Saturday, May 03, 2008

A Professor Sues His Students

He objects to being called a racist by black students because he criticizes affirmative action

On bad days, there are no doubt plenty of professors who have joked about suing students. But it is pretty rare that somebody actually does so. A law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock has - and the ramifications could extend well beyond his dispute. Richard J. Peltz is suing two students who are involved in the university's chapter of the Black Law Student Association, the association itself, and another individual who is affiliated with a black lawyers' group. Peltz charges them with defamation, saying that his comments about affirmative action were used unfairly to accuse him of racism in a way that tarnished his reputation.

Suing students for what they have said about you is rare if not unheard of, but the topic has suddenly come up not only at Little Rock's law school, but at Dartmouth College. There, a former instructor recently sent several former students e-mail indicating that she was planning a suit. Robert B. Donin, general counsel of the college, issued a statement in which he said: "We have determined that there is no basis for such action, and we have advised the students and faculty members of this."

Since the suit that has been filed in Arkansas and has been reported by The Arkansas Democrat Gazette, students and faculty there have considered the ramifications - but mostly among themselves. There is considerable concern at the university - and some elsewhere - about what it means to open exchange of ideas to have a professor sue his students.

The dispute over Peltz concerns his opposition to affirmative action - and how he expressed it. Complicating matters is that no one who was present when the statements were actually made is discussing them. Those Peltz sued did not respond to messages, and he was willing to e-mail only a very general discussion of what happened. In examples of the defamatory material that were submitted with his suit, however, the view of the black student organization about his actions becomes clear.

In a memo sent to Charles Goldner, dean of the law school, the students accuse Peltz of engaging in a "rant" about affirmative action, of saying that affirmative action helps "unqualified black people," of displaying a satirical article from The Onion about the death of Rosa Parks, of allowing a student to give "incorrect facts" about a key affirmative action case, of passing out a form on which he asked for students' name and race and linking this form to grades, and of denigrating black students in a debate about affirmative action, among other charges. The student memo said that the organization had "no problem with the difference of opinion about affirmative action," but that Peltz's actions were "hateful and inciting speech" and were used "to attack and demean the black students in class."

The black student group demanded that Peltz be "openly reprimanded," that he be barred from teaching constitutional law "or any other required course where black students would be forced to have him as a professor," that the university mention in his personnel file that he is unable "to deal fairly with black students," and that he be required to attend diversity training.

While Peltz in an e-mail said he could not discuss the case in detail, he suggested - as have his supporters - that the accusations that he was unfair to black students were a misrepresentation of his criticism of affirmative action. For example, he said that he was invited by the Black Law Students Association to debate affirmative action and to take the anti- position.

And while not relating this action directly to what is described in the suit, he wrote the following by e-mail about what may be the form asking for students' race. "Unrelated to the debate and in the ordinary course of my Constitutional Law class in the fall of 2005, I taught the usual and scheduled material on affirmative action. To stimulate discussion, I presented students with an exercise by handing out a adapted version of the form that the Arkansas state government uses to hire personnel. All students were offered credit to participate. Responding to skeptical student questions, I argued in favor of affirmative action. My teaching method spurred a productive class discussion."

After Peltz filed the suit, he was removed from teaching all required courses - a fact that the university confirmed but declined to explain, saying that it related both to personnel issues and litigation. Goldner, the dean, sent students and professors an e-mail in which he said that "we recognize that an individual is within his or her rights to file claims in our courts. We also take seriously our obligation to provide our students the environment they need in order to receive the best possible education. Part of that obligation includes working to be an institution in which all members - faculty, students, and staff - are free to openly voice opinions and concerns." Goldner pledged to continue to work to create a "diverse and inclusive community."

Jonathan Knight, who handles academic freedom and governance issues for the American Association of University Professors, said he was concerned about the suit - regardless of whether Peltz was unfairly maligned by his students. "A suit like this, as I'm sure the professor knows, can have troubling implications for academic freedom," Knight said. "When you ask a court to become involved in making judgments about the metes and bounds of free expression on campus, it can be dangerous." He noted, for example, that legal standards about the free exchange of ideas - some of them unpleasant - "are not co-equal with the standards of the academic community."

