- May 09, 2016
Editor’s note. The following is a fairly lengthy (3,300-word) essay introducing a new case of bias against a faculty member. Professor Dennis Gouws is a tenured professor at Springfield College in Massachusetts who has run afoul of college authorities who in 2014 abruptly began to find fault with his teaching a long-established course, “Men in Literature.” In 2016, they canceled his course, culminating a long campaign of petty hostility against him because of his scholarly and professional interest in “biological maleness.”
We present this case in detail because it exemplifies a development in the campus culture wars that has not yet come into focus for many observers. The Gouws affair shows the intensification of efforts by campus feminists to use bureaucratic authority to enforce their ideological preferences on the faculty as a whole.
Professor Gouws is an academic engaged in teaching his courses, expressing his opinions through ordinary channels, and advocating for open debate over his ideas. He is not someone who was spoiling for a fight, but his department, his dean, his provost, and his president decided that his views were impermissible. This is his story.
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The attempt to marginalize, discredit, and silence the views of faculty members who dissent from the current campus orthodoxies never stops. It happens at large universities and at small colleges. It happens in the sciences and in the humanities. It happens on big public issues that everyone cares about and on small matters that could hardly muster a quorum on a rainy afternoon.
It happens explicitly at some colleges and universities that wear their leftist commitments to “social justice” openly, like armbands, and it happens implicitly at other colleges and universities that try to maintain the pretense of intellectual openness while crushing dissenting views behind closed doors.
Put all the pieces together, and the picture of the faculty side of contemporary higher education is pretty grim. Faculty members, no matter their private views, know that the price of open dissent is very high. It doesn’t really matter whether a faculty member has tenure. There are plenty of levers besides the threat of job loss. Course assignments. Teaching loads. Promotions. Salary increases. Sabbatical leaves. Petty harassment. Departmental ostracism.
Varieties of Dissent
A few brave and thick-skinned faculty members dissent anyway. Professor McAdams at Marquette University did so and is now, rather famously, suspended without pay as his university tries to strip him of tenure. Professor Robert Paquette at Hamilton College has fared better. With the help of some financial backers, Paquette relocated his Hamilton Institute for the Study of Western Civilization off campus and has kept up a relentless series of ripostes to the enforcers of political correctness at his college. Others such as Professor Bradley C.S. Watson at St. Vincent College have managed to create domains of their own within their institutions that, because they are well-funded and highly respected externally, provide a safe harbor from the institution as a whole.
McAdams, Paquette, and Watson are rare exceptions of men willing to bear all the opprobrium heaped on those who refuse to conform to the ideological fashions on campus. There are many more cases of men and women who, however reluctantly, decide that the costs of nonconformity are just too high. They choose—reluctantly and often with deep misgivings—to play along with what the campus regime demands.
And then there are people like Dennis Gouws.
“Men in Literature”
This is mainly a story of how one small college cancelled an undergraduate English course, “Men in Literature.” The course was taught by Dennis Gouws.
Professor Gouws is a tenured member of the faculty at Springfield College, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He never set out to be a gadfly against progressive dogma or a stalwart opponent of the ideological regime. He was, to the contrary, picked for the part by the regime itself. He had made his own adjustments to the contemporary preoccupation with “gender” by devising an experimental course in 2005 titled “Men in Literature.”
The course succeeded in attracting student interest and, with the encouragement of his department, he taught it eight times between 2005 and 2015. The department chair in 2010 suggested Professor Gouws put it before the curriculum committee for approval as a course in the humanities department with its own designated number. He did so, and “Men in Literature” was approved. This was the final stage of approval for a course at Springfield College. At that point “Men in Literature” was fully established in the curriculum.
“Men in Literature” seemed to have settled uncontroversially into a curriculum that also includes “Women and Literature” and “Native American Literature,” as well as numerous other courses that do not look “literary” in character, including “Nature and Environmental Writers” (deals with “spiritual issues and environmental issues and responsibilities”); “Business and Professional Speaking”; and “Film as a Narrative Art”. As far as we know none of these courses have been similarly challenged by the department chair or other Springfield College authorities as illegitimate.
