That liberal fiend can't be found · 02 March 2005

By Mano Singham--The Plain Dealer--03/03/05

Remember when we were discouraged from being helpful to drivers who had forgotten to turn on their lights at night? We were told that ruthless gang initiations required that prospective members kill drivers who flash their headlights at them.

That story was false.

And what about the outrageous story of the businessman who marketed the infamous "Bambi hunts" in which paying customers armed with paintball guns hunted down naked women?

It turns out that story was false too, another of those urban legends that spread like wildfire and are assumed to be true because people hear them so often.

Well then, what about the college professor who asked his class to write a mid-term essay on "Why George Bush is a war criminal," and then gave an "F" to a student who had been offended by the assignment and had instead turned in an essay on "Why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal"?

Heard that story yet? Maybe you read it in last Sunday's letters to the editor. The story is spreading rapidly because this professor has become the poster child for the nationwide movement that argues that college faculty are liberal ideologues who will go to any lengths to stifle opposing (i.e., conservative) views and thus indoctrinate students to think like them.

This movement, propelled by David Horowitz and the group Students for Academic Freedom, is using anecdotes like this to persuade state legislatures to put boundaries on what professors can and cannot teach, and what they should and should not be allowed to say in classes. Senate Bill 24 (the "academic bill of rights for higher education") is the signal that this battle has come to Ohio.
But who is this mysterious professor with the essay assignment? I first heard about him or her last year, but there was something about the story that rang false. It seemed too neat, too perfect, too convenient in the way that it embedded the notion of academic bullying in the hyper-patriotic mood that currently exists.

The story, even if true, also lacked the kinds of details that are required to sustain the allegation that this was indeed an abuse of power. After all, it is not uncommon for students to be assigned to take positions that they don't agree with. Being a devil's advocate is a perfectly legitimate method of sharpening one's understanding of an issue. Socrates liked it.

So I decided to track down the professor to ask what the full story was. And this is where things started to get interesting, because the professor seems to be more elusive than the Scarlet Pimpernel.

My first clue was when Horowitz was quoted as saying that the professor was from the University of Northern Colorado. The Utah Statesman newspaper wrote an article with this information on March 26, 2004, and it was reproduced on the Web site of Horowitz's organization, Front Page, which implies that he acknowledged its veracity.

So I called the acting head of the political science department, the dean's office and the provost's office at the University of Northern Colorado and asked them if they knew anything more. They had never heard of this story and were all surprised to hear that they were supposedly harboring this fiend. You would think they would have known since any student grievance against the professor would surely have been a high-profile case, at least reported in the local newspapers.

I was baffled. But then on April 6, Horowitz sent me in a different direction when he gave an interview on NPR; he said that this story was part of testimony given by students at a special hearing of the state legislature in Colorado, called to look into alleged abuses of this kind.

So I obtained transcripts of the Colorado legislative hearings. But mysteriously, no such testimony appeared there.
As a last resort, I tried a Google search of this story, but none of the hits identified Professor X.

So does this mysterious professor actually exist? Did this incident actually happen? It is hard to say no for certain, since that involves proving a negative. But there are some characteristics of urban legends that this story shares, in particular the absence of details (names, places, dates) that enable one to pin it down to anything concrete. Given that Horowitz and his group have shown no scruples in the past about naming people in academia that they dislike, their sudden coyness in this particular case is a little surprising.

Until Horowitz gets his story straight and provides more details, we will have to assume that this professor is like the famous welfare queen that Ronald Reagan used to undermine support for public assistance to poor people. He liked to regale us with stories about this mysterious woman who wore mink coats and drove her Cadillac while picking up numerous welfare checks under assumed names.
She didn't exist either.

Singham is the director of Case Western Reserve University's Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education.