To the Editor:
In “A Decade of Ideological Transformation Comes Undone” (The Chronicle Review, December 22), Len Gutkin calls “farcical” the case of a “white professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California, Greg Patton,” who “used the Mandarin word ‘nèige,’ which means ‘that,’ in a lesson on filler words (nèige can be used similarly to ‘um’ in English but sounds vaguely like the N-word).” A group called “Black MBA students” complained.
It was no farce when Patton’s business school dean, Geoff Garrett, removed him from the class he was teaching, nor when former USC Provost Charles Zukoski defended this step to an incredulous USC Academic Senate as necessary while investigating the complaints against Patton, nor when Garrett’s faculty formally admonished him for his actions.
In contrast, Gutkin declares the case of University of Michigan distinguished professor of music Bright Sheng a fundamental threat to academic freedom. Sheng, who is Asian, “showed a 1965 film version of Othello in which Laurence Olivier appears in blackface.” Again, students complained. Music school dean David Gier removed Sheng from his class because Sheng’s actions “do not align with our school’s commitment to antiracist action, diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
There is no meaningful distinction between the two circumstances. Both directly threaten the academic freedom of deeply accomplished faculty experts using their respective skills and best judgments to communicate with their students, some of whom prefer to maneuver rather than learn. Both faculty members were morally, academically, and intellectually in the right, and both were betrayed by virtue-signaling administrators who care more about maneuvering their career opportunities through a pernicious institutional DEI maze than they do about truth or the welfare of the students their faculty members were trying to serve. What matters is diversity of ideas, not phenotypes; equal opportunity, not equity; and inclusion based on merit, not identity. There is much for us to undo; it is past time we proceed.
Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Systems Engineering
University of Southern California