But something happened with “Men in Literature.” Something that was evident in another of the courses taught by Professor Gouws.
In addition to teaching “Men in Literature” in the Fall of 2014, Professor Gouws also taught two College Writing One classes. This is a course that has no prescribed content; the instructors are free to devise their own content as long as the work done in the class meets the College’s skills-based course objectives. There were 31 students in the both classes who submitted course evaluations at the end of the semester. Of these 31, four evaluations were to some degree critical of the fifth essay assignment. That question was not a surprise to any of the students in the course, because it is described in the written materials provided to students at the beginning of the semester:
The exam will be an essay which requires students to write about how men are treated in their respective academic environments.
One of the four students merely “would suggest a different topic for paper #5”. Two others were more critical: one requested, “Change final paper. Include females on campus”; the other said, “The final paper is a little absurd.” The remaining critical paper was more strident: “I would suggest changing the final topic. I find it a little insulting. I do not appreciate having to write about how men are treated unequally on campus when there is no unequal treatment.” This student assumed that merely being asked to write about the treatment of males involved accepting that there was unequal treatment—an assumption clearly not made in the assignment question.
The remaining course evaluations were generally positive. But we apparently live in an age where certain kinds of complaints (e.g. “Include females”) have the force of cyclones. They can topple established courses and potentially ruin the careers of tenured professors.
Professor Gouws was told by the department chair on December 12, 2014 that the dean had received a complaint about a course, but she offered no details. In a subsequent meeting on February 25, 2015, the chair presented the four above-mentioned course evaluations as apparent justification for insisting that Professor Gouws change the assignment.
For those not familiar with the inner workings of higher education, four critical evaluations of a course out of a class of 31 is seldom a cause for alarm for the professor or anyone else. Students complain. Many such complaints are frivolous. Discernment is needed. Such matters very seldom rise to the level of a dean, especially not such throw-away complaints as “I think the final paper is a little absurd.”
Perhaps even more remarkable was the dean’s insistence (in a series of emails from June 2, 2015 through August 17, 2015) that Professor Gouws revise the content of his Men in Literature course because an unnamed student (or more than one; her emails are inconsistent) complained about the course.
But as often happens in higher education, there is a back story.
The dean, Anne Herzog, had already established that she had little use for Professor Gouws. She had denied his request for a sabbatical leave in her October 17, 2014 written assessment of his application. (He had received a contract from the Australian Institute of Male Health and Studies to co-edit a book on maleness and contribute an essay on teaching male-positive literature courses.) She had reprimanded him, in a January 23, 2014 email, for missing a “sexual harassment prevention” training session from which he had already been excused.
On December 10, 2013, the Springfield College director of Human Resources, Rosanne Captain, summoned Professor Gouws to discuss “complaints” about a Springfield College men’s group, which Professor Gouws had helped to create. The meeting included Dean Herzog, Provost Jean Wyld, and Dean of Students Richard Braverman. The men’s group had a Facebook page that the Springfield College officials believed was unhelpful. But attention focused on Professor Gouws’ posting of materials on his office door and another location in the department. Next to a poster in the department that said “Men can stop rape,” he had put up one in response that said, “Women can stop false rape accusations,” created by a group called “A Voice for Men.” He had also put up a handout that included statistics on rape and false allegations of rape. One of the college officials reported that a complaint had been received of the posters creating a “hostile environment”—a key phrase in Title IX regulation. Dean Herzog took the occasion to declare that “A Voice for Men” is a “hate group.” She cited the Southern Poverty Law Center (itself a radical left group) as her authority.
There was in fact some “hate” on display in reference to the posters. In 2013 a departmental colleague ripped down one of his posters and declared in Professor Gouws’ presence, “This crosses the line.” Similarly in 2014 and again in 2015, his office door was vandalized. Nothing similar befell faculty members who posted feminist themes on their doors.
These and many other such details suggest a picture of low-level ideological persecution. The dominant faction at this little college favored a feminist view of the relations between the sexes. They encountered a small but vocal minority of colleagues who opposed that view, and they decided to exercise the powers of their positions to crush this opposition.
