LSU Covers Up for Astronomer Who Bullied Class: NAS Replies

Ashley Thorne

Last week, after publishing Media Rush to Defend LSU “Blood Will Be on Your Hands” Prof in this space, I sent the article to Dr. Michael Cherry, director of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Louisiana State University. The article covered the video footage taken during an astronomy class, in which the professor asked students to sit in different parts of the room depending on their opinions about global warming and then repeatedly taunted some of them for their views.

I urged Dr. Cherry to suspend “Professor Schaefer from teaching until such time as he shows himself ready to teach in a manner appropriate to his position.” 

My article dealt with the media’s defense of Dr. Schaefer, who was characterized by the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed as “actually challenging all of his students” and unfairly portrayed in “a setup.” The professor did deride both sides of the spectrum he had constructed, but that misses the point. By what theory of pedagogy is a professor entitled to elicit student opinions merely to deride them? Balanced bigotry is still bigotry. It’s true that Professor Schaefer did not know he was being videotaped, but the tape was not edited or manipulated to make him look more radical than he actually was. Campus Reform, the organization that posted the 40-minute video of the class, did not “selectively edit” its footage, as Inside Higher Ed alleged. The representative turned the camera off during the 15 minutes or so of student small group discussion when Professor Schaefer ceased to lecture.

The Chronicle’s and Inside Higher Ed’s depiction of Dr. Schaefer nobly “challenging” all the students and the insinuation that Campus Reform sneakily “edited” the video proved handy to officials at LSU who immediately adopted these unfounded claims as part of the University’s official statement on the incident, “Setting the Record Straight.” Those false assertions also made it into the reply email I received from John Maxwell Hamilton, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of LSU.  Provost Hamilton doesn’t seem to have read my article, in which I already addressed the points he raises. So perhaps a recap is in order.

Here is his message, which I have taken the liberty to divide into paragraphs. My comments are in blue.

Dear Ms. Thorne,

Thank you for your e-mail regarding LSU astronomy professor Bradley Schaefer. We understand your concern and take it very seriously. We want you to know that the university has looked into this matter and found that the video in question was heavily edited [Which parts of the class were missing? Did you ask Dr. Schaefer what had been omitted? Was it anything more than the time of student small group discussion?] and taken out of context [What “context” is missing?] specifically for publication on a political web site.

The debate [The class was not structured as a debate] was actually a broad-ranging, hour-long [The video was 40 minutes long. The camera was turned off during a break-out session during which the students were discussing assigned questions among themselves] dialogue, in which Dr. Schaefer challenged [“Challenged” is flatly the wrong word. He repeatedly accused both sides of causing mass destruction to humanity as a result of their policy positions.] students who believe in global warming just as passionately as he did those students who do not. [Again, Schaefer shouldn’t be jeering at students on either side of the issue after inviting them to take positions that he believes to be extreme. When he asks students to sit according to their beliefs, then ridicules them for doing so—no matter what their politics are, he is in the wrong. As a professor, his job is not to belittle both sides equally but to instruct impartially.]

Unfortunately, the whole story didn’t make it into the edited video. [Would the story have been different if the viewer were to watch the students converse among themselves for fifteen minutes while Professor Schaefer hovered in the background? What could Dr. Schaefer have said or done in the alleged “missing” section of the class that would vindicate him?  If the “whole story”—which supposedly exonerates Dr. Schaefer—is that he ridiculed both sides, that’s a confession, not an alibi.]

Not one student who was in the lecture has complained to the university. [False. We know of at least one student who did.  Matthew—no last name reported—is a student in the class who was ridiculed by Professor Schaefer and who last week had a meeting with the department chair, Professor Cherry, to complain about Dr. Schaefer’s behavior and request to drop the course. After the meeting, Matthew said, “Even though he (Professor Cherry) did say that he doesn't approve of what he did, he said he wouldn’t do anything about it. He won't even let me drop the class.”] In fact, we have never received a complaint about Dr. Schaefer, an award-winning faculty member who consistently receives high teaching evaluations from students that are among the best in the College of Science. [Even supposing a record of exemplary teaching on Professor Schaefer’s part up until this point, does nothing in the 40-minute video of Schaefer’s class raise a red flag? Actually, we are skeptical that those teaching evaluations can be read at face value. A teacher who engages in ridicule and bombast is not someone that most students would feel free to evaluate honestly.]

This all can be confirmed through a number of media outlets including the Associated Press, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Advocate, which all reported on the story. [I am surprised that Provost Hamilton cites reporters much further from the scene than himself as the authoritative account of what happened. Isn’t it Provost Hamilton’s responsibility to make use of the resources of his own office to find the facts rather than rely on second and third-hand sources?] 

Again, we appreciate your e-mail and your concern. But this is not a case of irresponsible teaching.  [Yes it is. If it isn’t, it is hard to imagine what would be. Professors have been subject to strong disciplinary actions for offenses far less flagrant and abusive than those Professor Schaefer is shown committing on this videotape. I note that, to his credit, Provost Hamilton does not cite the spurious defense of “academic freedom” in this instance. Academic freedom is not a license to ridicule students, or to substitute a political rant for a class that is supposed to be about “the solar system,” or to misuse the authority of his position, or to turn his tax-payer funded appointment into an avenue of aggressive political propaganda. But just in case the provost has second thoughts about using the “academic freedom” whisk broom to brush aside this little problem with the probity of one of his professors, it is worth reminding ourselves of the canonical statement on the topic, the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles, which observes:   

The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language.

Dr. Schaefer failed to conduct his class with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language. That in itself should be grounds for discipline.]

It is a case of very bad journalism, obviously by someone without standards. [The problem is not the base standards of someone who had the gall to capture Professor Schaefer’s abusive rants on videotape, or the willingness of a website to post the footage. The problem is the behavior that videotape captured. Don’t blame the press. Your problem is closer to home. Faintheartedness in upholding academic standards is unbecoming of your office. And you might remind yourself of the great lesson of Watergate: the cover-up is often worse than the crime. You too will eventually be held responsible if you tolerate this sort of behavior by the faculty you are responsible for. And make no mistake. By attempting to extenuate Professor Schaefer’s actions and pretend that the problem lies with the press, you are giving permission to other faculty members to do more or less what Professor Schaefer did. I don’t think it is wise of someone in your position to speak too loudly of standards. Someone in Louisiana might decide they should be applied to you too.]

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