Sacramento’s class wars

Academic fights, trigger warnings and safe spaces: SN&R goes back to school to study the college culture war

Illustration by Brian Breneman

Google doesn’t remember Sacramento State professor Maury Wiseman helping a former drug addict turn his life around through college courses. Nor does it remember Chiitaanibah Johnson hosting open-mics at Antelope’s library to encourage confidence and creativity in others. The main thing Google does remember about Wiseman and Johnson is a single day in September 2015, when their paths crossed inside a Sac State classroom in an encounter that invited the world to cast them as poster children in a heated debate about the future of academics.

The scene was an American history class. The topic was the collision between indigenous peoples and explorers to the New World.

Wiseman made a point about not liking the term “genocide” to describe the mass die-off of Native Americans that followed arriving Spanish galleons, because he felt the explorers didn’t have the organized intent documented in other historic genocides. Johnson, a Navaho-descended college sophomore at the time, countered that what happened to the devastated people was genocide.

Wiseman was posing the kind of analytically provocative question professors ask. Johnson was doing what bright, engaged students are known to do, leveling a well-reasoned counterargument. By all accounts, however, it was not a pleasant exchange. Nor was it unusual. Yet within days of their minutes-long interaction, the two were subjects of the kind of internet fame few want, with some voices branding Wiseman a racist while others labeled Johnson a disrupter.

The professor and the student—the former declined comment and the latter couldn’t be reached—became unknowing combatants in a culture war set within the halls of academia, one that questions if efforts to be culturally sensitive are limiting the intellectual freedom of both students and instructors.

It’s a prompt worthy of a post-graduate seminar: Are college campuses still the venue for intelligent, forceful and sometimes uncomfortable debate?

Professor Michele Foss-Snowden has a unique perspective on the topic. She’s a 10-year veteran of Sac State’s communications department and understands the pressures her fellow instructors are under. She’s also a woman of color with a recognized expertise in how race and ethnicity are portrayed in the media. After another summer of politically-charged events both here and around the nation, Foss-Snowden says she is even more certain that painful dialogues—surrounding race and justice, class and privilege, our ever-evolving conceptions of both gender and history—will filter back into the lecture halls as students return to class this month.

That’s as it should be. What’s emerged in the past few years, especially, say some scholars, is the power that social media has to whip up a frenzy, without always differentiating between bad teachers and good ones striking discordant notes.

“It feels like we’re at the point right before something boils over,” Foss-Snowden said. “It’s like you can see the bubbles rising to the surface and everyone is just holding their breath.”

Loose triggers

Wiseman remains teaching at the university, but the question lingers whether he crossed a line that day in September. (In declining to be interviewed, Wiseman noted he’s still receiving an array of media inquiries almost a year after his classroom debate with Johnson.)

Foss-Snowden found herself sympathetic to her colleague’s plight. “When you take the huge responsibility of being in front of a group and saying, ’Listen to me,’ people can forget that you’re just a human being, too,” she said. “It’s not possible to divorce ourselves from some feelings and opinions we have … And sometimes, when we’re talking, we can step on a landmine.”

In other words, the laboratory of ideas is a combustible environment.

Following last fall’s dust-up at Sac State, then-new-President Robert Nelsen strove to calm the upset. That month, the campus held a breakfast celebration and blessing honoring Native American Day, with speaker Connie Reitman-Solas of the Inter-Tribal Council of California Inc. Nelsen also promised more panels and forums to discuss American Indian issues. He wrote that he hoped they would “help facilitate difficult but constructive conversations about controversial subjects without violating academic freedom or the welfare of our students.”

There was reason to take quick action.

Since 2013, student-driven campaigns have forced at least seven university professors in the United States and United Kingdom to resign over comments made in class or in their writing. These cases mostly involved a few people getting offended before attracting droves of Twitter and Facebook users to push for termination. Given that six of those professors resigned over sharing opinions, the trend has experts wondering if America’s fortresses of free thought are being shelled into mediocrity.

The topic went viral again two weeks ago, when the University of Chicago made headlines for telling incoming freshmen not to expect so-called “trigger warnings” in class or “intellectual safe spaces” on campus.

