Bellevue Community College Professor Still Waiting for Justice
December 21, 2006
by Tara Sweeney
Controversy has surrounded Bellevue Community College (BCC) Professor Peter Ratener
ever since his case hit the news last year. Ratener had produced a math exam question that involved someone named Condoleezza throwing a watermelon off of a building. Even though he apologized profusely
for any offense that question caused, BCC suspended Ratener for a week with loss of pay. Ratener has filed a grievance to get the suspension lifted, and the case currently awaits arbitration.
BCC has not budged since publicly castigating and suspending Ratener, and has even been lauded
by the group Minority Access, Inc. as one of the “Nation’s Leading Colleges and Universities Committed to Diversity,” presumably because BCC has accrued a reputation for being tough on “offensive” speech.
But apparently, not on all offensive speech. Ratener reports to FIRE that in September, a faculty member sent an e-mail to BCC’s Diversity Caucus advertising a meeting that would run on “Colored People’s Time,” meaning it would start later than planned. That phrase—which could certainly be viewed as biased by some—raised some eyeborws at BCC but sparked none of the controversy that followed on the heels of Ratener’s similar gaffe. While neither Ratener nor FIRE thinks that BCC should discipline the diversity official who penned the phrase, there does seem to be a double standard in operation. How can BCC excuse certain speech in some instances by understanding that a person made a mistake or didn't mean to offend anyone, but in other instances publicly castigate, embarass, and discipline someone who engaged in similar expression? We can add this double standard to the long list of unfair treatment that Ratener has received at the hands of BCC administrators.
While commotion over the “Condoleezza watermelon” case has died down, we should realize that the case has not been settled. BCC still wishes to suspend Ratener for a week without pay, and Ratener is bravely clinging to his claim that he should not be punished for a question that was not intended to be offensive and for which he has publicly apologized and suffered. FIRE will continue to support Ratener into the new year, and we hope that you will do the same.