Why Binghamton University is One of Our '12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech'
February 1, 2011
by Azhar Majeed
By now, I hope you've had a chance to read our list of the "12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech," which we highlighted on The Huffington Post last week. Our "Dirty Dozen"—which is made up of the six colleges and universities on our Red Alert list, as well as six other institutions that have shown a profound disregard for free speech rights over the years—has quickly generated a good deal of attention and response.
Peter explained on Friday why DePaul University was one of the schools outside of our Red Alert list to be selected for this dubious distinction. Today, we take a look at Binghamton University (BU) in New York, formerly SUNY Binghamton. Like all of the schools that comprise the "Dirty Dozen," BU's selection is well deserved.
BU earns its place on our list thanks in large part to its treatment of Social Work graduate student Andre Massena. Massena was suspended in 2008 for putting up posters protesting the Department of Social Work's employment of a faculty member who Massena felt was responsible for social injustice. Massena spoke out against David K. Tanenhaus, an adjunct professor who also served as executive director of the Binghamton Housing Authority (BHA). Massena claimed in his posters that BHA had unjustly evicted a mother and her children from their home, drew attention to the fact that Tanenhaus had been hired by BU's Department of Social Work, and encouraged concerned citizens to call the department "to let them know what you think."
Massena even chose anonymity for his posters, having heard stories from other students in his department about students being unjustly "advanced" (meaning "expelled") from the program. When he was interrogated about the posters, Massena exercised his right to anonymous speech by declining to acknowledge that he had made or put up the posters-a decision ultimately cited as the department's official reason for punishing him. His punishments, however, went well beyond this rationale. In a "Written Plan" that he received one week after being interrogated—one that failed to specify any alleged violations—Massena was ordered to leave the university for two semesters, with his return contingent on "departmental approval." He was additionally required to present a formal statement to university and governmental officials retracting his previously stated opinions, to submit formal apologies to a pre-approved list of people as evaluated by two members of the faculty, and to complete a critical reflection paper of ten to twelve pages on the topic of ethics in social work.
As Adam said in our press release at the time:
"These outrageous requirements focused on the content and the embarrassing effects of the posters, not on Massena's alleged failure to identify himself as author of the posters," Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, said. "The department was demanding no less than abject groveling from one of its own students."
Indeed, this laundry list of conditions for reinstatement was cut down only a little on Massena's appeal; an appeals committee upheld the suspension (with no guarantee of return) and the required paper while apparently waiving the other requirements. When Massena appealed a second time, this time to the College of Community and Public Affairs Ethics and Integrity Committee, he found out he would be facing a series of brand-new allegations. In addition, Professor Laura Bronstein, Chair of the Department of Social Work, now recommended that Massena should be expelled altogether.
Once FIRE took the case public, the department dropped the charges against Massena, in rather summary fashion. Shortly after his final appellate hearing, Massena received a one-sentence e-mail from Bronstein, reading, "Due to procedural misunderstandings, the case pertaining to you is no longer being pursued." It wasn't clear at the time—and it still isn't—what exactly these "procedural misunderstandings" were, but if that was the Department of Social Work's attempt to save face in light of its obvious transgressions of First Amendment rights, so be it.
That wasn't the end of the department's shoddy treatment of Massena, however, as a pseudonymous student reported that classmates had noticed changes in how professors were treating and grading Massena. We had no choice but to publicly expose and embarrass BU in our advertisement last year in U.S. News & World Report's college rankings issue, highlighting Massena's plight at the hands of the Department of Social Work. Happily, Massena graduated in the end, but not before BU's reputation for free speech had been heavily damaged.
Proving that the Andre Massena case was no fluke, BU's Department of Social Work expelled graduate student Michael Gutsell following two incidents in which his classroom speech drew complaints from other students. Despite the fact that the speech was relevant to the class and broke no university or department rules, Gutsell's hearing panel recommended his dismissal. On appeal, Gutsell learned that these two incidents were "not the primary basis" for his expulsion and that BU may have determined that he was unfit for social work because he was not conforming to others' subjective expectations about individuals' proper conversational style, even outside of the professional context. The appeals panel upheld his expulsion without explaining to Gutsell what other factors it may have considered or giving him an opportunity to defend himself against them.
Perhaps most appalling was the fact that the department had forced Gutsell to sign an agreement earlier in the semester stipulating that the department could never hear that he had made any fellow students or instructors "uncomfortable." Talk about an impossibly broad, far-reaching mandate! As a consequence of his expulsion from the program, Gutsell had to leave the United States and return to his native Canada.
The cases of Andre Massena and Michael Gutsell cemented BU's place on our "Dirty Dozen," and for good reason. It is difficult to think of too many individual academic departments or units at any college or university in the country that have had a more checkered recent past in terms of student free speech than the Department of Social Work at Binghamton University.