The board of trustees at an Orange County, Calif., community college district put an end to a long-simmering local dispute by ending the suspension of a student who recorded his college instructor unleashing an anti-Trump rant following the presidential election. But all is not well that ends well. The fracas sheds light on the nature of academia these day — a problem that has infected every level of the college experience.
Donald Trump’s victory, said human-sexuality instructor Olga Perez Stable Cox, was “an act of terrorism” — one made worse because “the people leading the assault are among us.” She said the nation is back to “being in a civil war,” made references to white supremacy, and argued the election attacked “our sense of what it means to be an American and the things that we stand for.”
One of those “among us” was Caleb O’Neil. A campaigner for Trump and student in Cox’s class, O’Neil recorded a video of the diatribe and brought the matter to the attention of school officials. When it became clear nothing would come of his complaint, O’Neil said he released the video on social media. It went viral, and quickly became a national news story because it reinforced the kind of intimidation conservative students often complain about.
Instead of dealing with the instructor, the Orange Coast College administration — and the union representing faculty members — criticized the student for undermining the college’s commitment in open dialogue. In mid-February, the administration sent O’Neil a letter that reads as if it came from the pen of a Soviet-era bureaucrat.
The problem, at least from the vantage point of the administration, wasn’t that an instructor depicted the election of the new president as something akin to ISIS. The problem was the student violated the college’s rules about unauthorized tape recording. For violating the student code of conduct, O’Neil was suspended from two semesters at the college, although he could continue attending classes while his appeal was considered.
O’Neil was required to submit a written letter of apology to Cox, a three-page double-spaced essay explaining why he videotaped the professor, his “thoughts and analysis” on why he committed such an act, his thoughts on the impact of his video having gone viral, and an explanation of how he “will prevent this from happening again in the future.” At least he didn’t have to publicly denounce his counterrevolutionary activities.
It’s pretty clear why he published the video. Given that people with his views had just been depicted as aiding and abetting an act of terrorism, O’Neil feared that he would suffer repercussions in the class. The best way to keep such a thing from happening in the future would be to have college instructors stick more closely to the curriculum and leave the political rants for the faculty lounge. But I’m doubtful such an argument in the essay would have garnered a passing grade.
Orange County still has a strong conservative presence, so the publicity sparked a backlash from local Republican leaders. The Orange County Register blasted this attack on academic freedom. And while academic freedom usually applies mainly to the right of teachers to express their views without fear of repercussions, why shouldn’t it also apply to students? The newspaper called for a recall of the Coast Community College board members unless they relent in their overly punitive treatment of O’Neil.
Cox said she received threatening email and voice messages. She felt “paranoid” and “like I’ve been attacked by a mob of people all across the country.” It’s unfortunate she had to endure that sort of vile behavior, but the root of the problem rests with the ridiculously unfair way the college responded.
The public pressure mounted and the board held a special meeting last week, where it rescinded the punishments — although it did nothing to discipline the professor. Even before the suspension was lifted O’Neil was gracious, telling news reporters that Cox “might have crazy political views, but in the classroom she’s very nice.” He was happy after the final verdict. But his attorney was on point when he explained that it’s “a clear example of unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination that targets conservatives….”
The story is emblematic of the state of college discourse. These types of incidents no doubt happen all the time. Students who don’t toe the party line have to be careful. Fortunately, there was a public outcry and a newspaper that gave the incident high-profile coverage. Had it not been for the outrage, it’s unlikely sanity would have prevailed.
As I pointed out in my Register column, it’s ironic that the community college district has an entire Office of Equity, Inclusion and Compliance. “A hostile academic or business environment exists where it is permeated by sexual innuendo; insults or abusive comments directed at an individual or group based on gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, or other protected status,” according to a document posted on the office’s website. It warned against “gratuitous comments” on matters “that are not relevant to subject matter of the class….”
Apparently, political views aren’t afforded “protected status” at colleges and universities. It’s bizarre — but commonplace — for academics to fixate on “microaggressions.” Those are tiny, subtle, and often unconscious racial and gender-oriented messages that people send to others that “have an integral influence on students’ perceptions of campus climates as hostile, alienating and isolating,” according to a document on the college website. It’s hard to think of a more direct way to create an alienating and hostile classroom climate than the statement the instructor made.
And, yes, there were some seemingly racial undertones to her comments. The reference to white supremacy is a hint. The college also supports the use of “trigger warnings” in classrooms — the idea of flagging content that could cause discomfort. This is the kind of politically correct nonsense we’ve come to expect in a college setting. To those of us not immersed in it, it seems almost unbelievable that school officials can be so concerned about nearly indecipherable slights while shrugging off such outrageous transgressions.
There’s so much else wrong with this picture, especially in a taxpayer-funded college setting. I’ve long wondered about the curriculum taught at these places. It’s hard to understand the overall value of, say, a human-sexuality class. And why are faculty members unionized? In my experience, these unions are politically muscular, and will defend their members no matter the transgression. It’s one reason why our state’s public agencies (policing, schools, transportation, etc.) are so unable to make even the most modest, sensible reforms. All the easy student aid ends up funding so much nonsense, although that’s a debate for another day.
The district did the right thing, however belatedly. Its statement even showed a dose of good sense: “The student in this case felt he could not freely share his political views in a classroom, which is why he felt his only recourse was to record a lecture he felt was unfair.” But despite the happy ending, I have little confidence that anything much will change in Orange County or in academic settings in this state or anywhere else.