From my fellow Cliopatriarchs, I learned yesterday about the rather strange case of Jacques Pluss, who has been dismissed from his adjunct teaching job at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Professor Pluss, it seems, is a member -- indeed a leader -- in the American Nazi Party.
Pluss, who holds a Ph.D. in my original field, medieval history, was teaching Western Civilization at FDU when he was abruptly dismissed in the middle of the semester. The official story is that his dismissal had nothing to do with his politics; rather, he had missed six or seven class meetings this semester and was let go due to these excessive absences. But whatever the reason for his dismissal, an FDU dean made it clear that his politics alone would bar him from ever receiving a future teaching assignment:
It’s not politics, it’s hate mongering,'’ (Dean John) Snyder said. “It’s just hatred directed at the very students he taught. His position would be untenable on the basis of student welfare. It’s our job to see to it that students are treated with respect and security.”
The problem is, as this article from the FDU newspaper makes clear, Pluss was scrupulous about keeping his Nazi politics hidden from his students, many of whom were African-American or Jewish. One student is quoted as saying
...he never once taught propaganda or expressed his views in class. He came off as being liberal in his thinking. An incident arose in class about racism, and he appeared to be very anti-racist.
There's been some discussion at Cliopatria in the comments below this post.
I have to say that I am troubled at Pluss' dismissal. On the one hand, I find it hard to believe (and frankly an embarrassment) that a University of Chicago Ph.D. could end up as a flak for a Nazi Party. (I won't link to their sites, but it's easy to find the various Nazi parties in this country. They seem to be like Presbyterians, always going into schism. No further analogy between Presbys and Nazis intended!) On the other hand, if he really was successful in keeping his extreme views out of the classroom (and the students suggest he was), then I cannot accept the idea that public institutions ought to bar professors from the classroom on the basis of beliefs they hold outside the classroom, however radical and abhorrent those beliefs may be. In this sense, I'm a firm liberal.
I'm obviously no Nazi. But I am an evangelical Christian male teaching women's studies. In my private life, I'm staunchly anti-abortion. Though I'm still in my period of self-imposed silence from blogging on the subject, any visitor to my blog will know this -- and obviously, many students visit my blog. But I do everything I can to be scrupulously fair about the issue in my women's studies classes. I allude to having worked with folks on both sides of the issue, but I don't say where I stand today. It's vital that my students feel that the material on such a sensitive subject is being presented impartially.
I have been told more than once by pro-choice feminists that it is problematic for me, a straight white Christian pro-life male, to teach the one class in the entire college that focuses heavily on reproductive rights issues! I insist, over and over again, that my biology ought not to trump my teaching ability. It is the worst sort of ghettoizing to suggest that only women can teach women's history, only blacks teach African-American history, and so forth. At the same time, those of us who are "outsiders" by virtue of race or sex have an obligation to be especially fair-minded and sensitive, particularly to the concerns of our students, most of whom are likely to be members of the particular group under discussion.
Many students find my blog. If my students find this blog, they will learn about my love for chinchillas, my upcoming wedding, my passion for sports. They will learn of my various strange spiritual peregrinations. They will learn of my commitment to consistent-life politics and theology, and will learn of my particular brand of Christian feminism. They'll learn about marathoning and Mennonites, the joys of tenure and tattoos. In other words, they'll get a fuller picture of who I am than they will in the classroom. The same thing is true of Professor Pluss's students; when they visit his Nazi website, they'll find out who he "really is". I'd imagine his students might be offended, and some of his students of color might be particularly horrified. But what if a young woman, say one who had recently survived an abortion and is enrolled in my class, discovered my site and was offended? What if she questioned my ability to continue to teach her, given my (somewhat ambivalent) commitment to the pro-life cause? How is my case different from that of Professor Pluss? (Besides the fact that I have tenure!) Obviously, I think my own gently evangelical politics are a good deal more congenial than his, but that's a highly subjective conclusion, isn't it?
If Pluss was fired for his absences, so be it. But Dean Snyder's remarks above chill me a bit, and not because I have even the remotest sympathy for Nazi politics. They chill me because I know that in some sense, he and I are similar in that our public lives outside the classroom call into question our fitness to teach certain courses. And that troubles me immensely.