A Game Prof. Robinson Doesn't Want to Play Anymore
Professor Bill Robinson's name might have not been familiar to the general public just a few months ago. Now, his name has been making news both nationally and in other parts of the world. Why? Because of the way he taught his Global Affairs course last semester, because of a couple of students' negative reaction to his teaching method, and because of the way the University of California, Santa Barbara has been handling the situation, according to Robinson.
Robinson, who is Jewish, of Hungarian and Russian descent, first saw light in New York State. He graduated from Long Island University in New York, and his schooling included several years of study abroad in Africa. Shortly after graduating, Robinson took a teaching position for three years. He then felt a need to witness the way human beings lived in a different part of the world, so he went to South America and worked there as a reporter for 10 years. "This experience allowed me to see things from a different angle," Robinson said. He recalls that it shaped his mind and soul, making him observant of people's needs and the way they fill them. "That's why I decided to go back to school and get my master's degree in Latin American Studies and my PhD in Sociology at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque."
After that, Robinson's career took a sharp turn. He went from journalism to devoting his time to what he calls his passion: social issues, social rights, immigration, and democracy around the world. "I search for the truth in all these. I always want to find the meaningful side to the work I do. . . . As a teacher, I hope to challenge students and encourage them to question the establishment."
Whatever Robinsons does is based on three simple rules, he explained: "I hope to always live an ethical life with compassion for others, to always pursue social justice, and to develop my students' talent and potential through critical thinking." He added, "Living an ethical life to me is denouncing what's wrong without being selective, respecting and acknowledging the dignity of all human beings, and having an interest in the collective well-being."
That's why the whole issue of his alleged misconduct, based on an email he sent to his students marked "for your interest," which compared images of the Holocaust to images taken in Gaza, comes as a surprise not only to his students, but also to his colleagues. Robinson's reputation has always been impeccable, he said. "No student has ever filed a grievance against me in my 16 years as a teacher. On the contrary! My courses get filled very quickly and students seldom drop my class."
Before speaking to Robinson, I had attended a May 21, 2009 panel on academic Freedom at Embarcadero Hall in Isla Vista. It was organized by Robinson's students, and the four panelists were other UCSB professors: Geoffrey Raymond, Lisa Hajjar, Richard Falk, and Harold Marcuse. All of these colleagues, during their individual presentations, agreed not only that Robinson did nothing improper, but that he did exactly what he was expected to do as a university professor.
Students of Robinson who took the microphone during the public comment segment of the presentation spoke highly about Robinson's teaching abilities, style, and ethics. I was surprised to see that the complaining students were nowhere to be found. Even more interesting was the fact that none of those speaking against Robinson's actions attended UCSB at all, let alone Robinson's class.
By now, you've probably heard and read enough already about this debate-as have I--but I had some questions that I didn't see answered in other media coverage, so I asked Robinson directly.
The infamous email you sent was regarded as an inappropriate and offensive personal piece of communication by two Jewish students. What do you have to say about that?
Robinson: The email that the media said was sent as a personal piece of communication was not. It was course material sent through UCSB email and according to the American Association of University Professors Internet material is considered an extension of the classroom and is covered by Academic Freedom." He went on to clarify, "The media, incorrectly, printed that the course was on South America and that the email was, therefore, irrelevant to the class. Not so: The course was on Global Affairs. I have never sent an email that has not been related to the course to any student.
"Also mistakenly, the media reported that I created the photo essay included in the email," said Robinson. "Incorrect again, it was sent by a Jewish American journalist a while ago, and it was globally available on the internet ever since. I only forwarded it to my students."
When you marked the email "for your interest," what did you mean by that?
Robinson: "At times, I mark emails that way. My students know that when I send those emails it means it is strictly optional reading, that I'm not going to test anyone on it, and that in fact, the material will only be discussed in class if time permits or if a student wishes to bring it up."
The forum panelists insisted that the university didn't follow the regular process. After receiving the students' complaint, the university didn't direct the students through the proper channels, but created an ad-hoc committee to deal with the matter. Also, according Marcuse, some UCSB officials met with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) which is an external entity, on an issue that was supposed to be dealt with internally. The presenting professors were completely outraged by this and by the fact that the university initially denied that such meeting ever happened. Particularly aerated was Prof. Marcuse, one of the few people who were invited to and attended that "secret" meeting.
Today, this matter involves not only Bill Robinson but more than 100 faculty members who have signed a petition asking the university to dismiss the charges against Robinson. Plus, 16 department chairs have written letters to UCSB authorities asking them to dismiss the case against Robinson. The alleged charges against Robinson are: a) Significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course, and b) Wrongful use of a position of power.
If a violation of the University Professor's Code of Conduct is found on Robinson's part, the sanction he may be facing is dismissal from the university. Robinson has retained the services of a private attorney.
What ending do you envision to this stressful chapter of your life?
Robinson: "I expect full vindication: the exoneration from the charges, the acknowledgement of irregularities in the process, and a public apology from the university administration, plus a statement on the university's commitment to academic freedom."
Silvia Uribe is a freelance writer with a Latina perspective.
Cross-posted at the Independent.com