The backstory of Dean Herzog’s hostility to Professor Gouws helps to explain the vehemence of her attack on “Men in Literature,” but it doesn’t explain how the Springfield College officials could imagine in the first place they had grounds to act. The alleged student complaints were an awfully thin pretext. What were they thinking?
What Do We Know?
Stories like this accumulate mountains of details. I’ve recounted a few of them to give the flavor of petty vindictiveness that is an unfortunate characteristic of academic life and that can be marshalled by ill-intentioned administrators to make life uncomfortable for faculty members they dislike. But there is more to the story than just some irascible college officials. It is a story of irascible college officials with the wind of national policy in their sails.
I am also adding detail to the story in light of Springfield College’s official response so far: essentially the claim that the National Association of Scholars doesn’t have the whole picture and that, were we apprised of all the facts, we would see that the college acted appropriately. I’ll come back to this, but for the moment I will only say that we have pored through the whole saga of policy statements, handbooks, emails, entreaties, applications, grievances, syllabi, course catalogs, requests for meetings, evasive answers, and curt dismissals. We have made a cache of some of these documents publicly available here. No doubt there are other documents that we haven’t seen and that bear on the case, such as emails among the Springfield College administrators. We don’t expect Springfield College to release them anytime soon, and they may indeed already be expunged.
There are other things we don’t know, but can guess.
I conjecture something like this. The Office for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education unleashed its “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011. That letter set the stage for colleges and universities to turn allegations of sexual assault into grist for the mills of campus Title IX coordinators, and a great change began to sweep through American higher education. What little was left of feminist toleration of non-feminist views quickly evaporated in this dry wind of imperial Title IX regulation. The threshold of what counted as an actual allegation of sexual assault was reduced. In many institutions, mere rumor or suspicion proved to be enough to set the bureaucracy in motion.
The Office for Civil Rights made clear that it would use its powers over federal funding to enforce its new regime. And colleges and universities, many of them in no way averse to the changes, quickly modified their policies accordingly.
The Title IX regime had no direct bearing on Professor Gouws’ situation. He had not been accused of assault or misconduct. There was, however, that mention at the December 10, 2013 meeting that Professor Gouws’ posters might be creating a “hostile environment.” The whole apparatus of the “Dear Colleague” power grab by the Office for Civil Rights is based on expanding what counts as a “hostile environment.”
Professor Gouws’ teaching was suddenly out of tune with the chorus. Colleges and universities were supposed to be all about fighting the pervasive “rape culture.” And here was a man teaching books such as Christina Hoff Sommers’ The War Against Boys and KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor’s study of the Duke lacrosse case, Until Proven Innocent.
Professor Gouws’ departmental chair told him in September 2015 that he had to change the readings in “Men in Literature.” The ostensible aim of these changes was to assign more of what the chair termed “traditional literature.” Professor Gouws agreed to the changes and presented his new readings to the chair in February 2016, who forwarded the changes to Dean Herzog. The new readings Professor Gouws added were a collection of World War I poetry, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Andy Weir’s The Martian. Dean Herzog ruled that these changes were insufficient and that the course was therefore cancelled.
Also in February 2016, Professor Gouws succeeded in getting a meeting with Springfield College president Mary-Beth Cooper. The meeting turned out to include also the provost and the college’s general counsel. The meeting proved to be nothing but a stall.
The essential outcome was a February 18, 2016 letter from President Cooper excusing herself from involvement with any of his complaints except to say that others would deal with the matters. This eventuated in a March 15 letter from Provost Wyld in which she raised again the specter of “hostile environment.” That letter raised what look like legal challenges to Professor Gouws’ pedagogy, and also expanded the attack on Professor Gouws to include the assignment he had given in College Writing One. In the letter Provost Wyld said she was writing both for herself and for Springfield College’s general counsel, Christopher Neronha. She used the plural pronoun throughout, but the letter is signed only by Provost Wyld.
When Professor Gouws received Provost Wyld’s letter he was duly alarmed and wrote several times to Mr. Neronha, asking:
- What is the legal basis for Dr. Wyld's claim that one my assignments, which she states does "not afford students the opportunity to choose a gender to write about nor do you require all students to write about the opposite gender," "is certainly a concern from [...] a legal perspective"? What law or laws does this assignment violate, and how does this assignment violate this law or these laws?
