University suspends professor for "hostile" classroom environment

By SHERRY KIM and SAM FOSSUM | December 13, 2016

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FILE PHOTO Trent Bertrand criticized the University's decision to suspend him.

The University placed Trent Bertrand, an adjunct professor in the Economics department, on paid leave Monday, Dec. 5, following complaints that he had created a “hostile environment” in the classroom. Bertrand, whose contract is renewed annually, has taught International Trade for the past six years.

Students are divided on Bertrand’s suspension. Some students say that he has made insensitive remarks that are inappropriate in a classroom setting, while others claim Bertrand's suspension is threatening free speech on campus. Bertrand and some students have criticized the University for a lack of clarity in how they reached their decision.

Bertrand’s critics have said he is a “blatant racist,” that he personally targets students in class and that his offensive remarks have nothing to do with International Trade. In response, Bertrand and other students reject the allegations and say he is challenging “liberal orthodoxy” at Hopkins.


COURTESY OF TRENT BERTRAND

The suspension

Chair of the Economics Department Laurence Ball emailed Bertrand on Nov. 17, notifying him of student allegations that his conduct in class created a “hostile environment.” Ball additionally wrote that the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) would be opening a formal investigation into the matter.

In response, Bertrand sent a chain of emails defending himself and criticizing the University’s decision-making process, as well as the overall mission of the OIE. He also forwarded to Ball supportive emails that he received from students in his class.

Following Thanksgiving break, Bertrand received an email from Ball requesting a meeting on Dec. 1. During this meeting, Ball cited a joke that Bertrand told in class about an American worker who is depressed because he lost his job due to globalization. The worker calls a mental health hotline and, ironically according to Bertrand, gets patched into a call center in Pakistan. The students who reported him said the joke was offensive.

Additionally, the administration had looked through past course evaluations of International Trade and found comments accusing Bertrand of being “a blatant racist.” In light of these accusations, Ball said he would attend Bertrand’s final three lectures.

Following up on their meeting, Bertrand wrote an email to Ball, calling on him to let International Trade students know why he was attending lecture. Bertrand also forwarded this email chain to the faculty of the Economics department and the students currently enrolled in his class.

For his class on Dec. 1, Bertrand wanted to directly address his students concerning the allegations, although Ball advised against it.  

“I asked if there was anyone in the class who can honestly say that I’ve ever shown any hostility to any particular student,” Bertrand said in an interview with The News-Letter. “I never have, and nobody said that.”

In a confidential email sent out on the evening of Dec. 5, Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) Beverly Wendland notified Bertrand of his suspension, following Ball’s recommendation. Bertrand was barred from teaching the final two classes, and Ball would take over for the remainder of the semester.

But within one minute, Bertrand received another email which reversed his suspension. Bertrand showed up to teach his class on Dec. 6 uncertain whether his suspension was definite. At the door to his classroom, he was stopped from entering by two campus security guards. With approval from Ball, Bertrand was able to give a brief farewell remark to his students.   

On Dec. 7, Bertrand sent an email to Ball, asking whether the entire department was consulted about the decision.

The University declined to answer The News-Letter’s specific questions and wrote that the OIE does not comment on ongoing investigations. Hopkins stated that it does not comment on ongoing personnel matters and is “deeply committed to the principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression, including the expression of differing points of view.”

“A hostile environment”

Sophomore Alex Rice, a student currently in International Trade, is not sure whether the University’s decision to suspend Bertrand was the right choice. While she appreciated having her political views challenged, Rice often felt “uncomfortable” while attending his lectures.

She said that Bertrand would often gesture to Asian students in the class when mentioning the Chinese economy. When some of the students clarified that they were not Chinese, he reportedly said, “I’m sorry about that, but you guys all look the same to me.”

“It was very unprofessional, and if he was trying to make a joke, it wasn’t particularly funny,” Rice said. “He always says, ‘Just argue with me if you don’t agree with me,’ but how are you supposed to argue against racist comments?”

Bertrand contextualized the comment in an interview by recalling when he was robbed in Bangkok and had to pick the suspect out of a lineup.

“When they all had that sort of Asian look, it was hard for me, as a Caucasian, not to be influenced by that,” he said. “This is just the reality of it... One of the [Thai] cops who was there in the lineup said it’s the same thing in the States — everybody looks Caucasian. It’s hard to sometimes tell the difference.”

Bertrand also said that a student last year complained to him about his Pakistani call center joke. That student was struggling with her mental health and considered his lighthearted treatment of the matter as an impediment to her education. In response, Bertrand advised the student not to let comments like that get to her.

“I told her I was in Afghanistan for 18 months, and people threw acid in the faces of little girls who were going to school. That’s an impediment to education,” Bertrand said. “You just have to toughen up a bit and not be so sensitive to any statements such as this, though I tried to put that in an empathetic mood… Obviously I thought [hers] was an odd reaction and I didn't expect it, or perhaps I wouldn’t have told the joke this year.”

Another student currently in the class, junior Will Bryden, felt that Bertrand’s comments might offend some, but that Bertrand was not intentionally creating a hostile environment.

“He meant it simply as he did, which was to be humorous, and that’s understandable from my viewpoint,” Bryden said. “You’ve got to try to view things from the other person’s point of view and see how they meant it as well.”

