At my large state university I teach classes in engineering, which should be as inoffensive to politically correct minds as an academic major can be.
What follows is a personal account of how university students in a technical major can yet deploy the incendiary language, concepts, and strictures of modern-day diversity, inclusion, and equity policy in order to harass, intimidate, and ultimately impugn a tenured full professor.
The Accusations: In 2013, I had in my undergraduate sophomore level engineering class an international student. Call him Raj. His surname identified him as Hindu. Translated, it meant “physician,” so Raj belonged to one of India’s highest castes. As is true for all international undergraduate students at our university, Raj was wealthy: international undergraduate students are admitted because they pay full or “out of state” tuition. Regardless of familial wealth and lofty social status, however, Raj was doing poorly in my class. One day, during office hours, he asked me if there was “anything he could do” involving “compensation” to improve his grade. The manner in which he delivered that question indicated that here before me stood a young man well acquainted with intrigue. I told him that no matter how wealthy he was, he could not bribe me (though I did not use the word “bribe”). We never again discussed the matter. For his continued poor work in the course he got his deserved low grade. In fact, he barely passed.
Later, in 2014, Raj took another class with me, receiving the lowest passing grade in a class of approximately 100 students. His numerical grade was 39 percent (my scores are curved, and generally over 80 percent is a 4.0). Enrollments having swelled and personal contact having become harder, I kept electronic notes, and sometime during the course I wrote in my Excel grade spreadsheet: “Rarely came to class” and “A disingenuous person.” Neither before nor since have I had reason to refer to any student in any of my classes in those terms.
I did not know that in 2014 Raj had filed a complaint with the university Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI). He alleged that his low grade was the consequence not of a lack of effort, or poor test scores, or infrequent attendance, or not doing the homework, or not attending regularly scheduled review sessions but rather of discrimination. Raj knew that in the America of 2014 he was a protected minority through a category called “national origin.” Being clever, he knew also that in a climate that extolled “anti-discrimination,” expunging institutional and personal racism and discrimination was an actionable and indeed laudable goal. Raj’s complaint waited on file for five years until late 2019, when a second complaint was filed. In the interim I had taught at least 500 students without incident.
In fall 2019, I taught another engineering course, this time with some 80 students at a sophomore/beginning junior level. By 2019, at the behest of our increasingly accusation-sensitive administration and our “teaching faculty” (i.e., non-tenure-track professors newly hired exclusively for teaching and therefore inordinately sensitive to student feedback and complaints), I had completely rewritten my syllabus, which now contained many long paragraphs of protective boilerplate and qualifiers. My once-upon-a-time modest one-page syllabus had swollen to about eight pages. In any case, after the first exam, on which this student — let’s call him Faz — did quite poorly (scoring about a 35 percent, when the average was about 58 percent), he began persistently and aggressively negotiating for extra points. About five to 10 other students also massed around me, hoping to gain a few points. I told them that my eight-page syllabus outlined the procedure for seeking a test score change: state the problem, show how you would have solved it without your mistake, convince me you understood the problem, and do so by scanning your work and your original solution and then emailing it to me as a neat and readable PDF attachment. It requires some effort, but if you want extra points you may earn them by making your best case. All of the students understood this except Faz. Like Raj, he hailed from a wealthy (though not Indian but Pakistani) family and was, I soon found, also well acquainted with intrigue. He haggled and argued until, exasperated, I finally said that this was not a Middle Eastern bazaar, and that I would no longer discuss this test or any on-the-spot regrades.
A few weeks later, Faz came up after another class and told me that my “Middle Eastern bazaar” comment was racist and offensive. I should have dismissed his complaint by expressing an allegedly deeply felt concern — the furrowed-brow “Obama gaze” into the distance — that masked utterly detached indifference. Administrators almost instinctively do this. Instead — and this was my mistake — I engaged him in a spirited discussion of the central issue of our age: hurt feelings. Without softening my initial response with the polite inference that perhaps he has a point, I basically told him right out that his assertion was groundless. As a Pakistani he had no direct affiliation with the so-called Middle East. As a Southeast Asian he was technically classified, like me, as a Caucasian. Finally, Middle Eastern bazaars are chaotic, disorganized and loud; that’s the whole point. They’re both a market and a big part of the shopper’s daily entertainment. A real Middle Easterner (which Faz was not) might as well, I told him, be offended if he were instead Swiss and someone said he was punctual. The horror! Peoples, it seems, have characteristics and reputations that they have to deal with, sometimes justified and sometimes not. I told Faz that in Mexico, Americans are called gringos and elsewhere (Iran, the actual Middle East) are probably called much worse (Satans?).