A trigger warning involves an instructor cautioning students every time a potentially offensive topic is about to arise, thus allowing them time to leave the room. Safe spaces refer to an emerging trend on campuses to create designated areas where students are “safe” from being mentally or emotionally challenged.

In a letter to new arrivals, Dean of Students John Ellison emphasized the University of Chicago provides absolutely no areas for students to “retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

So how common are trigger warnings and intellectual safe spaces on America’s college campuses in 2016? Extremely, says Alice Dreger, a bioethicist and former professor at Northwestern University who specializes in censorship issues. Dreger famously resigned her own faculty position after Northwestern’s administration blocked a scholarly article she was trying to help publish on the sexual recovery of a man with paralysis. She’s spent the last year touring universities across the United States giving talks about sensitivity run amok in higher learning. And the professors she’s met have had much to say about how social media has tipped the scales of power to the overly sensitive.

“At almost every college I go to now, I’m told by faculty that they feel genuinely fearful about teaching because of issues like this,” Dreger told SN&R. “What’s happened is the dark side of empowerment. Students used to feel like they had to shut up and listen to anything a professor said, which wasn’t good, but now we have the opposite, and what we’re seeing is some students think it’s logical to stand up and have confrontation about anything that makes them even a little uncomfortable. It’s a minority of students, but they’re powerful because of social media … It’s what psychologists call ’virtue display,’ meaning you try to prove your own virtue by lashing out at others, even if those others actually have the same or similar values. It’s dangerous.”

While Dreger knows dozens of examples of professors falling under administrative sexual harassment investigations for writing mainstream satire, assigning ancient texts in class or even joking about their own marriages, Dean Murakami, president of the Los Rios Teachers Federation, says it’s important to remember that the overall safeguards exist for a reason.

“Students do have a right to not to be in a hostile classroom,” Murakami pointed out. “There are hot-button topics that come up in class around ethnicity or the LGBT community and students can get pretty sensitive … It’s our job to figure out how to approach those topics without offending people, but still teach the class correctly.”

Murakami and his fellow instructors have witnessed the effects of someone on campus deciding to literally say anything: In 2015, Los Rios student trustee Cameron Weaver, then-attending America River College, gave an interview expressing skepticism on whether the Holocaust really happened.

Weaver could not be reached for comment, but the reactions from Sacramento’s Jewish community—some of whom cited scores of photographs, film reels, German records and first-hand accounts to enlighten Weaver—catapulted a failed effort to recall the trustee into the national media. The story broke just a week after the feud over Native American genocide at Sac State.

Foss-Snowden wasn’t surprised to see the coverage, especially around the Wiseman-Johnson clash over genocide, which she thinks touched on various exposed nerves.

“That story blew up the way it did because there were things people needed to talk about,” Foss-Snowden said. “On one side, there were communities that felt underrepresented, and they thought this young woman took a stand for how they were feeling. On the other side, there was an equally powerful and important push for that academic space to be open for the professor, and for an understanding that he’s a regular person.”

Regular people or not, professors can inadvertently cause harm with a lesson plan, says UC Davis student-activist Becca Payne.

“As a survivor of sexual assault in college, I have PTSD, and if I’m in a class and there is going to be graphic discussion of rape or arguing over rape politics on campus—or if they’re showing a video about it—I think it’s important to warn people because I know how it affects me,” Payne said. “It is crucial to have those conversations in class, but for some people, depending on what they’re going through, it can be harmful.”

Asked about trigger warnings, Foss-Snowden stressed there’s a big difference between an instructor prefacing a discussion at the start of a class and that teacher being pressured into something as problematic as chronic trigger warnings, which could constantly disrupt serious, free-flowing dialogues.

“I frequently make my students a little uncomfortable,” she said, “because discomfort leads to change and growth.”

Davis shrugged

Ayn Rand has been called many things, from prophet of individualistic pursuit to an amphetamine-driven antichrist against compassion. One thing she hasn’t been called is a figure that UC Davis embraces within its signature brand.

That’s the lesson students with the Ayn Rand Society at UC Davis learned two years ago after getting slapped with a cease-and-desist order by the school’s administration.