Generally, Knight said that the worries about courts settling such matters are such that professors need to be "thickly armored" when it comes to comments from colleagues or students. If a professor is being unfairly criticized, it is far better for fellow faculty members or a dean to come to his or her defense than for the scholar to go to court, Knight said.

Noting that professors "typically do not restrain themselves" when talking about other professors' research, Knight said that "when one enters the academic community, it's with the understanding that lots of things might well be said which cast one in a very unpleasant light."


French primary schools return to tables

French primary school children will be learning multiplication tables by rote and conjugating verbs in the pluperfect tense under a back-to-basics programme to be introduced after the summer holidays.

Critics denouced Xavier Darcos, the Education Minister who developed the plan, as old-fashioned, out-of-touch and reactionary, and unions called for a strike over the reform. He responded by saying: “It's not by listening to a great pianist for hours on end that you become one, it's by doing your scales.”

The programme is an attempt to prioritise French and mathematics on a primary school curriculum that has been loaded with subjects such as the history of cinema and discovery of the world. Teachers have been told to provide ten hours of French lessons a week to six and seven-year-olds and eight hours to eight to ten-year-olds. All primary school children will be taught five hours of mathematics a week.


Row over British plans to recycle 24,000 failing teachers

Up to 24,000 incompetent teachers should be removed from their classrooms and put to work in neighbouring schools, according to the body responsible for upholding teaching standards. Keith Bartley, the chief executive of the General Teaching Council for England, said that urgent action was needed to retrain teachers who had “more bad days than good”. He said that it was unacceptable that only 46 teachers, from a workforce of half a million, had been judged incompetent since 2001.

In an interview with The Times, Mr Bartley said that he had drawn up draft proposals to tackle the problem in response to a call by Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, in his ten-year Children’s Plan, for the GTCE to root out teachers whose “competence falls to unacceptably low levels”. Mr Bartley’s comments provoked immediate criticism from teachers’ leaders and parents, who said that it was unfair to expect pupils and schools to take on teachers judged to have failed elsewhere.

At present one of the best-kept secrets of the teaching profession is that head teachers routinely encourage sub-standard teachers to resign, allowing them to transfer, often with a passable job reference, to another school. This is easier than embarking on lengthy and stressful incompetence procedures, but it shifts the problem elsewhere.

Mr Bartley said that it was impossible to say for sure how many incompetent teachers there were, although some estimates put the number as high as 24,000 — roughly one per school. Mr Bartley said that on his visits to schools he often came across teachers who felt “oppressed” by continually changing educational policy and everyday tasks, having lost the bigger vision of what teaching was about. “We know we have the best-qualified teachers we have ever had,” he said. “We are not talking about a system in crisis. But there’s a band of teachers who have more bad days than good. The issue is how do we energise people in the profession so that they don’t drop into the routine.”

Under draft proposals drawn up by Mr Bartley, head teachers would be able to refer incompetent teachers to an independent agency that would in turn place the teacher in a nearby school. There, the teacher would be given intensive retraining and support and the chance to prove themselves. He said that evidence from cases heard by the GTCE suggested that incompetence was often a matter of context. “A teacher may be incompetent in one area, but not in all areas.” He added that it should be a given that all competent teachers sought constantly to improve and developtheir and practice. It was part of a wider move to improve the overall standards of teaching and went hand in hand with plans to encourage all teachers to study for masters degrees.

John Dunford, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that heads would want to help teachers to find a school that suited them. “But they can’t just go from school to school, because heads would be reluctant to take the risk that a teacher found incompetent in one setting might be less competent in another.”

Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: “If these teachers are incompetent, parents will immediately say: what effect has this had on my child’s education?”

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that it was keen to ensure that such teachers were helped to improve as quickly as possible. “We are clear that simply moving poor-quality teachers around is unacceptable and those who do not quickly improve will be helped to leave the profession.”


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