I believed my private and nearly 20-minute discussion with Faz ended on a civilized note. I shook his hand and we parted amicably. Nevertheless, a short time later I learned that Faz had filed a complaint with ODI. Like Raj, he had also basically accused me of racism. And that is when the ODI investigation was formally activated.
As a slight side-note, well before I had heard that an ODI investigation had been opened, the course had ended and my grades were recorded. Faz had received the lowest passing grade in the class by barely exceeding the 40 percent cutoff for failure. In our prior discussion (which I thought had ended amicably), Faz said in response to one of my questions (“If you do not like to study, what do you do with your time?”) that he spent his evenings pursuing his true passion, which was stand-up comedy. In retrospect this made sense, as I had noticed he sometimes missed class and other times fell totally asleep during the lecture, head back, mouth agape, perhaps from being tired after one of his late-night shows. Faz’s wealthy and privileged parents had sent him against his will halfway around the world to study in a discipline for which he had no interest and apparently little talent. Faz was more interested in human interaction and the non-technical aspects of life, and his grades showed it. From what I had seen of his work in my course, I would not want Faz placed in a responsible role as an engineer.
I now had two accusations against me by international students. There were no other formal accusations, only the customary grumblings of students on the end-of-semester “instructor review” forms. Both Raj and Faz had alleged that they were racially discriminated against on the basis of national origin and were given low grades for that very reason. A four-person preliminary meeting was convened with some College of Engineering administrators. These administrators doubtless hoped that this case would be quietly resolved so that their true calling, “fundraising,” could continue. One among them, my own department chairman, who I had believed would be supportive, began vociferously berating me. Somewhat surprised at the time, I later understood that he did this to reinforce his own bona fides as a tough, no-nonsense administrator. Every senior administrator, in other words, acted in his self-interest and wasn’t bothered as to whether the accusations had any merit or were even true. We discussed style not the substance, feelings not the truth, appearances not reality.
The Investigation: In mid-January 2020, I received an email that said in part that ODI wished to meet with me to gather my statement on Faz’s allegations, along with Raj’s “past discrimination/harassment claims.” The email also said ODI “is concerned about the appearance of a pattern of … behavior.” To my knowledge I had never harassed anyone in my classes. Had I discriminated?
The interview process made it clear to me that it was only the student’s feelings, emotions, and perceptions that mattered.
I certainly had discriminated in the original sense of this word. The acts of choosing the material to be taught, and determining the way in which it was delivered, and then deciding which homework and exam questions were to be asked, and designing them so they could be properly answered, and how to assign grades, and how to judge who did well and who did not, why, these acts all centered upon conscious discrimination. One could accurately use “discrimination” as the first skill required for every course taught on campus.
But did I also actively discriminate on the basis of race (or national origin)? This is what the ODI was tasked with determining in the interview.
In late January of this year, two ODI staff members came to my office. One of them was an ODI Chief Investigator. Her letter setting up the appointment with me said her identifying pronouns were she, her, and hers. She had earned her bachelor’s degree from an in-state directional university and later her law degree from a law school ranked around 100 among the approximately top 200 laws schools in the United States. She was informally and, in my opinion, somewhat disrespectfully dressed; she was, after all, visiting the office of a tenured, senior, full professor (I was wearing jacket and tie). Her tone was neither collegial nor friendly, and there was a complete absence in our interview of any wit, humor, or charm. The other ODI staffer was a graduate of the same law school. He was the Subordinate to the Chief Investigator. He was unprofessionally dressed (no tie, no jacket) and sat with poor posture. Throughout he maintained a poker face, was noncommittal, and kept quiet, nodding occasionally.
