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The Crux Project Archives: Academia

Three Questions

for Thomas Klocek, the former DePaul University professor fired over an altercation with muslim student groups

by Bobby Maddex

So what happened?
On September 15, 2004, I attended a student activities fair at the Loop Campus of DePaul University. I noticed a group there called Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), and I saw they had some literature. On the front of one of the brochures was a picture of Rachel Corey, the American who had been accidentally killed by an Israeli bulldozer. The literature, however, had her murdered by the Israelis; it also included many other incendiary and anti-Israeli remarks.

As I was reading the pamphlet, I asked the students, “Did you know that in addition to the Muslim and Israeli point of view in the Middle East, there is also a Christian point of view that is rarely if ever heard from? After all, Christians lived in the Middle East for eight centuries before Islam was even there.”

And then I pointed out to them that their literature was erroneous because it talked about Palestine and the Palestinian people. “There is no Palestine on the map,” I told them, “and the term ‘Palestinian,’ before 1948, referred to any person, Muslim, Christian, or Jew, who happened to live in that area. It is not an ethnic designation.”

One of the students took exception to my comment and told me that her grandparents were Palestinian. And I said, “Your grandparents can call themselves whatever they want, but the fact remains that there is no Palestine.” Another student then announced, “You know, the Israelis are treating the Palestinians the same way that Hitler treated the Jews.”

Now I’m not a Jew. But I took vast umbrage to this statement and so responded, “No, that is an absolutely scurrilous lie. The Israeli armed forces going after known terrorists in their own territory is qualitatively different from someone strapping on bombs and blowing up a satyr dinner or a café.”

As you might imagine, the conversation became more heated at this point. Four students at an adjoining table, representing UMMA (United Muslims Moving Ahead), took interest in the discussion and began sharing their opinions, making the debate even louder and more animated. I told all eight of these students that I found it ironic that within a generation there would be no effective Christian community left in the very place where Christianity began.

As I began to leave the table, one of the students asked me whether I was connected to the university in any way. I admitted that I was and gave him my name. And then I walked away.

Eight or nine days later, the dean of the School for New Learning called me into her office. When I arrived, she had two letters in her hand, one from SJP and one from UMMA. She did not show them to me, nor have I seen them to this day. Apparently, they contained the charges that the students were making against me. The dean said that she felt I had offended these students, that they were in fact hurt and crushed by my remarks. She also said that I had used my power as a teacher to impose my views on them. And then she suspended me from teaching for one quarter.

Eight weeks later, I received a letter from the dean stating that while I had inspired many hundreds of students at DePaul, and though my teaching record was very good, she was going to hire me back on a conditional basis, provided I would agree to teach only a single course and allow someone to monitor my behavior in the classroom.

I didn’t like these terms, but because of my financial difficulties (they were quite serious as a result of the suspension), I called the dean at the end of January and agreed to teach one course in the spring. Meanwhile, I checked the faculty handbook, and it stated that every faculty member, even a part-time instructor, is entitled to a full faculty hearing before receiving a suspension. The dean had violated the university’s rules by suspending me without a hearing. In addition, I never received written charges, nor was I permitted to face my accusers.

Unfortunately, before I got a chance to teach again, the students from SJP and UMMA went to the president of the university and demanded that I be permanently terminated. They implied that they would initiate a demonstration if I was not fired. For a single part-time course, such unpleasantness just wasn’t worth it. I declined the teaching assignment and engaged the services of an attorney.

Why do you think DePaul sided with the students without hearing your side of the story?

I think a cultural shift has taken place at all American universities. Some time ago, the purpose of a university was the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, no matter how controversial or contrary those ideas were to your own. And I think that in that kind of free interplay, we tried to get at that slippery slope called truth. And then we tried to go beyond truth to wisdom. The wise person is supposed to be the ultimate product of a university education. Starting in the Sixties, however, this situation was replaced by agenda groups and political correctness. Instead of a common American agenda here with common values, we have espoused in the name of diversity a great deal of misinformation. We now have competing ethnic and racial agendas in this country that are dangerously close to creating disunity. We have encouraged a misguided political correctness in which groups become victims, in which people become aggrieved instead of true individuals and adults.

To me, the purpose of going to a university is to be challenged---to have someone offend you, in a sense, by their ideas. It’s not to be coddled. A college is not a preschool. Part of the problem is that universities are now essentially businesses. They’re looking for more students---for more people to pay the bills. A teacher is a person who takes from the university, whereas students are paying customers. Guess who is going to get their way?

What do we stand to learn from your travails?

What I’m hoping will happen is that the cultural shift---this political correctness stuff---will be served notice, at least in this one case. Our real mission as educators and students should be to search for and produce ideas. My own personal feeling is that not all ideas are worth the same thing. Not all agendas are equal. And I think this inequality has to be worked out in the process of thinking and reasoning and debating. It’s not worked out in the process of screaming at people or calling them racists and bigots, which I have been called in print and emails.

It’s interesting. Cardinal George, the Archbishop of Chicago (who also happens to have a PhD in Philosophy from Tulane University), is very interested in the role of Catholic universities in modern American society. A specifically Catholic university has a mission and purpose different from a state university, a secular university, other Christian universities, or other religious universities. At DePaul, that role is absolutely muddled. That’s one of the problems there; they have really lost sight of what it is to be a Catholic university. •

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