- Which "course content or assignment" of mine is "discriminatory" or "[fosters] a potential hostile environment for students of either gender"? What specific law or laws does "course content or assignment" of mine violate, and how has my "course content" or an "assignment" violated a specific law or laws?
- Dr. Wyld's comments and "judgment" seem to me to violate my right to curricular choice and academic freedom. How are Dr. Wyld's comments and "judgment" not violating my right to curricular choice and academic freedom?
Mr. Neronha refused to answer the questions in writing but said he would be willing to meet with Professor Gouws in person to discuss the issues.
Gouws Finds an Ally
It was at that point that Professor Gouws contacted the National Association of Scholars. I counseled him not to meet with Mr. Neronha in a manner that would leave him unable to document exactly what the attorney said on behalf of the college.
The upshot of all this was a letter I wrote to President, Mary-Beth Cooper, April 4. A copy of that letter appears on this page under the tab “NAS Letter.”
President Cooper never replied, but she did have her general counsel, Mr. Neronha, reply on her behalf. A copy of Mr. Neronha’s letter also appears on this page, under the tab “Springfield’s Reply.” It sheds no light on the case. Mr. Neronha engages in the time-honored practices of lawyers who have nothing to say but would like to kick up as much dust as possible. He essentially claims that I wrote my letter to President Cooper without the benefit of all the facts. If only I knew more, I wouldn’t have drawn such conclusions.
Of course, there is always more to know about anything. Accordingly, I made a still deeper dive in the documentary record. All that venture did was demonstrate the exhausting pettiness of bureaucrats at Springfield College, who, once they understood that Professor Gouws was marked out as the Enemy, were tireless in their efforts to discredit him.
Professor Gouws has provided NAS with a point by point refutation of Mr. Neronha’s letter, keyed to a large number of supporting documents. His response appears on this page under the tab “Gouws.”
Why Should We Care? Three Reasons
Why take the trouble to document Professor Gouws’ case like this? I have three good reasons. The first is the simple matter of attempting to correct an injustice. Professor Gouws did not deserve this treatment, and the National Association of Scholars is possibly in the position to exert a little pressure on Springfield College to set things right.
I am well aware that an embarrassed college president is a defensive college president and that President Cooper’s likely reaction will be to dig in her heels. We might well expect that the next stage of this matter will be indignant protests that Springfield College did nothing wrong and everything right, and that it has been unfairly attacked.
Those protestations will convince very few people. Anyone who takes the trouble to look at the record will see plainly what happened. And that will set the stage for the next layer of controversy where parents, the public, and the Springfield College board of trustees will have to weigh what this all means. Trustees, of course, share the defensive instincts of college presidents and will want to see no wrong. But the story has its own gravity.
The second reason for taking trouble with this case is that it exemplifies so many stories of a like nature that never get told. The National Association of Scholars has made something of a specialty of going deep into particular institutions and events to capture fully contextualized pictures. That was the point of our now famous study, What Does Bowdoin Teach? And in showing what Springfield College chooses not to teach, i.e. “Men in Literature,” we are illustrating something not just about Springfield College but also about the broad category of mid-tier, regional colleges across the country.
The third reason for taking this trouble is that Professor Gouws’ story has inadvertently shown us a new side of the current Title IX tyranny. A moment has arrived in American higher education when the fear of complaints from students that a male bias lurks somewhere in a course is sufficient reason for slashing the course from the curriculum. Let’s get this fact in the record and consider whether that is how we want to shape the undergraduate curriculum from this point on. A pernicious ideology has been let loose, and it is all the more pernicious because its proponents congratulate themselves for striking a blow for gender justice every time they narrow the curricular choices to their own preferences.
What Springfield College Should Do
What should happen next? Springfield College should restore the cancelled course, “Men in Literature.” It should cease its campaign of singling out Professor Gouws for special treatment in the form of subjecting his courses to unusual levels of critical scrutiny. It should grant him his sabbatical leave. Above all it should cease to treat him as a public enemy.
Is that too much to ask? If so, Springfield College is in deeper trouble than I thought.