On Campus: Bad Example


"SEXUAL AND RACIAL HARASSMENT IN U OF M SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT," read the headline of a flyer distributed last spring at the University of Michigan. Students in Sociology 510, a required intro-level graduate class, had made the charges against David Goldberg, a professor of sociology who taught the course during the 1992-93 school year.

The accusations against Goldberg, and the Sociology Department's reaction to them, show that even tenured professors can no longer count on the protective shield of academic freedom when faced with challenges from politically powerful students and junior faculty members. In fact, professors with unpopular views may find the officials who are supposed to defend academic freedom apologizing for it instead.

The Goldberg controversy was not the first time the department had seen such accusations. In 1989 Professor Reynolds Farley had suspended his course on the history of race relations after several campus activists charged him with racism. The evidence: examples he used in class to demonstrate the history of racial conflict—a description of Malcolm X that called him a "pimp," quotations by a nativist senator deriding Mexicans as lazy, and the like.

Farley, a liberal who has dedicated his career to understanding and combating racism, did not in any sense endorse the material, which he used to demonstrate the persistence of racial stereotypes. Yet in the charged atmosphere of the University of Michigan, Farley became a symbol of racism and the unwilling focal point of campus debate. A soft-spoken and sensitive man, Farley concluded that he could not teach the course in such a politicized environment. Four years later, he remains in the department but steers clear of teaching in the area in which he is considered a national expert.

Goldberg has enjoyed less support from students and colleagues than Farley, due mainly to his abrasive personality. Philosophy professor Carl Cohen, who defended Goldberg in an impassioned letter to The University Record, a faculty newspaper, described him this way: "A powerful scholar whose very prickly manner has long irritated colleagues and students alike, he simply will not suffer fools without response. He has no patience with incompetence; hypocrisy he treats with open contempt."

Some of Goldberg's detractors use somewhat cruder language. All agree that this is not a man who pulls punches. One of his recent memos begins:

"TO: The Chair, The Executive Committee, Sociology Faculty

"FROM: David Goldberg


The "witch hunt" followed a semester of conflict between Goldberg and his students. Although Sociology 510 is a statistics course, students taking it often examine issues involving race and gender. In March, several students who objected to the way Goldberg handled these issues sent a lengthy, unsigned letter to the Sociology Department, the Affirmative Action Office, and university President James Duderstadt. The letter cited several parts of the course as particularly offensive:

  • A statistical breakdown of mortgage applications by blacks and whites at a Detroit-area bank. The study demonstrated that approval of mortgages was based on credit ratings, which were better on average for whites. Once differences in credit ratings were taken into account, there was no correlation between race and likelihood of approval.
  • An examination of the claim that women earn 59 cents for every dollar that men make. The study broke down mean income for each sex by age, education, and marital status. A table showed that while female incomes overall are only 53 percent of male incomes, the "discrimination index" ranges from 51 cents to the dollar in some categories to 93 cents in others. The example concluded, "Do you really think 59 cents is a fair representation of sex discrimination in wages?"
  • A complex analysis of SAT scores. A major point of the study was to prove that there is no correlation between race and SAT scores when other factors are taken into account.
  • A cartoon, included with course materials, poking fun at statistics. The cartoon shows a caveman chiseling a pair of dice. A woman asks the caveman, "What kind of childish nonsense are you working on now?" The letter described this as a sexist portrayal of women's mathematical abilities, adding, "His use of this cartoon, particularly in conjunction with derogatory comments, constitutes not a form of communication (i.e., giving information), but rather a political act for which he is accountable."

The letter argued that "Dr. Goldberg used data sets, cartoons, and lectures in order to vent his own political, ideological, and personal frustrations (with affirmative action, for example) on students in the classroom. The obvious target for these attacks were students of color and women." The students did not claim, however, that the statistical examples used by Goldberg were inaccurate. Doesn't demonstrable truth constitute an ironclad defense against accusations of racism and sexism?

Not necessarily, says graduate student Rusty Bush, who took Sociology 510. In-class examples, although true, may be racist and sexist "if they lack sensitivity and analytical rigor." For example, he says, while Goldberg's statistics on male vs. female pay may be accurate, they fail to consider the institutional sexism inherent in the other factors, such as education, that partially account for the income discrepancies. By neglecting to consider this sexism, Goldberg's study begs the question and minimizes the oppression faced by women.

Although Goldberg is charged with creating a hostile atmosphere for women and people of color in his class, nobody has suggested that he treats these students any differently. Sociology graduate student Patrick Ball wrote to The University Record: "Legal scholar Issac Balbus points out that if citizens are fundamentally unequal in some respect, then perfectly due process will perfectly fairly reproduce that inequality. From my understanding of the character of Sociology 510, this is what Prof. Goldberg has done….If students come from traditionally excluded groups, Prof. Goldberg's technique might easily be felt as an academic version of social exclusion, a statistically disguised version of the hate they overcame to arrive here." Not only is equal treatment of all students no defense against charges of racism and sexism, it may actually confirm these accusations.

