Prof Causes Student to File Grievance · 20 April 2004

By Joshua Cuneo--The Technique, 04/16/04

Georgia Tech became a hub of political controversy last month when Ruth Malhotra, a second-year International Affairs student, filed a grievance against one of her professors for political discrimination.

According to Malhotra and others in her Public Policy class, the students were engaged in a political debate over President George W. Bush's health care policy when the professor said, "You don't know what you're talking about. George Bush isn't doing anything for you. He's too busy pimping for the Christian Coalition."

It was that incident that prompted Malhotra to file the grievance, although she explained that the professor's comment exemplified the political bias that she felt had permeated the class all semester.

"She's frequently told the class...including myself, 'You're ignorant. You don't know anything,'" Malhotra said, adding that the professor would often stereotype conservatives, Christians and southerners "in a very derogatory manner...I felt the attacks were getting worse."

Malhotra's actions generated opposition from some of her classmates, such as John Putrich, a second-year International Affairs and Earth and Atmospheric Sciences major. Putrich had a different take on the incident, saying that the class provoked the professor into sharing her views when she was trying to review for an upcoming test.

"She seemed kind of frustrated with not being on task because of the test the next day," he said.

Furthermore, he added, she was trying to make a point regarding political parties and debating an issue in the real world. "[The students] would make a statement that was obviously a partisan platform, and she would respond to it from the other side," Putrich said. "They would get mad because she was disagreeing with them, [but] they had no basis to back [their views] up. She was showing the real world, if you make a statement about policy, you'd better have something to back that up with."

Both versions of the story are supported by other members of the class. The professor, whose name is protected by Tech's confidentiality agreement, was unavailable for comment.

While student academic grievances are normally filed and investigated in strict confidence, Malhotra has found herself in the spotlight as a player in the larger issue of intellectual freedom on college campuses.

She testified before the Georgia Senate in support of SR 661, the Academic Bill of Rights, which formally discourages discrimination against students due to their political or religious beliefs.

"While [professors] need their be creative and original...the imposition of strong political biases becomes a pattern...that stifles freedom and creates hostility within the class," she said.

Putrich, however, is among those who oppose the Academic Bill of Rights. He and others fear the movement may place damaging restraints in the classroom.

"Groups of students who don't like a particular professor are going to find a way to...prove that they're going against this freedom act," Putrich said. "In principle, [the bill is] a good idea, [but] I think that it's an unnecessary bill."

Alex Suarez, a third-year Public Policy major and SGA Public Policy representative-elect, has a more middle-of-the-road opinion. "I think it's a good movement so long as it doesn't devolve into a witch hunt for the professors on either end," he said.

The bill was authored by David Horowitz, who made headlines in 2001 by denouncing reparations for descendants of slaves. He has since founded a national organization called Students for Academic Freedom, which dedicates itself to opposing what it perceives to be increasing political bias on college campuses. Malhotra is presently involved in starting a chapter at Tech.

Malhotra captured further attention when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution publicized the incident in an article on March 25.

Putrich, who saw the article, co-authored an editorial in the AJC in response.

"[The incident] will create a stigma of 'If you're a conservative, here's one less place for you to go to school,'" he said. "We didn't really think that was fair to the school or to [the] students."

"I believe [the editorial] completely misrepresented both the general issue of academic freedom and the specific facts of this particular case...and a lot of what they said isn't true," Malhotra said in response. "My concerns have never been a personal issue...and I [did] not instigate the situation...We only responded when the professor herself would bring up a topic or issue for discussion."

But Putrich emphasized that he's never noticed any apparent bias. "I've never encountered a situation where I've felt that the professor...needed to punish me for my views because of what I would say in class," he said.

Suarez agreed. "I disagree with some of my professors, but it never affected my grades," he said. "That's what I think the main criterion there for determining whether bias exists."

But it does exist, Malhotra said. "Ever since I came to college, I've noticed a bias either in the way the professor conducts the class [or] the skewed selection of textbooks."

Backers of the Academic Bill of Rights have focused on discrimination against conservatives by liberal professors, but Malhotra said the political affiliation of the professor is irrelevant.

"I'm not here to say 'fire all liberals,'" Malhotra said. "One of the most effective professors I've ever had is also one of the most left...[but] she conducted her class very objectively, fostered discussion and debate, encouraged dissent."

However, Putrich did praise Malhotra for taking action against a perceived wrong.

"She filed a complaint, and that was her right, and that was...the correct way of doing things," he said. "Government is voicing your opinions, and she voiced her opinion. The tragedy of this situation is that it ended the press."

The investigation into Malhotra's grievance is still pending, but Suarez assures that "[the school has] done everything they needed to, from what I understand."

"It could be that this is an issue of miscommunication, and if it is, then that can be taken care of," he added. "If there's malice behind it, then there's other ways of taking care of that."