When UW Law School professor Leonard Kaplan ended his legal-process class on Feb. 15, there was no sign that he had offended anyone. There were no questions or complaints, and no one approached him afterward.
Yet offend he did, during a discussion about conflicts between culture and the legal system in which he used Hmong immigrants as an example.
A few days later, third-year law student KaShia Moua sent an e-mail citing four 'incredibly offensive and racist' remarks she said Kaplan had made during a '10-minute rant about the Hmong.' Among them: 'Hmong men have no skills other than killing' and 'All second-generation Hmong end up in gangs and other criminal activity.'
Proclaiming that Kaplan 'has violated our rights as students,' Moua called a meeting 'to hold Kaplan and our administration accountable.' Moua did not reveal she was not in the class and received her information secondhand.
The e-mail, originally sent to three dozen recipients, was widely disseminated, generating outraged replies. One student received seven of these e-mails within 48 hours.
In the days that followed, the case sparked racial tension on campus. The law school's commitment to diversity came under fire. And a scholar was branded a racist ' without proof, fairness or due process. His reputation, and the university's, suffered from news coverage as far away as the China Post and International Herald Tribune.
In retrospect, it appears that both students and the UW administration were too quick to act without all the facts. The students cried racism based on questionable information, then got carried away by the politics of group victimhood. UW officials, meanwhile, saw student offense as all the proof they needed to immediately and unequivocally apologize. (Opined Law School Dean Kenneth Davis to the Wisconsin State Journal, 'I think a number of our students were entirely justified in being deeply offended.')
In the end, too much deference was given to these students at the expense of other important values, including intellectual freedom. A heckler's veto ruled the day, and the effects may be felt for some time to come.
Len Kaplan has taught at the UW for 33 years. Students and fellow faculty describe him as brilliant but unorthodox.
'He's got so much going on in his head at once,' says one colleague, 'that sometimes what comes out isn't able to be processed by someone who doesn't know all that he knows.'
Kaplan, it should be noted, did not help his case by waiting until this week to comment on the specifics. In a letter to Dean Davis (see this story at TheDailyPage.com), Kaplan denies ever saying that Hmong men have no skills except killing. Other quoted comments, he says, were taken out of context. For instance, he did say many young Hmong men are involved in criminal activity, but explained that this is typical of new immigrant groups.
Still, he reflected contritely on the lessons of the last two 'painful' weeks: 'I have come to a new awareness of how the statements I did make could be misunderstood.'
Kaplan's fellow faculty members, some of whom initially sided with the offended students, are increasingly coming to his support.
'The quotes are obviously cruelly torn from the teaching context,' wrote professor Ann Althouse, a nationally read blogger and guest columnist in The New York Times. 'It is irrational to think that a law professor would assert things like this as a matter of belief.'
Also rising to Kaplan's defense are many of the students in his class.
'Professor Kaplan is the farthest thing from a racist,' says Jason Gonzalez, the lone undergraduate in the class. 'He was talking about how some recent immigrant cultures don't assimilate to our laws immediately, and was asking if it's ethical and right to expect that, or whether the law and society should provide more assistance.'
Student Nicole Vadjunec confirms this, saying the comments were aimed at 'illustrating an idea and opening it up for discussion.' This, she says, is a common approach in theory-based classes.
And third-year law student Nam Dao, who was born in Vietnam and grew up in the U.S., calls Kaplan a 'legend' and a 'world-class scholar' for whom he has the highest respect. Dao says he saw the educational value in Kaplan's examples, but adds that he's witnessed how some comments ' real or imagined ' have devastated his friends.
'They were hurt. They were crying. These feelings are genuine,' he says. 'When we're discussing stereotypes and race, there's a heightened need for sensitivity. It's just the reality.'
Hundreds attended a campus forum on March 1 organized by seven Asian women who've led the attacks on Kaplan. Many came expecting a fair airing of views at what was billed as an 'open forum.' Instead, they witnessed further condemnation of Kaplan at what professor Howard Schweber afterward called a 'political rally.'
At the forum, Moua acknowledged that her initial e-mail was misinformed as to precisely what Kaplan had said. Nonetheless, scores of speakers drew from it over the next two hours to peg Kaplan as racist and ignorant.
Two women in the class, who've since transferred out, described their shocked reactions to Kaplan's comments. Mai Der Yang, a first-year student who missed class that day, said the real harm came in a meeting days later when Kaplan gave 'insult after insult.' Among those insults, Yang said, was that Kaplan 'believed his statements to be true.'
Nancy Vu, another organizer, stressed the women's collective victimization, saying they've felt 'so intensely alone' and 'at every corner have been dismissed' by faculty and students. 'You have made us feel alienated.'
Additional speakers from student and community groups accused university leaders of not doing enough to promote diversity and sensitivity. Madison school board member Shwaw Vang, who is Hmong, said Kaplan's speech 'degrades and dehumanizes me.' Activist Peng Her drew parallels between the seven women and Rosa Parks and the civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala. And the women were called the 'Magnificent Seven' to great applause.
Near the end, Dean Davis again apologized to students, saying they've exhibited a 'remarkable thoughtfulness and grace that makes me proud.' He did not bother to put in a good word for the idea of academic freedom.
The Kaplan case, as it's played out so far, represents a low point in UW-Madison's storied history of defending academic freedom, dating back more than a century to a case that generated the famed 'sifting and winnowing' plaque on Bascom Hall. It shows that the fad of political correctness that rose in the early 1990s, giving rise to student and faculty speech codes, still has great power.
Madison's student code was found unconstitutional by a federal judge. The faculty code was abolished in 1999 by action of the Faculty Senate, following a two-year study by a faculty and student committee. (Disclosure: I served on this committee as an undergraduate and, as the openly gay president of the senior class, was widely quoted criticizing the code for suggesting that minority students needed extra protection from words and ideas.)
Since then, Chancellor John Wiley has received high marks for setting a positive tone for robust campus discourse. But academic-freedom advocates are worried about the message being sent by the Kaplan case.
'The rush to judgment in this case has been extremely unsettling,' says professor Donald Downs, author of Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus. 'How can you make a valid assessment about whether a line was crossed in this case unless you seriously consider the academic freedom issue? That hasn't been part of the discussion that's come out of the law school.'
The Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, headed by Downs, released a statement over the weekend saying it was 'dismayed' by the law school's public response. 'There is a distinct possibility that the emotion and pressures surrounding this case...will have a chilling effect on honest and good-faith discussion of racial and cultural issues in class and on campus.'
Schweber, who like Downs teaches the First Amendment in the political science department, says several faculty have expressed 'fear of being subjected to the kind of attacks that professor Kaplan has experienced' in discussing controversial topics, especially related to race.
'It's not just a question of whether faculty members ' or students, for that matter ' are punished for expressing the 'wrong' views,' says Schweber. 'It's whether the university is a place where people feel free to explore controversial topics and express unpopular arguments.'
In the aftermath of the Kaplan controversy, he adds, 'a good number of faculty members don't feel that way about the University of Wisconsin.'