Syracuse to students: If you think a comment is racist, shut up

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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By now, we should all know that the things we say or do on the Internet can come back to haunt us. Your online guide to cannabis cultivation can be a tricky conversation topic during a job interview. That scandalous photo from college can make its way to the horrified eyes of your parents. But would you ever imagine that complaining on Facebook about a comment you thought was racist could get you expelled from graduate school?

Matthew Werenczak found out the hard way that if a student at Syracuse University’s School of Education speaks out online about a controversial topic, expulsion — with no formal charges, and without even a disciplinary hearing — is the “standard process.”

On July 20, 2011, Werenczak was student teaching with a Syracuse city school when he was introduced to a community leader. Shortly after the introduction, Werenczak and another student teacher overheard the community leader remark that he thought that the schools needed to hire more teachers from historically black colleges. Werenczak, who is white, found the comments offensive and later complained about it on Facebook. He wrote, “Just making sure we’re okay with racism … I suppose I oughta be black or stay in my own side of town … it kind of offends me that I’m basically volunteering the summer at Danforth [Middle School], getting up at 630, with no AC, to help tutor kids and that’s not enough.”

This Facebook conversation found its way to administrators at Syracuse, who summoned Werenczak to a meeting to discuss the posting, but never charged him with any infraction of the rules and never went so far as to hold a disciplinary hearing.

Instead, they expelled him.

In its September 7, 2011, typo-heavy letter to Werenczak, Syracuse gave him two lousy “choices”: permanently withdraw from the School of Education, or attempt to seek “re-admittance” by attending anger management counseling, completing diversity training, and writing a paper demonstrating growth “regarding cultural diversity.” All this because one of Syracuse’s own students had the gall to complain about being told (as he saw it) that he wasn’t the right race for the job!

Nevertheless, bowing to the insanity of political correctness that dominates so many campuses today, Werenczak fulfilled Syracuse’s insulting requirements by December 14. In return, Syracuse promptly commenced sitting on its hands. Amazingly, the university apparently did nothing until the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), where I work, intervened.

FIRE took his case public on January 18. By the end of that day, Syracuse administrators informed Werenczak that he had been readmitted. However, Syracuse administrators pathetically insisted that they were going to do that anyway, that their accreditor made them punish him, and that this was all the “standard process.” Whether the dog also ate their homework could not be ascertained by press time.

Yet as lame as Syracuse’s excuses were, the idea that “standard” procedures could encompass expelling someone without a hearing or chance for appeal simply because he complained about racism on Facebook is quite disturbing. Indeed, one group that might be disturbed is the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), the aforementioned accreditor of Syracuse’s School of Education.

Under its accreditation rules, NCATE finds it “unacceptable” when a school makes “[d]ecisions about continuation in and completion of programs … based on a single or few assessments.” That sounds awfully familiar, huh?

We’ve been hearing about runaway political correctness since the 1980s, and it’s tempting to think that we might be past the worst of it. Matthew Werenczak knows better now, and his hard-earned lesson should be a warning to us all. College students across America are learning to keep their heads down and keep their opinions to themselves. Schools like Syracuse promise freedom of speech — the school’s Student Handbook states that “[s]tudents have the right to express themselves freely on any subject” and that “Syracuse University … welcomes and encourages the expression of dissent.” Werenczak trusted in that promise — and found out what it was worth.

How many Syracuse students, having seen the school’s treatment of Werenczak and its similar treatment of a law student last year, will believe that the school respects its own promises? How many will choose to jeopardize their academic careers by challenging dominant beliefs? And how many will discover that the same administration that promises them freedom of speech will destroy their careers for daring to exercise it?

Robert Shibley is senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.