Campus Free Speech

Professor Punished for Teaching Students About Badly Worded Holocaust Poll

"We must remain—especially now—vigilant to any form of discrimination," said National Louis University in a dumb statement.


National Louis University relieved a professor of teaching duties for the rest of the semester after students complained about an assignment that appeared to question whether the Holocaust actually happened. In reality, it did no such thing.

The student backlash stemmed from a misunderstanding of the assignment—a misunderstanding that media outlets covering this case seem to share. Let me explain.

The unnamed marketing professor wanted students to ponder some very badly worded questions as a cautionary tale about the harms of double negatives. Here was one example used: Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened? The four available answers were: Very possible, possible, impossible, or very impossible.

Several students found this example so outrageous that they informed the university administration, took a screenshot of the question for social media, and sent an urgent plea for assistance to a campus Jewish group. The university quickly sprang into action, suspending the professor while and opening an investigation. The administration also issued the following statement:

"National Louis University is committed to achieving a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment where every individual is heard, respected, valued and welcomed.

Every day, we strive to create a community where everyone is empowered to live their full authentic selves. We are taking this incident seriously. We do not tolerate discrimination in any form and have a no retaliation policy for individuals who file claims of discrimination. We are currently investigating and will determine the appropriate course of action once our investigation is complete."

The Anti-Defamation League applauded the university's actions and bashed the professor for "trivializing the traumatic history of the Holocaust."

But here's one very clarifying detail: The question comes from an actual, real-life poll conducted in 1992 by the American Jewish Committee. The question was very poorly worded, and thus produced a suspiciously high rate of Holocaust denial: 22 percent. When the confusing wording was eliminated, the rate of Holocaust denial dropped to 1 percent, with 8 percent unsure.

I presume that this was the point of the professor's lesson: Precise language is important because misunderstandings can skew results and lead to bad public policy. Must we erase from history the fact that a Jewish group once inadvertently inflated the number of Holocaust deniers, because in 2019 some students are too sensitive to even grapple with context?

Both Inside Higher Ed and NBC Chicago mentioned the question's historical relevance but did not argue that this was an acquitting detail. Here's Inside Higher Ed:

Deborah Lipstadt, Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University and author of Denying the Holocaust and Antisemitism: Here and Now, among other books about the Holocaust, said the professor's first statement appeared to be one infamously included in a 1992 Roper poll for the American Jewish Committee. The poll turned up a surprisingly number of Holocaust deniers because people didn't understand the question. A reworded polling question showed many fewer deniers just two years later—hence the 22 percent and 9 percent notes next to each question on the assignment.

Nevertheless, Lipstadt said it wasn't a "wise choice on the professor's part" to use that example, "especially in today's atmosphere." Doing so, she said, suggests that the issue "is open to debate, which it is not."

Historians of the Holocaust debate many things, Lipstadt said: Whose idea it was, how early did Adolf Hitler have it in mind, would a stronger response earlier on from other nations have given the Nazis pause? But debating whether or not the Holocaust actually happened—as some still do—is "ludicrous."

Lipstadt said the Holocaust is the most extensively documented genocide in the world and that everyone involved, including survivors, bystanders and historians, would have to be in on the hoax.

"The deniers have no evidence, no narrative, no witnesses," she said.

This is maddening! It makes it sound like the professor was denying the Holocaust when all of the available evidence suggests he was trying to prevent students from making mistakes that spread disinformation. If only they had listened.