A week after the accusatory letter was sent out, several of the aggrieved students met with Sociology Department Chair Howard Schuman. Schuman, who has since resigned as chair, declined my request for an interview, and the university has not released the names of the students who met with him. But the minutes to the meeting, which I obtained from Goldberg, provide insight into the political dynamics of the department and the pressures that have led to the erosion of academic freedom on American campuses. They show a university department head intimidated by students into apologizing for the safeguards that allow people with unpopular views to remain at what is supposed to be a bastion of free inquiry.

Schuman began the meeting by promising that Goldberg would not teach the course in the fall, although the Sociology Department would not pursue the charges of racial and sexual harassment. The minutes summarize his comments: "I showed cartoon to someone sensitive on gender issues and she didn't think it sexist….Known David a long time—not a close friend. Gratuitous use of material insensitive. If students want to pursue charges they can."

Schuman criticized the students' decision to submit the letter unsigned, arguing that this caused some faculty to "perceive this as attack on academic freedom." He did not endorse such sentiments but said that anonymity was "not the best way to go about it."

The students reacted angrily. The minutes read: "Alarmed by reactions, you've spoken in a chastising way, not entirely productive." Following more criticism, Schuman was on the defensive: "If it isn't obvious, I'm opposed to sexism and racism and discrimination on sexual orientation. I was a member of [missing], picketed in angry white areas, never did go south though….Our views are very different, David and mine."

Once the question of Schuman's own sensitivity had been raised, a student, identified as "Tracy O," suggested that the grievances did not stop with Goldberg: "What I get concerned about is that we're focused on David and not the rest of the department." At this point, the students seized the momentum. No longer was Goldberg's fate a matter of question; Schuman began apologizing for even allowing Goldberg to teach the course in the first place.

"It seems clear that intimidation, fear, anger was created," said Debbie B, apparently oblivious to the irony of her complaint. "I wonder if we could go from that perspective: what can be done?" Schuman: "I agree it's intimidation. I agree. I told you what would be done. Tenure…it's a big problem for the Department, what can be done?"

Debbie B: "How could he have been allowed to teach it?"

Schuman: "I don't know. It was a mistake, an honest mistake I believe. Lot happens in organizations that's related to inefficiencies."

Schuman, still backpedaling, also recanted his decision not to charge Goldberg with racial and sexual harassment: "I shouldn't rule out pursuing them. I guess there is a lot of ambiguity on racism, sexism….To the extent that—most men are sexist, all whites are racist—to the extent that he went beyond that in a way provable to someone outside the class…it's hard. He thinks I'm a bastard."

Diego J: "With the cartoon he said, 'I realize that this cartoon may be sexist' but put it up anyway."

Schuman: "First time I heard that. You weren't in the course. He is a very provocative person. He doesn't realize it's sexist." During his initial statement, of course, Schuman had announced that a feminist friend had pronounced the cartoon nonsexist. Apparently he had become sensitized during the course of the meeting.

A student, "Shelly B," went after Schuman again, trying to nail down a promise to run Goldberg out of the department permanently: "You say 'students you respect' spoke with you. Respect is a two-way street. Are we going to do anything about his insensitivity problem? Eight years from now he can teach it again. He has tenure. He can stay here 'til he dies!" Here Schuman finally mentioned the question of academic freedom: "It's a difficult problem. I agree with much of what you said. Tenure is a difficult problem. In a class I show a film about McCarthyism, tenure, academic freedoms. Tenure gives protection but also protects insensitivity. There are other sanctions that apply. I can only speak in a limited way on that."

Shelly B: "You mean it can go unchecked?"

Schuman: "He's not allowed to teach the course he most wants to teach [Statistics 510] or any required courses." Schuman, who teaches sociology undergraduates about academic freedom, did not bring the issue up again.

Following criticism from senior faculty members, Schuman reduced Goldberg's punishment somewhat, splitting the course into two sections. "With regard to David Goldberg's teaching, as a tenured faculty member he continues to teach courses in the department," he wrote in an April 30 e-mail message to the co-chair of the sociology graduate students. "His courses are either elective, or where they are required courses students may choose to take the course with him or with a different instructor." Dividing the 35-person class into two sections complied with the students' demands by removing Goldberg from required courses and tacitly admitting his guilt.

Goldberg, a great believer in empiricism, attempts to present his defense just as he taught his class: logically, meticulously, interspersed with charts and figures to demonstrate his points. He offers extensive data, for example, demonstrating that there was no correlation between grades and race or gender in his class. Yet he cannot detach himself from this material. His voice wavers when he speaks. "I taught a good statistics course," he says bitterly. "I don't deserve to be abused for that."

Goldberg does not speak with many of his colleagues, some of whom, he feels, sold him out. (Even before the accusations, the department was divided into hostile factions, with younger, highly political faculty members set against their older, more traditional colleagues.) But Goldberg has received sympathy from several faculty members, including his friend Reynolds Farley.

Since he suspended his course in 1989, Farley says, he has witnessed a "chilling effect" on professors, a process he compares to the McCarthy era. He has remained in the department since 1989, waiting for the chance to teach his speciality in a more tolerant campus atmosphere. Asked if he is ready to resume teaching race relations, he responds, "After what happened to David Goldberg, I'm not going to petition to return."

Jonathan Chait is a free-lance writer and University of Michigan senior.