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.]