty, and therefore cannot provide you with names or more details."
Brennan, of the University of Minnesota, says that this kind of acquiescence in the face of student discontent is not uncommon. "I know that they're exceedingly worried about legal action," he says. "So when there's a conflict, they side with the student."
Philion has since secured a tenure-track position at St. Cloud State University, where he'll begin teaching next fall. His experience at Hamline has left him bitter and angry. He believes the experiences of himself and Markowitz are part of an organized campaign.
"I link what happened to him and what happened to me," Philion says. "The students insist, 'we're not part of that.' I said, what you're doing is the same and likely part of a campaign that targets the sociology department's class on racial and cultural minorities. For some weird reason you think this is an important thing to fight."