Bryden said that sometimes students were responsible for creating the “hostile environment” in class.

“He was never aggressive with his viewpoint,” Bryden said. “He was aggressive in debating it and trying to defend it, but he wasn’t aggressive in his tone of voice or anything like that, while some of the students would get aggressive.”

One of Bertrand’s former students, who requested anonymity because she is currently affiliated with the Economics department, believes a classroom environment conducive to discussion is possible “without making racist jokes.”

“Several times, people did speak up and contradict him. He would be very dismissive and counter that in a condescending way like, ‘Oh, well you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just children and students,’” she said. “He wasn’t creating an environment where things could be discussed, and you could have a back and forth, like a respectful dialogue.”

Bertrand explained that he tried to challenge his students to express their own opinions in class.

“I try to make it a conducive environment for good debate. We had some sections that were successful in that, but a lot of times I’m trying to teach some theory or so on. There’s not a lot to debate on that, so that’s not the norm in the class, but I think I tried my best,” he said. “I personally find it boring to talk to other conservatives that see exactly as I do, there’s nothing to really get into a debate about.”

Bertrand said that many students enjoyed the environment he fostered in the classroom.

“If you read those student comments carefully, those students love the idea of being challenged on their ideas and being in an environment where they can — at least some of them, maybe not all of them, but some of them — love to be challenged,” he said. “It’s what a university is for."

Transparency

Following Ball’s announcement of Bertrand’s suspension, students have been left in the dark. Junior Lauren Roberts, another student in the class, said the sudden changes to the course so late in the semester made it difficult to gauge how the class would be graded.

“When we got the email on Monday, it was kind of unexpected,” she said. “Why would you take a professor out of a class when there’s two more classes to be taught? I feel like they’re trying to make an example out of him.”

Even though senior Max Balka has never taken a class with Bertrand, he was puzzled after hearing about his suspension.

“[M]y initial concern — which prompted me to involve myself — was that Bertrand's conservative outlook and allegedly racy rhetoric led the University to terminate him in a manner incompatible with the First Amendment obligations with which JHU is expected to comply in light of the federal monies the school enjoys,” he wrote in an email to The News-Letter.

Balka identifies as liberal and voted for Hillary Clinton in November, but he is worried about censorship of conservative views on campus. He acknowledged that students in the class had told him that Bertrand’s comments could be interpreted as racist or prejudiced.

But Balka stressed that the University’s decision to suspend Bertrand was unnecessary and lacked due process, citing previous instances of the University’s lack of transparency in its decision to revoke covered grades.

“[I]t would not surprise me if Bertrand was dismissed more for his treatment of his superiors than for his classroom speech. JHU has once again failed the student body by being unapologetically opaque,” he wrote. “Even after the abrupt dismissal of Bertrand, I was rejected in my search for explanation by the head of the responsible department. The very second a JHU scandal goes viral, it is always an embarrassment that the students didn't get informed from the school first.”

The anonymous Economics student echoed this sentiment, questioning why the administration had not acted in response to these allegations earlier. The student had taken Bertrand’s course two years ago and stressed that the problems were present in the class then.

“Honestly, it seemed like the reason he got put on paid leave was his hostility towards the Dean rather than the actual initial issue. His emails are clearly unprofessional and incendiary and, right off the bat, super defensive,” she said. “People have definitely complained about him in course evaluations. I have known people who have gone to the Dean about him in past years. I don’t understand how they could have not known that he’s been an issue this whole time.”

Bertrand said that the department had never raised concerns about him before.

A violation of free speech?

Initially covered by conservative media outlet Red Alert Politics, the University’s suspension of Bertrand has sparked a debate on the relationship between free speech and political correctness at Hopkins.

According to Rice, Bertrand’s conduct in class is inappropriate and has nothing to do with political correctness.

“Professors shouldn’t have to tiptoe around their ideologies to make sure that people’s feelings aren’t crushed, but making fun of and teasing students in the middle of class — I don’t think that has anything at all to do with political correctness,” she said.

Junior Lauren Roberts, a current student in his class, believes that while there should be room for debate in classrooms, Bertrand went too far.

“If he was just making controversial statements about his views on politics, I feel like that would be totally fine and should be welcomed. But once it gets past his political views and bringing about different viewpoints, I feel like it becomes an issue,” she said.

However, Bryden said that students at Hopkins, an elite institution on the East coast, have a different perspective on political correctness than he did growing up in Arkansas.

“Keeping what you say to a certain standard and trying not to offend other people was new, to a certain extent, to me,” he said. “Of course you don’t want to go out and blatantly offend other people, but this whole politically correct rhetoric was much more intense up here than it was back home.”

Bertrand believes the University’s decision is symptomatic of a greater trend at American universities.

“I think anything that interferes with [people thinking for themselves] is objectionable, and I think political correctness interferes with that,” he said. “You don’t come to a university to be comfortable, you come to a university to meet with people who have different ideas and who are willing to argue about those ideas.”

Editor's note: We have deleted a quotation from a student whose views were made public in an email chain that has been widely circulated by Bertrand. The student requested that his comment be deleted from the article.

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