Republicans, meet the face of everything that scares you: an adjunct professor in a public university classroom giving an unfocused, rambling speech about how awful you are.
Recently a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University named Brent Terry decided to inform his creative writing class that Republicans would “close colleges” if they took over the Senate in the upcoming election, that Republicans were all a lot of rich jerks, and that “…there are a lot of people out there that do not want black people to vote, do not want Latinos to vote. Do not want old people to vote, or young people to vote. Because generally, people like you are liberal.” It goes on from there. A student recorded the rant, and a conservative website called Campus Reform picked it up.
Republicans were quick to denounce Terry. “I find it offensive as a Republican, as a parent, and frankly as a citizen of the state of Connecticut that we would have in our public universities a professor who would make such a comment,” said House Minority Leader Larry Cafero. GOP state chair Jerry Labriola Jr. said that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy should investigate this “clear abuse of a taxpayer-funded position,” and called Terry’s remarks “indoctrination.” John Rowland would doubtless have spent several days talking about it—if he still had a radio show.
So let’s unpack all of this.
First, Terry’s statement was not particularly well thought out. It was the sort of thing that you might find in the lower levels of a comments section at Daily Kos, more a stream of invective than a cogent argument. As opinions go, it’s boilerplate anti-Republican stuff.
Does it belong in a college classroom?
That’s tricky. Opinions, especially well-informed ones, are often a critical piece of academic debate. I had a history professor who had a serious grudge against FDR, and detailed all his faults in contrast with Herbert Hoover’s unadmired greatness. I eventually discovered that this was an argument with a partisan pedigree that went back to the cranky, bitter Republicanism of the 1930s.
He taught a side of American history I didn’t get to see much of, and it got me thinking about how everything has another way of looking at it. He supported his reasoning with sources and facts, and defended his interpretation of them. Many years later I can disagree with that professor, but I would never think to censor him.
This isn’t that, though. This is less a well-supported academic opinion and more a partisan political opinion, and there are some very important differences between the two.
I’m reminded of a mistake I made a long time ago. In my first year of teaching high school I was doing a unit on Animal Farm and somehow got onto the topic of guns. I said something about the dangers of weapons, and a student very perceptively asked me, “Are you advocating gun control?”
“Yes,” I blurted out before I could really think about it. The bell rang, the class left.
Later, I regretted it. Should I have said that? Should I be bringing my own personal beliefs into the classroom? I realized that I was wrong. My purpose was to pose the questions, present the information, and help students develop their own answers, not to dictate my personal politics to them.
There’s another element to this, too. Controversial opinions are one thing, but something else when coming from someone who grades you. Students might not feel safe pushing back against his politics without worrying that their professor would see them as lesser.
Terry realized that. He apologized. I hope it was sincere, and that he’ll reflect on his teaching.
That said, the Republican response was completely out of proportion. Did Larry Cafero really need to take to the floor of the House to yell at him? Did Jerry Labriola really need to call for some sort of “investigation”?
Are they aware of how utterly paranoid they look?
I get that a lot of conservatives feel like the academy is a bastion of liberalism that stifles conservative opinions. I’ve worked in education for my entire adult life and there is something to that, though it’s more complicated and less threatening than this myth of liberal indoctrination.
However, this kind of overreaction doesn’t help Republicans. They may raise some money from it, but most will be scratching their heads at why the GOP’s reaction was so fast, so defensive, and so over-the-top.
It’s almost as if there’s an uncomfortable grain of truth in what Terry said.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.