The interview process made it clear to me that despite the toxic allegations stemming from human wellsprings both psychological and emotional (and therefore highly subjective), and customarily associated with “feelings,” it was only the student’s feelings, emotions, and perceptions that mattered. And they mattered only insofar as they intersected with recently constructed university policy statements, not the underlying truth of the matter. These recently constructed policy statements, moreover, were not based on any perceived immediate local need, but in response to federal decrees during the Obama administration under the infamous Title IX legislation. Diversity and Inclusion were now, despite their perverse and inhuman nature, the “law of the land.” It was clear also that prevailing structure of the ODI investigation was the implied adversarial nature of all faculty–student interactions: the legalistic fiction that the students and faculty belonged to opposed or warring camps, the great plaintiff–defendant divide. Nowhere in this legalistic framework does there exist a notion that both parties can, in a manner untethered to the binary either/or, form an agreement outside of (or more precisely, beyond) the bounds of legal propriety. There was no room for collegiality, for lively discussion, for honest engagement with the topic at hand. There was especially no space for wit, humor, or banter. The spirit of my interaction with Raj and Faz mattered not, only its relationship to narrow Title IX federal policy constraints.
Did Raj actually try to bribe me? And wouldn’t that register as an offense worthy of his immediate expulsion from the university? That core subject was not addressed. Could a person of such character, who was capable of offering a monetary bribe, be trusted to make credible allegations? This core subject was also not addressed. Why did the allegations in both cases hail from students who seldom attended class, who slept during class, who did not hand in assignments and who did poorly on exams, and whose grades put them at the very bottom of each class? This coincidence was also not addressed. Raj’s primary indiscretion, offering a bribe, was treated by the ODI investigators with casual indifference (as shown by their poker faces) despite what I may have legitimately “felt” about it at the time (recall my “disingenuous person” remark in my course notes). Faz had alleged he was made to “feel uncomfortable” by being lumped in with persons who shopped at Middle Eastern bazaars. Apparently I had joined him to a group of persons to whom he, perhaps, believed himself superior. Someone of Faz’s privileged social standing would likely not deign to rub elbows with the masses who attended these crass open-air markets. By contrast, my openly stated aversion to grade negotiation (haggling, bargaining) was considered by ODI as immaterial and irrelevant to the proceedings at hand, “feelings” that I had strongly communicated to the class in my very first lecture and were detailed, in writing, in my bulky syllabus. In short, the ODI investigation had everything to do with the formalities but nothing of the essence of the matter.
The ODI investigators questioned me in my office for approximately two hours, gathering details about class teaching minutiae. I showed them from my spreadsheets that by far most of the students who did poorly had American surnames and were also typically male. In general, I have found over the years (an uncomfortable statistical fact) that American males are simultaneously represented among the most outstanding and also among the worst of my students (i.e., a bell curve with ample tails and a slightly depressed middle). I have also found over the years (an uncomfortable statistical fact) that females are generally better than average but seldom among the top students and rarely among the bottom students (i.e., a bell curve with small tails and an ample middle; Note: this description is not a sexist comment). The wealthy undergraduate internationals are sometimes very good, but lately an increasing number of them, like Raj and Faz, are disinterested and desultory students shipped off to universities in the United States and other distant lands against their will and inclination.
The ODI investigation had everything to do with the formalities but nothing of the essence of the matter.
As for the details, I had indeed told students in Raj’s class who tended to congregate to move apart during exams because our department had assigned me a classroom far too small for the allotted 100 students (Raj had alleged that I had discriminated because I had separated members of various national factions, once more obviously known as buddies, from each other). I told the ODI investigators that in the late 1980s, when I started teaching at this university, the students were, in our revered basketball coach’s words, “working-class, blue-collar lunch bucket kids.” Our undergraduate students were once defiantly proud of their humble roots, unlike those at the fancy, elitist private universities. I also told the ODI investigators that the monetization and financialization of our university by our prior presidents led them to admit huge numbers of wealthy international students. These wealthy and privileged international undergraduates paid full tuition, bought expensive, brand-new cars (Mercedes, BMW, Lexus, even Lamborghinis), and paid top dollar for apartment rental, stereo equipment, furniture, clothing, and food. Their financial support of the university and the local economy seemed to be a win-win for everyone except for those home-state lunch bucket kids who were no longer being admitted.
