The Strange Case of the Threatening Hypothetical

Lawrence Connell, a tenured associate professor at Widener University School of Law in Delaware, is fond of using famous or familiar people in the hypotheticals he presents to his criminal law class.  One of his imaginary scenarios involved him as a murderer, and the school’s Dean as his victim. Now he is on administrative leave from the school, as administrators investigate  him for using “violent scenarios” that some students complained violated the school’s discrimination and harassment codes.

Widener University spokesman Dan Hanson, meanwhile, has declined to provide more details on the matter, but insists that Widener is committed to academic freedom.


According to Connell’s lawyer, he was reportedly pressured to admit that he “was engaging in racist, sexist statements,” since Dean Linda Ammons is black and a woman. He refused to comply with this demand, and is demanding a public hearing. All signs point to Connell, who appears to be a law professor of a conservative bent in a self-consciously liberal institution, being victimized by politically correctness-obsessed students with an agenda, and being persecuted by school administrators who are willing to chill every professor’s right to try innovative and unconventional teaching methods in order to rid a square-pegged teacher in a round hole school.

For those who have never taken a criminal law course in law school, “violent scenarios” are not only not objectionable, they are typical, unavoidable, and one of the things that makes that course more interesting than Civil Procedure. It is, after all, criminal law. For a criminal law professor to be under investigation for using violent scenarios is laughable. [UPDATE: You can read the supposedly offensive hypothetical here.]

Also laughable, if it didn’t show a that a disturbing trend of fearfulness and paranoia has spread to law schools, is the idea that an admittedly fictional hypothetical in an academic setting—by a teacher, no less— could be deemed a credible threat.  Any high school student whose fiction touches on violent themes involving school personnel or other students is looking at suspension or worse; this is carried to hysterical extremes, but at least there have been instances of students making their fantasies reality. If there have been any shooting rampages by law professors, however, I’m not aware of them.

Would the reaction against Connell’s teaching methods—he says that students are more likely to remember the lessons underlying hypotheticals if they involve familiar personalities, and he’s right—have been the same if the Dean wasn’t female and black? I doubt it. Poor Connell: he assumed that the Dean’s gender and race were irrelevant when he was referring to an official because of her position alone. Perhaps his own lack of color and gender biases made him unwary; he was foolishly inattentive to Widener’s apparent culture of presumed race and sex-based victimhood.

When Bernard Shaw, in the 1988 presidential debates, posed Michael Dukakis the famous hypothetical about Kitty Dukakis being brutally raped and murdered, did anyone at CNN complain that Shaw was threatening the Governor’s wife? Why not? Famous hypothetical victim, violent scenario, and so insensitively posed to the victim’s husband! As history recalls, the question didn’t appear to even raise Dukakis’s pulse rate. It was, you see, a hypothetical.

What’s going on here? Just this:

  • A conservative professor who was recklessly trusting despite evidence throughout American society, and especially academia, that any metaphor, joke, hypothetical or comparison is likely to be seized upon by fanatics in the culture wars.
  • A group of students, duly trained in speech suppression and political correctness, who were seeking to embarrass and undermine Connell for personal or political reasons.
  • A Dean who could and should have defused the issue immediately by pronouncing the use of her name in a hypothetical as fanciful and harmless, but who now is allowing her race and gender to become weapons in imposing ideological and teaching conformity on the rest of the faculty.
  • A law faculty that doesn’t have the integrity, courage or common sense to support a colleague whose persecution will permanently scar the law school’s reputation.

Now The Fire, the non-profit organization that has frequently ridden to the rescue of students and teachers being threatened by speech and thought-restricting universities, says it as “following the case with interest.”

Saddle up, guys. This is no hypothetical.

[Special thanks to Rick Jones for the tip. You can read his take on the story here.]

5 thoughts on “The Strange Case of the Threatening Hypothetical

  1. How did the complaining “offended” students ever get admitted to law school?

    I submit (totally without evidence, I admit, and therefore dismissable) that they were not “offended” at all, but are clever opportunists, using this as a peg upon which to hang the hat of their own agenda.

    (I just reread that interminable and convoluted last paragraph — am I the son and grandson of lawyers or not?)

  2. All I can do is sit here in disbelief.

    How did the Dean’s race and sex ever come into play? This confuses me the most in all of this. Did he say something I’m unaware of that brings either into this?

    I sincerely hope the teacher is able to defeat these trumped up charges.

  3. Politics, schmolitics. The professor was a boob for ever using real names in hypotheticals; the students are either boobs or political activists of some kind; the dean is a boob because she didn’t simply dismiss the issue out of hand; and the law school, if it can collectively be called a “boob,” (oops, sexist) is one for allowing this all to go on.

    This isn’t thought police. This isn’t an abrogation of free speech. This is simply a thoughtless professor using real names in “hypotheticals” — which, to some morons, make them more real than “hypothetical.”

    His own fault. The students’ fault. The dean’s fault. The school’s fault.

    This is a non-issue. Unless of course Widener College of Law manages to turn this into a press bonanza… which they must need, because I’ve never heard of it before.

    • Elizabeth, please don’t dimiss out-of-hand the word “boob” as sexist.

      The great Sage of Baltimore, Henry Louis Mencken, once referred to the American electorate as a great “boobocracy”. Thought to derive from Spanish “bobo”, foolish, naive, a simpleton, silly (e.g., booby hatch).

      I could not find a derivation for the slang synonym for the human mammary gland.

      • It’s the same as the Spanish etymology — something that makes bobos of men. [And thanks, Elizabeth, for properly apportioning the blame.]

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