The video below of Michigan State University Professor William Penn on the first day of his creative writing class has triggered an investigation by the university into a diatribe against Republicans. A student filmed the comments (and it was released by a conservative group) where Penn is heard attacking Republicans for “raping” America and refusing to pay taxes. The case will pit values of academic freedom against the need for an open and welcoming environment for students at universities.
In the video, Penn states “If you go to the Republican convention in Florida, you see all of the old Republicans with the dead skin cells washing off them . . . They are cheap. They don’t want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could. . . . They don’t want to pay for your tuition because who are you? Well, to me you are somebody.” He then turns on any racists in the class: “I’m a college professor, if I find out you are a closet racist I am coming after you.” He adds that this country is “still full of closet racists.”
Penn then turns to voting suppression: “What do you think is going on in South Carolina and North Carolina. Voter suppression. Its about getting black people not to vote. Why? Because black people tend to vote Democratic. Why would would Republicans want to do it? Because Republicans are not a majority in this country anymore. They are a bunch of dead white people.” Even Ann Romney is on the hit list: “Ann Romney a first lady? And remember this if you are just going to be a greedy bastard all your life and just try to get things (unintelligible) In order to be rich like Mitt Romney and hide all your income offshore, in the Cayman Islands, you have to be — think about it — Mitt Romney. Anybody here want to be Mitt Romney? Him? I mean (sigh) married to her?”
Penn is an accomplished writer who explores stereotypes and issues of identity. In that sense, the discussion of racism falls closest to his academic writings. We also need to give a professor some room to explore difficult subjects and spark debate or thought in his classroom. This however appears less of a dialogue than a diatribe. He certainly could have been trying to spark debate and get students engaged. Creative writing is about passion and uninhibited expression. For that reason, the presumption should rest in favor of the academic. However, it is hard to see the academic purpose here or how such a diatribe would in any way advance the academic mission. We have not heard from Penn who may argue that the tape is edited or that he was clearly making the comments to try to prompt a debate over such issues. However, it comes across as more of a rave.
Penn is part Nez Perce and often writes of his mixed background: “I write to amuse and entertain, but I write from a center I take seriously, a center given to me by my grandfather, encouraged by my sisters, and nurtured by my wife and by my daughter and son with whom I tell stories. Indeed, All My Sins Are Relatives is dedicated ‘For Grandfather, who knows / And Rachel and Willy, so they may.’ Thus, I would say that much of my work is so they—the children, not just my own—may know my attempt to bridge the gap between the urban mixblood and Euramerican worlds to which I belong.”
Here is his school bio and class listing:
W.S. Penn teaches in the Creative Writing Program and is one of the founding members of the Native American Writer’ ‘ s Circle (initially the Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers).
He is the author of seven books, including The Absence of Angels (novel), Killing Time with Strangers (novel), This is the World (stories), All My Sins Are Relatives (essays), and Feathering Custer (essays). He has won the Stephen Crane Prize for Fiction (twice), an American Book Award (fiction), A North American Indian Prose Award (essays), and a Distinguished Faculty Award. Presently, he is shopping a new novel, Hazing: A Novel in Ten Satires completing a new novel, The Revenge of King George working on a collection of essays and revising two film scripts.
Penn is also a contributor to the Houghton Mifflin Anthology of Literature (fiction and essay), a new anthology by writers teaching non-fiction, and a continuing advisor to the Native Writers Circle and American Indian Studies Program at MSU.
ENG 223 Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction Writing
ENG 228 Introduction to Fiction Writing
ENG 391 Special Topics in English
ENG 423 Advanced Non-Fiction Writing
ENG 428 Advanced Fiction Writing
I would not support a termination of Penn who has made impressive contributions to his field and there is no allegation of retaliation against students or bias in grading. Yet, there remains different forms of discipline that could be imposed from a reprimand to a required apology to suspension from teaching. What do you thing should be done in such a case?