The Response to Ratener and the 'Racist' Math Problem
September 14, 2006
Yesterday’s press release, in which we defended the rights of Professor Peter Ratener at Bellevue Community College (BCC) in Washington State, has sparked some strong reaction. Some of the reactions were fully anticipated, others have been fairly surprising. As readers know, and as was well-covered today in Inside Higher Ed, BCC decided to suspend Ratener for writing a math exam question that involved a person named “Condoleezza” dropping a watermelon from the top of a building.
I come before you now because you are owed an apology. I made a mistake. An egregious mistake. An exam I wrote contained a question that was deeply offensive and invoked an insulting racial stereotype. To Chelsey Richardson, and other students, I'm very sorry I have offended you. That was not my intention. If you knew me, you'd believe me. You are valued and I want you in our campus community. I also value the wonderful diversity of students here. That is one of the things I like best about teaching at a community college.
To my colleagues at BCC—faculty, staff, and administration—I am sorry that my action has embarrassed you and caused you to become targets for harsh criticism. For more than ten years you have toiled to make BCC an institution that welcomes and values people of all colors. We have some work to do, but still you should be proud of what you've accomplished. You have pulled together despite the strains of all the unfavorable attention, and you've never abandoned me. I am indeed honored to be your colleague.
I also extend my sincere apologies to the African-American community and also to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. I sincerely regret insulting you…
I believe FIRE’s reputation is our unapologetic defense of principle. Here a professor came to us asking for our help because he was being punished for using an example in a test that offended a student, despite the fact the professor had already taken a public beating, apologized and, changed the question. We were not about to turn him away because critics might argue that he had intentionally engaged in racial stereotyping supposedly unprotected by free speech or academic freedom or because we could have spent our time doing something else.
In FIRE’s history we have defended speech that I would argue is far more offensive than this, where the speech was clearly intentional and where the accused refused to apologize. In fact, you would be hard pressed to name a campus free speech controversy over the past 3 years where we did not comment, help or, at least, offer our help. We are not going to start turning the Professor Rateners of the world away in order to preserve our reputational capital—saving it up only for cases that we deem “safe.” That is the road to arbitrary judgments and partisanship. If we were more cautious we wouldn’t have taken maybe half the cases we have defended over the years—but then again, we wouldn’t be the same FIRE.