MSU professor William Penn pulled from classroom after attack on Republicans

6:27 AM, Sep 6, 2013   |    comments
Michigan State University professor William Penn has been reassigned after a rant in class against Republicans.
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Detroit (Free Press) -- William Penn's class Thursday at Michigan State University lasted just under 10 minutes.

That was just long enough for teaching assistants to read a note saying the noted creative writing professor wouldn't be teaching them anymore and a new instructor would be in place on Tuesday.

Penn, a tenured professor, was pulled from all his classes Thursday in the wake of videotaped comments he made during a previous class attacking Republicans in general, and Mitt and Ann Romney in particular. He said Republicans had "raped" the country.

Under heavy political pressure from Republicans – including several members of the school's Board of Trustees – the university conducted a quick investigation before placing Penn on what in effect is a paid semester-long sabbatical.

Penn remains an employee of the university, and will continue to draw his $146,510 salary. No decision has been made about whether he will teach next semester, MSU officials said.

The move didn't stem the tide of criticism headed toward the university.

"We are encouraged by the fact university officials recognize Mr. Penn's actions for what they were: bullying in the classroom," Michigan Republican Party Chairman Bobby Schostak said in a statement provided to the Free Press. "This behavior is inexcusable and does not belong in our children's classrooms, but the fact he is still receiving taxpayer dollars while suspended sends the wrong message."

MSU officials, both in public statements and in an e-mail sent to students in the class, apologized for the remarks.

"I first want to personally apologize, as does Professor Penn, to any student who was offended or made to feel uncomfortable during the class," Karin Wurst, the dean of MSU's College of Arts and Letters, said in an e-mail to students. "At MSU and in the College of Arts and Letters, it is our commitment to create a learning environment that is characterized by mutual respect and civility where diverse ideas can be explored."

Penn could not be reached for comment.

One of Penn's students, Derek Wright, unaware of the flap, showed up early Thursday for the 400-student lecture because seats tend to fill up quickly.

"People were hyper," Wright, 20, a junior actuarial sciences major from Northville, told the Free Press. "They were gossiping about what had happened. As soon as the teaching assistants started talking, it got quiet. They read us the e-mail everybody got sent, told us our homework was still due Friday and we'd have a new teacher on Tuesday."

Wright said the comments in the video "were pretty much the same thing he had been saying for the last two classes."

"He hadn't done much teaching of the class, just talking about his personal opinions and preaching them."

Wright said he wasn't offended by what Penn had been saying.

"I was more offended he wasn't teaching the class," Wright said, adding Penn told the class they didn't have to agree with him.

The talk

In the video, shot by an unidentified student from several rows deep in the classroom, Penn is shown launching into a diatribe that goes on for eight minutes.

"If you go to the Republican convention in Florida, you see all of the old Republicans with the dead skin cells washing off them," Penn said in the video. "They are cheap. They don't want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could."

Penn also said the country is full of "closet racists" trying to suppress blacks from voting because they tend to vote Democratic.

"Why would Republicans want to do it? Because Republicans are not a majority in this country anymore. They are a bunch of dead white people. Or dying white people."

He also went after the Romneys in the video.

"Ann Romney a first lady? ... Anybody here want to be Mitt Romney. Him? I mean, married to her?"

Quick reaction

Once the video surfaced at a conservative news site called Campus Reform, it didn't take long for Penn's comments to be condemned, including by MSU board member Mitch Lyons, a Republican from Grand Rapids, and the state GOP, which called for MSU to fire Penn.

On Wednesday, Lyons tweeted a link to the video and said, "Check out this rant by a MSU professor. Do u think this has a place in our public university? #Ithinknot."

By Thursday morning, MSU officials had pulled Penn from classes.

"Once MSU was made aware of the situation, the Office of the Provost immediately began a review," MSU spokesman Kent Cassella said in a statement Thursday. "The dean of the College of Arts and Letters and a representative from the provost's office met with Penn, who acknowledged that some of his comments were inappropriate, disrespectful and offensive and may have negatively affected the learning environment."

Penn is a noted American Indian writer and scholar who authored several books that often deal with issues of identity and stereotypes. He has won several grants and awards over the years, including an American Book Award in 2001 and Native American Writer of the Year in nonfiction from the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers in 1997.

The suspension drew praise from Lyons.

"This was the appropriate immediate response needed," he told the Free Press. "We need to ensure that our classrooms have a free exchange of ideas and opinions. This immediate action allows the students to have that freedom while Professor Penn's status is further evaluated."

Protected speech?

It's not uncommon for university professors to make provocative statements, or to speak out against some things during classes.

The freedom to speak out is generally protected by First Amendment rights when professors can prove what they are saying is linked to the content of their courses, several legal experts said.

"If he can prove that what he was saying can reasonably be seen as connecting to his class, then it will be hard for the university to take any more action," said Neal McCluskey, the associate director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.

After watching the video, McCluskey said that might be tough for Penn to do.

"I'd be interested in seeing what was going on before the video starts," he said. "From what you see in the video, it seems to me that it was totally gratuitous. It sounded like it was intended to offend."

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