The Right Coast

December 17, 2004
She's Baaacckk!!
By Gail Heriot

I apologize for being such a negligent correspondent for the last few months. It proves that contrary to popular belief, the legal academy is not a great place to come if you're looking for cushy job. I've been running myself ragged with too much work.

But in case you missed it, today's news included a story about a Colorado college professor who has been run ragged in perhaps a more troubling way. He has been dismissed from his teaching responsibilities for writing an article about his experiences teaching American Indian students.

Judging from the excerpts in the newspaper coverage of the dismissal, the article was rather pc--perhaps to the point of being annoyingly so. Dr. Andrew Gulliford wrote that "teaching native students has brought me some of the most meaningful and satisfying professional experience in a 25-year teaching career. I am so grateful for the opportunity to live and learn here, but for an Anglo or nonnative, teaching native students, especially about Indian issues, can be both difficult and rewarding. There are frequently cross-cultural complications and conundrums."

The article itself turned out to be one of those "cross-cultural complications and conundrums." Some students were apparently enraged when Gulliford called his Indian students "quiet, well-groomed" and "impeccably polite." They read it as implying that he expected them to be otherwise.

The newspaper account also reports that "they were ... unhappy with a quote from an unidentified student who says, 'My parents didn't teach me anything because they were frequently drunk with their car in a ditch.'"

I can understand students being displeased with a teacher who refers to them as "well-groomed." It's condescending. And so is some of the rest of the material quoted in the article--including the lines about the "most meaningful and satisfying professional experience" in his long career. I've never known anyone to use language like that to talk about an experience he truly found meaningful and satisfying. It reads like so much pc blather.

But trying to get the guy fired from teaching for it seems extreme. Evidently, no apology from Gulliford (which he freely gave) would do.

The college administration concluded the article violated student privacy under federal law because it used statements from students without their permission--presumably the drunken parents line. I'm no expert on student privacy law, but if it's true that federal law forbids a college professor from anonymously quoting a student without his permission in a scholarly article on teaching, it's a pretty silly policy (and surely does not require that violators be dismissed). After all, the quotation is anonymous. If it's the case that a significant number of American Indian students face such hurdles in getting a good education, isn't it appropriate to bring the facts to the public's attention?