The notice was sent by UCD’s Center for Student Involvement. It informed the Rand devotees that by using the school’s name, they were guilty of trademark infringement. The center then demanded they change or delete their Facebook page.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, the students ignored the directive and were subsequently alerted their club’s “good standing” status had been revoked. The penalty came with real consequences: The ARS was suddenly banned from borrowing meeting rooms on campus or applying for any grants. The punishment also saw the group swept right off UC Davis’ student organization search page.

The club reached out to FIRE, which in turn had its attorney Ari Cohn send a letter to UCD arguing the students’ First Amendment rights were violated. Ultimately, the director for UC Davis’ Center for Student Involvement, Anne Reynolds Myler, sent her own message to the Rand society saying she’d reviewed the situation and agreed its members did nothing wrong. The club was back in good standing.

Cohn told SN&R that concerns over UC Davis’ brand likely played a role in the fracas, along with its administrators failing to consult their own attorneys.

“It’s pretty settled legally that student organizations are speaking for themselves and not for the universities,” Cohn said. “School groups do have the right to be able to identify what school they’re at.”

Other FIRE members, like writer Susan Kurth, have expressed growing concerns that the corporate climates in university administrations are causing leaders to act like marketing directors rather than guardians of intellectual liberty. And the fountainhead of resentment over the Rand incident wasn’t the first time concerns about the UC Davis brand caused a First Amendment showdown.

And this one didn’t involve students.

Brand management

In 2013, a panel of faculty members issued a report trying to end a controversy over whether Dr. Michael Wilkes had been harassed by UCD officials for sharing his honest opinion as a top medical researcher for the college.

Wilkes’ problems go back to UC Davis preparing to host a health fair in 2010.

The medical department and its co-sponsors had created advertisements with the slogan, “prostate cancer defense begins at 40,” suggesting that all men should undergo a standard prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, test at that age.

Wilkes, the UC Davis Medical System’s director of global health, is an internal medicine specialist and expert in prostate cancer. He disagreed with the advertisement and said so, telling his superiors that, while waves of PSA tests make physicians lots of cash, the claim that they are necessary at 40 is far from evidence-based and might actually be harmful to some men.

Wilkes then took to the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, co-authoring an opinion piece in which he wondered if the college’s commitment to the ad was really “more about money.”

According to an investigation by the UCD Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom & Responsibility, within weeks of publishing his thoughts, Wilkes learned administrators were threatening to take away three of his special appointments with the university. The academic senate concluded in 2012 that Wilkes had been the victim of retaliation. The next year, a panel of UCD staff members selected by then-Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter came to the opposite conclusion, prompting a public blasting from FIRE.

Wilkes declined to be interviewed by SN&R, but the co-author of the Chronicle op-ed that landed him in so much trouble, Dr. Jerome Hoffman of UCLA, reflected on how special interest groups can send a chilling message to researchers via funding ties to the institutions that employ them.

“I think we were very careful with what we said in the op-ed,” Hoffman said. “Ours was a piece about a program that was happening at UC Davis that had the potential to be profitable, but was being billed in a way that left us thinking maybe this wasn’t the best thing for men’s health. I think Michael acted honorably, but it seemed to me there was a strident effort to punish him. … The effects on him would have been draconian if he hadn’t fought back.”

Hoffman points out that the issue is far bigger than UC Davis.

Too often, Hoffman says, a researcher discovers a relationship between X and Y in their work, only to find out their own university has a funding connection to a special interest group with a stake in preventing the findings from going public.

“Science can only advance, grow and learn when it can attempt to find the truth, regardless of what that truth is,” Hoffman said. “When you have a profit-driven academia, intellectual freedom and issues with conflicts of interests go hand and hand. When money is the driving force behind the whole enterprise, it tremendously distorts the quality of the science and puts incredible pressure on researchers who are trying to take a different path.”

For experts like Dreger, professors in the sciences and humanities are essentially up against the same threats.

“The current economic model that sees students as customers, and faculty as sales persons, and donors as shareholders, are causing them to clamp down on anything controversial, because it disrupts that financial flow,” Dreger said. “It’s causing some instructors to just give up and teach in the most bland fashion possible.

“And it’s bigger than that,” she added. “In universities, the duty of inquiry is a moral duty.”