09/30/04 — Cleansing time: Professor doesn’t fit UNC-CH image

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Cleansing time: Professor doesn’t fit UNC-CH image

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill can take a measure of comfort in recent conclusions of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation of an incident involving a professor’s widely circulated e-mail attack on a student.

But it can take no pride in the fact that it has kept on its faculty a professor who the Office of Civil Rights found had committed acts of “intentional discrimination and harassment” — and worse.

The investigation resulted from Professor Elyse Crystall’s response to a student’s comment during her class on, of all things, Literature and Cultural Diversity.

During a discussion of the subject, the student, expressing what he felt were his Christian views, commented that he was opposed to homosexual relationships.

Ms. Crystall subsequently sent e-mail messages to all members of the class chastising the student. “What we heard constitutes hate speech and is completely unacceptable. It has created a hostile environment,” she wrote.

She then referred to the student, by name, as “a white, heterosexual, Christian male who can feel entitled to make violent, heterosexual comments and not feel marked or threatened or vulnerable.”

The U.S. Department of Education investigated at the insistence of Congressman Walter Jones Jr.

“Had Ms. Crystall substituted ‘black’ for white, ‘homosexual’ for heterosexual, or ‘Muslim’ for Christian, she would have been suspended or fired immediately,” declared Jones.

The Office of Civil Rights did not agree with that. It found that the university had responded to other cases essentially as it did in this instance.

But the OCR came down hard on Ms. Crystall: “The e-mail message not only subjected the student to intentional discrimination and harassment, but also discouraged the robust exchange of ideas that is intrinsic to higher education and is at the very heart of the Constitution’s protection of free speech.”

Following the initial report of the incident, the university took action. It had conferences with the professor and the student and assigned a staff member to monitor what went on in her class. Under apparent pressure, Ms. Crystall eventually apologized.

But Congressman Jones still questions the advisability of keeping the professor on the faculty. His position is not without justification.

The incident involving the student in the U.S. Department of Education investigation was not the only time Ms. Crystall has assailed members of her class on the subject of conventional values such as the institution of marriage and man-and-woman relationships.

One student made the mistake of addressing her as “Mrs.” in a message requesting a meeting to discuss a paper. In an e-mail response, the professor (who obviously has an aversion to using capital letters) advised the student that one “should never call a woman, no matter what her age is, mrs. unless she asks. many married women do not participate in the conservative ritual of taking a man’s name. many women have male partners but do not take part in the discriminatory institution of marriage, many women are single, and many women are in same sex relationships. for all these reasons and more one should never assume that a woman is married. and that, if she is, she is using a man’s name instead of her own. i have very strong feelings about this. for me, it is a critical social and political issue and not a personal preference.”

What kind of examples of grammar and tolerance has this English professor been setting in the academic environment of our flagship university?

The university came out admirably in the Office of Civil Rights investigation, which focused only on a single incident.

Professor Crystall’s demonstrated bigotry runs counter to the rich heritage and abiding principles of this great university.

It would have a positive effect if the University of North Carolina were to cleanse itself of her presence.

Published in Editorials on September 30, 2004 11:41 AM