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Free Speech Group Accuses ‘Online Mob’ Of Ganging Up On UCLA B-School Prof

UCLA Anderson Professor Gordon Klein

UCLA Anderson Professor Gordon Klein

The uproar over a private email written by a UCLA Anderson School of Management professor to a student is getting more interesting.

After more than 20,000 people signed a petition demanding the firing of accounting lecturer Gordon Klein, the school has placed him on mandatory leave and asked the university to investigate his behavior–all over an email in which he refused to change his final exam schedule or grading policies for black students during the protests over the killing of George Floyd.

The furor over Klein’s email has become so heated that he has sought police protection from threats on his life. UCLA placed Klein on mandatory leave effective June 3, In an email to the UCLA community the following day, June 4, Anderson Dean Antonio Bernardo publicly chastised Klein as having “a disregard for our core principles” and called his email an “abuse of power.”

‘COMMITMENT TO ACADEMIC FREEDOM IS STRONGER THAN AN ONLINE MOB’

Katlyn Patton, program officer for Individual Rights Defense Program and Public Records

Now, an advocacy group for free speech and due process on college campuses is calling on UCLA to reinstate Klein. Among other things, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education maintains that the professor was only following the university’s own code of conduct in declining the request. The group portrays the petition signers as student mobbists who have elevated a brusque email from Klein into an unjust crusade against a teacher who in 39 years at UCLA has never been the subject of a complaint of harassing or discriminatory conduct. The free speech organization, whose eight-page letter to UCLA reads more like a legal brief, claims that “the only actor abusing its power is UCLA.”

“As a public institution, UCLA is bound by both the First Amendment and the laudable promises of academic freedom it makes to its faculty members,” wrote Katlyn Patton, a program officer at the organization in a letter to UCLA’s general counsel, Charles Robinson. “Those obligations and promises are of even more importance during a crisis. Given that Klein followed institutional policy when he refused to alter his final exam procedures, this investigation is almost certainly based on the tone or viewpoint of his email, which was — however brusque — protected expression on a matter of profound public interest. Klein must be immediately reinstated, and UCLA’s leaders must make clear that their commitment to academic freedom is stronger than an online mob.”

The dispute arises out of a course that Klein was teaching in UCLA’s spring quarter when the COVID-19 outbreak forced the class online. On June 2, Klein received an email from one of the students in his Principles of Taxation course, asking him to consider making adjustments to the format and grading of his final exam for black students. The student’s suggestions included a so-called “no-harm exam” (which could only help and not harm a final grade), a shortened exam and extended deadlines.

‘DO YOU THINK YOUR SUGGESTION WOULD RUN AFOUL OF MARTIN LUTHER KING?’

Klein’s response, meant only for the student, was immediately put online and went viral over Twitter and other social media platforms. His email to the student has been widely interpreted as both inappropriately flippant and condescending, even invoking Martin Luther King.

“Thanks for your suggestion in your email below that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota,” wrote Klein. “Do you know the names of the classmates that are black? How can I identify them since we’ve been having online classes only? Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half? Also, do you have any idea if any students are from Minneapolis? I assume that they probably are especially devastated as well. I am thinking that a white student from there might be possibly even more devastated by this, especially because some might think that they’re racist even if they are not. My TA is from Minneapolis, so if you don’t know, I can probably ask her. Can you guide me on how you think I should achieve a “no-harm” outcome since our sole course grade is from a final exam only? One last thing strikes me: Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the ‘color of their skin.’ Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition? Thanks, G. Klein”

According to the advocacy group demanding Klein’s reinstatement, Dean Bernardo asked to speak with Klein shortly after the incident came to his attention. Klein shared the full text of the email exchange with the dean and then Klein showed Bernardo a June 1 message from his “direct supervisor directing instructors to adjust final exam policies based only on standard university policy on accommodations for illness, family emergency, religious observances, or other similar events.”

‘THE FIRST AMENDMENT AND UCLA POLICY PROTECT KLEIN’S ACADEMIC FREEDOM’

The advocacy group’s letter to UCLA contains previously undisclosed information, including excerpts of the student’s response to Klein’s letter. The student apparently apologized to Klein “if any of the seemed offensive” to him or “if it seemed like I was asking you to give preferential treatment to people because they are Black.” The student went on to say that Klein’s efforts “really do help us students during these trying times.”

FIRE argues that UCLA is a public institution, legally bound to respect student and faculty First Amendment rights. “The First Amendment and UCLA policy protect Klein’s academic freedom rights, including the right to manage the content and direction of his course and comment on matters of public concern,” according to the group’s statement. “Further, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has long held that the “desire to maintain a sedate academic environment,” however admirable, cannot justify limiting a faculty member’s “freedom to express himself on political issues in vigorous, argumentative, unmeasured, and even distinctly unpleasant terms.”

“In times of great social and political upheaval, our governmental and educational institutions face substantial pressure to foreclose on expression protected by the First Amendment,” Patton wrote. “This, however, is when institutions must be most vigilant in refusing to do so. Penalizing protected expression is not a cure for addressing the underlying challenges faced by society.”

DON’T MISS: RACIALLY INSENSITIVE EMAIL LEADS TO CALLS FOR FIRING OF A UCLA ANDERSON PROF or POLICE PROTECTING UCLA PROF AFTER THREATS