The irony, of course, is that our Carnegie Tier 1 research institution with a several-billion-dollar annual budget, which according to its founding document was chartered to educate not for an entrenched domestic aristocracy but an educated and responsible citizenry, had now resorted to admitting huge numbers from the predatory aristocracies of these other nations. Indeed, this formerly exclusively state supported university had come to depend upon these internationals for its very financial survival. Even worse, it denied the humbler domestic students admission in favor of wealthy internationals, who essentially comprise the “exploitative pasha class” of their own corrupt societies. In other words, the founding principles of our university no longer applied. They comprised merely another in a long line of “living documents” that could be reconfigured to satisfy immediate needs.
Regarding the issue of “entitled attitude,” which arose in our interview, I told the ODI investigators an anecdotal (though completely factual) account. Some years before, in one of my classes, an international undergraduate (also a mediocre student) asked me a question about automotive engines starting with “My Mercedes does this, but my BMW does that … ” His braggadocio prompted instant eye rolls from the in-state lunch-bucket kids. I later learned that when India had privatized parts of its energy industry, his father had somehow taken full ownership of that particular power plant; he was literally the new “power broker” in his community. I told the ODI investigators that the phrase “entitled attitude” fit Raj and Faz to a T.
On the subject of racial discrimination against persons like Raj and Faz, I told the ODI investigators that fully three-quarters of my graduate students, whom I had guided to either an M.S. or a Ph.D in my discipline of engineering, were internationals. In fact, 85 percent were international and/or female. In my specialty (which impinges on automotive technology, industry, and high-tech energy research), in America’s breadbasket and heartland, only 15 percent of my graduate students, about one in six, were domestic males! How is that working out for us? I told the ODI investigators that in all my years at my university I was only one of two faculty members in my department who had graduated a black Ph.D. (the student I advised was African, a Ghanaian). In addition, though not the principal adviser, I served on the Ph.D. committee of the other black (American and female) student. I still regularly see her at technical meetings, and we are on friendly terms.
I told the ODI investigators that low numbers of domestic American students are inevitable nowadays in second-tier graduate programs such as ours. If one wants to see a preponderance of domestic students one must visit the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, or CalTech. That is where the top American engineering students go, although even these universities have also undergone a massive influx of international students. By necessity, at my university I had to learn to deal with graduate students mostly from China and India but more lately also from Iran, Iraq, Bangladesh, and Libya. We get no Germans, English, Swedes, Finns, Italians, French, Japanese, or Taiwanese. We don’t even get Poles, Serbs, Croats, Greeks, Macedonians, or Albanians. “And why is this important?,” the reader might ask. My answer, as brief as I can make it, is that culture and commonality of civilizational understanding are important even in the technical subject areas. That can become a very lengthy discussion, but the essence of academic instruction and research still adheres to context and philosophy, which is difficult to graft across the many loosely misapprehended and misunderstood connections that join our intellectual pursuits to our entire lives, our communities and our families. The student is not an indistinct and interchangeable “monad” or “unit,” like a molecule; rather he is associated to the core of his being with his native culture and his own intrinsic nature.
The grave error we have made, and it will become ever more apparent and evident to future generations, is to have treated our culture and our heritage of inquiry and rational thought as mutable, plastic features somewhat akin to a piece of clothing that may be kept or, after being used, simply discarded. But even as a “coat” means something different in cold, harsh Mongolia than it does in similarly cold, harsh Sweden, so does culture. An American can feel very foreign in England, or Germany, or Italy even if he is fluent in the language. Small differences are important, especially foundational differences such as the nature of the laws, daily social customs, and the immense variety of behavioral differences they engender. The truth is, in many of the most important ways we are not all the same.
The result of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion investigation: “Based on the information we gathered in our investigation, and after discussing the matter with our Director, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion” determined that “there is insufficient evidence … to make a finding” under the standards of the anti-discrimination policy “at this time.” It continued, “We will issue a letter outlining … the reasons we determined this information does not meet the standards at this time.” The ODI letter will “contain recommendations … to ensure that this behavior does not continue.”
“At this time.” It’s not over. It’s never over with people and organizations like the ODI. They’re the academic institution version of a metastasizing cancer in the human body. It will get worse before it begins to get better.
T. Thornell Tisdale is a pseudonym for the author, who wishes to remain anonymous until we can redeem the times. The author does research and teaches graduate and undergraduate engineering classes at a large state university.