Mainstream higher academia claims to worship “academic freedom” and “free speech” as its highest goods. Alas, Larry Summers is probably preparing his resume while Ward Churchill hits the speaking circuit. Now comes Scott McConnell, an Army veteran and until recently a graduate student in education at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. For advocating a conservative policy, he has learned firsthand where academic freedom draws the line.
On paper, McConnell performed well at Le Moyne. Last March, he was conditionally accepted in the Master of Science for Teachers program, grades 7 through 12, for the summer and spring semesters. Upon earning at least all “B’s” in his first four courses and completing course deficiencies from his undergrad work, McConnell would be a full student. In his five classes at Le Moyne, he received one B-plus, three marks of A-minus, and one A. Across the board, his supervising teacher at Franklin Elementary School judged him “excellent” and wrote, “Scott has been a joy to have in the classroom.” McConnell met all the conditions set forth in his provisional acceptance letter.
So how did McConnell merit rejection from Le Moyne, a college run by the Jesuit order of priests, who are notorious for tolerating nearly any opinion? He dared to write in his “Classroom Management Plan” last November that multiculturalism has no place in his classroom and that he will firmly discipline his students, including using corporal punishment when appropriate, if legal, and the child’s parents are involved. He wrote that, unless situations dictate differently, he would treat all students alike. He would positively reinforce good behavior, heavily involve parents, and build respect instead of self-esteem. The paper earned an “A-minus” from instructor Mark Trabucco, and a note, “Interesting ideas — I’ve shared these w/ [Education Department Chair and Director of the Graduate Education Program] Dr. [Cathy] Leogrande.” Trabucco wouldn’t discuss with McConnell why he’d “shared” McConnell’s paper with Leogrande.
Less than a week before spring classes began last month, McConnell received a letter from Leogrande. She informed McConnell that he would not be allowed to register for the spring because she had “grave concerns regarding the mismatch between your personal beliefs regarding teaching and learning and the Le Moyne College program goals.” McConnell told TAS that when he tried to learn from Leogrande what the specific mismatch was, she acknowledged that his classroom philosophy as described in his paper was the only reason for his rejection.
Legally, Le Moyne was probably within its rights. College Director of Communications Joe Della Posta said that since Le Moyne expects litigation and is bound by student privacy laws, he could not specifically discuss McConnell’s case. The college has issued a statement asserting its “right to accept or reject — based on a variety of criteria — an individual for acceptance as a matriculated student. If we believe a student is not suitable for the classroom based on, among other things, his or her educational philosophy, we have an obligation as an institution to act in a matter that is consistent with the college’s mission and that upholds New York State law and education regulations.” Certainly Le Moyne, like any other private institution, is free to determine its membership and terms thereof.
Politically, however, Le Moyne’s education program is now exposed as little more than thought camp. McConnell had never voiced such beliefs in class other than the “Classroom Management Plan.” There was no pattern of an intractable extremist resisting Le Moyne’s pedagogical wisdom. Rather, McConnell was unpersuaded by Le Moyne’s philosophy of letting the students run the classroom and treating children as equals. Leogrande never asked McConnell about his views. It was enough for McConnell to express himself once for Leogrande apparently to conclude that he would be a poor candidate for ideological conformity. Leogrande did not return TAS‘s call to her office.
In response to TAS‘s inquiry about academic freedom at Le Moyne, Della Posta released a new statement from the college affirming its commitment to academic freedom and First Amendment rights. Reiterating the themes of the college’s previous statement, it argued that it must consider whether “students subscribe to the values of the College’s mission, and willingly accepts the professional and legal responsibilities of a member of the relevant profession.” Le Moyne said such values guiding the teaching profession are “treating all students with respect and dignity, and creating learning environments that nurture self-confidence in the context of diversity. Le Moyne believes it is obligated to take into account whether a potential teacher… rejects those values.”
Surely Le Moyne’s grand tradition of academic freedom could have room for McConnell and his philosophy. The college handbook states that “Le Moyne shares the ideals of academic freedom found in American institutions of higher education.” And the college’s “peer discrimination” policy is blanket liberal tolerance dogma. Furthermore, most Jesuit schools allow nearly any viewpoint and Le Moyne is no exception. Professor Fred Glennon, Chair of the Religious Studies Department, readily endorses gay marriage. Last year, Le Moyne hosted Jesuit moral theologian Edward Vacek to lecture on “The Meaning of Marriage.” He has written that homosexuality “may even be a form of authentic Christian spirituality” and has also endorsed gay marriage. If this Catholic college’s academic freedom allows supposed theologians attacking church teaching, why not McConnell, who merely believes in firm discipline?
As for McConnell, he’s seeking legal advice and will consider action against the college. For now, he has enrolled at the State University of New York at Oswego.