Category Archive 'Purdue University'

07 Jul 2008

Student In Trouble Over Reading a Book

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Racial brouhahas based on fictitious circumstances and wildly paranoid interpretations have become a news staple from the time of the Tawana Brawley hoax to the forced resignation of a white member of the mayor of DC’s staff for using the word “niggardly” to the recent fictitious connection with a racially-motivated black-on-white gang beating in Jena, Louisiana of nooses supposedly used as a symbol of racial intimidation.

The latest outbreak of major league racial lunacy began last Fall at Purdue, Dorothy Rabinowitz tells us in the Wall Street Journal.

Keith Sampson, a student employee on the janitorial staff earning his way toward a degree, was in the habit of reading during work breaks. Last October he was immersed in “Notre Dame Vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan.”

Mr. Sampson was in short order visited by his union representative, who informed him he must not bring this book to the break room, and that he could be fired. Taking the book to the campus, Mr. Sampson says he was told, was “like bringing pornography to work.” That it was a history of the battle students waged against the Klan in the 1920s in no way impressed the union rep.

The assistant affirmative action officer who next summoned the student was similarly unimpressed. Indeed she was, Mr. Sampson says, irate at his explanation that he was, after all, reading a scholarly book. “The Klan still rules Indiana,” Marguerite Watkins told him – didn’t he know that? Mr. Sampson, by now dazed, pointed out that this book was carried in the university library. Yes, she retorted, you can get Klan propaganda in the library.

The university has allowed no interviews with Ms. Watkins or any other university official involved in the case. Still, there can be no disputing the contents of the official letter that set forth the university’s case.

Mr. Sampson stood accused of “openly reading the book related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject in the presence of your Black co-workers.” The statement, signed by chief affirmative action officer Lillian Charleston, asserted that her office had completed its investigation of the charges brought by Ms. Nakea William, his co-worker – that Mr. Sampson had continued, despite complaints, to read a book on this “inflammatory topic.” “We conclude,” the letter informed him, “that your conduct constitutes racial harassment. . . .” A very serious matter, with serious consequences, it went on to point out.

That was in November. Months later, in February of this year, Mr. Sampson received – from the same source – a letter with an astonishingly transformed version of his offense. And there could be no mystery as to the cause of this change.

After the official judgment against him, Mr. Sampson turned to the Indiana state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, whose office contacted university attorneys. Worse, the case got some sharp local press coverage that threatened to get wider.

Ludicrous harassment cases are not rare at our institutions of higher learning. But there was undeniably something special – something pure, and glorious – in the clarity of this picture. A university had brought a case against a student on grounds of a book he had been reading.

And so the new letter to Mr. Sampson by affirmative action officer Charleston brought word that she wished to clarify her previous letter, and to say it was “permissible for him to read scholarly books or other materials on break time.” About the essential and only theme of the first letter – the “racially abhorrent” subject of the book – or the warnings that any “future substantiated conduct of a similar nature could mean serious disciplinary action” – there was not a word. She had meant in that first letter, she said, only to address “conduct” that caused concern among his co-workers.

What that conduct was, the affirmative action officer did not reveal – but she had delivered the message rewriting the history of the case. Absolutely and for certain there had been no problem about any book he had been reading.

This, indeed, was now the official story – as any journalist asking about the case would learn instantly from the university’s media relations representatives. It would take a heart of stone not to be moved – if not much – by the extraordinary efforts of these tormented agents trying to explain that the first letter was all wrong: No reading of any book had anything to do with the charges against Mr. Sampson. This means, I asked one, that Mr. Sampson could have been reading about the adventures of Jack and Jill and he still would have been charged? Yes. What, then, was the offense? “Harassing behavior.” While reading the book? The question led to careful explanations hopeless in tone – for good reason – and well removed from all semblance of reason. What the behavior was, one learned, could never be revealed.

There was, of course, no other offensive behavior; had there been any it would surely have appeared in the first letter’s gusher of accusation. Like those prosecutors who invent new charges when the first ones fail in court, the administrators threw in the mysterious harassment count. Such were the operations of the university’s guardians of equity and justice.


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