Conservative pundits and their frequent liberal allies have been complaining for years about "Political Correctness" — the intrusion of left-wing ideology into the academy, supposedly subverting academic standards.
Affirmative action, we are told, rather than redressing historic and present-day systemic discrimination, simply undermines the merit principle, allowing the unqualified to slip by. Women’s studies and ethnic studies programs are denounced as insufficiently rigorous, not real disciplines, where students get easy grades for having the right attitudes instead of for displaying mastery of any substantial body of knowledge.
John K. Wilson, in his wonderful book, The Myth of Political Correctness (Duke, 1995), has debunked the conservative attack on higher education. Further evidence of the hypocrisy of the critics of "political correctness" is provided by a long-running case in New Jersey.
In June 1991, the NJ State Legislature passed a piece of legislation known as the "Desert Storm Law" (L. 1991, ch. 167). The law provided that any student called to active duty as a result of the Gulf War was "entitled to receive a grade in each course for which the student has completed a minimum of 8 weeks’ attendance and all other academic requirements during that period. The grade shall be based upon the work which the student had completed up to the time when the student was called to active service."
This was a rather remarkable law. The NJ Legislature (then controlled by the Democratic Party) was telling faculty members how to grade and, in particular, telling them to assign a grade representing a full semester’s work for half a semester’s work. 1991 was the year that attacks on "political correctness" began to flood the media — there was a ten-fold increase in mentions of the term from 1990 to 1991 — but nary a word of protest over this legislation was expressed by the supposed champions of keeping politics out of the academy.
William J. Pascrell, then the chair of the State Assembly’s Higher Education Committee and a co-sponsor of the legislation (and now a U.S. Congressperson), called the law "a very thoughtful, very sensible approach to students called out of the classroom to defend their country." But there was obviously another agenda here. One of the great myths of the Vietnam War was that protesters had directed their ire at GI’s, going so far as to spit at returning veterans. In his important book, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam (NYU Press, 1998), Jerry Lembcke has shown not only that the popular image is false, but that it was encouraged by supporters of the war.
There are, of course, a thousand and one reasons why a student might have to miss classes and a reasonable professor would surely want be to accommodating. In the event that a professor acted unreasonably, colleges and universities have procedures whereby students can appeal unfair treatment. During the Gulf War, nowhere in the country was there a report of a student who had been called up to service being penalized or harassed by faculty. Only in New Jersey did the Legislature feel obliged to dictate how student-soldiers should be graded.
Seven months before the Legislature acted, James Lloyd, a Marine reservist and a student at Montclair State College, was called up to service. One of the courses that Lloyd was enrolled in was "The Sociology of Rich and Poor Nations" taught by Barbara Chasin. When Lloyd received his call-up notice, he met with Chasin and signed an "Incomplete Contract" in which he agreed that upon his return he would either take a make-up final exam or write a paper.
By the time Lloyd did return, the Legislature had passed its Desert Storm Law. Lloyd told Chasin that he wanted her to change his incomplete grade to an A without his having to do any additional work. Lloyd argued that before he left he had taken a quiz and the midterm and had an A average and that therefore he was entitled to an A for the course. "The law was passed," Lloyd declared, "so I wouldn’t have to rack my brain remembering all that stuff from a year ago." (Imagine if Lloyd had been an African American defending affirmative action: what a field day conservatives would have had!)
The Desert Storm Law was actually quite vague. Students, said the law, had to meet all academic requirements up to the time of their departure, but how were they to demonstrate that they had in fact mastered material they were supposed to have learned during this period? What if a course had only a single exam at the end? What if a course had one quiz early in the semester and a final? Should a student who got an A on the quiz and learned nothing more in the course be given an A? As Chasin’s lawyer argued, it would be rather unfortunate if a student in a chemistry class were declared competent in making and controlling nitroglycerine when all the student had been tested on was making the explosive.
In Lloyd’s case, he had left two weeks before the end of the semester and Chasin told him, quite generously, that she would not ask that he be tested on material from those final two weeks, but only that he demonstrate competence in the material for the classes he had attended since the date of the midterm. Thus, she was prepared to give him a grade for the full fifteen-week course based only on his mastery of thirteen weeks’ material. Lloyd refused this offer.
Chasin was an opponent of the Gulf War, but she insisted that her political position was irrelevant to the issue. What mattered, she argued, was the Legislature’s attempt to intrude on matters of academic freedom. As an editorial in the Bergen Record put it: legislators "have no business telling professors how to award grades. Those kinds of decisions should be made by educators, not politicians." The editorial continued by noting: "Like Ms. Chasin, Montclair State College officials object to the law regarding grades policy. Unlike Ms. Chasin, they are unwilling to fight the Legislature. It’s good that somebody is willing to fight for principle." But though the College was unwilling to defend Chasin or principle, Chasin’s union local, AFT Local 1904, did support both her and academic freedom throughout.
Lloyd brought his complaint against Chasin to Montclair State’s Grade Grievance Committee, and when the Committee found against him, he went to court, seeking his grade and damages. The case was dismissed on the grounds that Lloyd had not exhausted all his administrative remedies and the issue was sent to the Office of Administrative Law, where the matter was settled. The College gave Lloyd a grade of A-, but noted on his transcript that this grade was not awarded by the professor, but administratively assigned by the College, pursuant to the Desert Storm Law, after he had attended 13 weeks of class and been tested on eight weeks worth of material.
The case was not over, however, because Chasin — actually her Union — had incurred legal fees of some $12,000. Since Chasin is a state employee, and a law provides that the state should pay the legal expenses of its employees except where they are guilty of "actual fraud, willful misconduct, or actual malice" — and no one had so alleged this regarding Chasin — Chasin sought indemnification for the legal costs. Various courts ordered the state to pay, but the state appealed to the State Supreme Court which finally decided the matter this past summer (156 N.J.L.J. 893).
The Court ruled 5-2 that since Chasin had ignored the Attorney General’s advice to give Lloyd his grade, she was not entitled to have the state pay her expenses. But, as the dissenting judges noted, surely an employee shouldn’t have to follow wrong advice from the Attorney General. Since Chasin was never made to assign a grade, following the Attorney General’s advice would have meant an unnecessary compromise of academic freedom.
As Justice O’Hern declared in dissent, "I have a sense that there is implicit in the Court’s decision a determination that it was an unpatriotic act not to award the requested grade to a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War." Indeed. Where were the watchdogs protecting the academy from ideological pressures when they were needed in this case? In short, "political correctness" remains alive and well, but it is a tool of the right, not the left.
Stephen R. Shalom teaches political science at William Paterson University in NJ. He is the author of Imperial Alibis (South End, 1993) and is currently working on Which Side Are You On? An Introduction to Politics.