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A Teacher Gets What She Deserves

UD logo on a wrought-iron gate
photo by Alan Levine

It may seem that the University of Delaware wasted little time separating itself from former adjunct professor Katherine Dettwyler after she publicly suggested that Otto Warmbier “got exactly what he deserved.” Upon closer inspection, the separation took longer than it should have.

On the popular website Rate My Professors, students noted that Dettwyler was “easily the rudest professor I have had at UD;” “way too opinionated to the point where she becomes unprofessional;” and “horrible and obnoxious.” Some of Dettwyler’s students, to be sure, also rated her favorably, many on the grounds that she taught and tested directly from the textbook (which she also wrote). If you told her what she wanted to hear, Dettwyler’s course was apparently an easy A. But plenty of other students loathed her class.

One consistent comment from both students who rated her well and those who rated her poorly was that Dettwyler was emphatic in her political beliefs, which ran to the left edge of the political spectrum. One student who gave her an average grade on the website wrote, “She is pretty biased in her opinions but it’s really easy to tell which answers she wants to hear even if you don’t agree with them.” (Rate My Professors requires reviewers to register, but the reviews are posted anonymously.)

A photo of a fall 2016 test in Dettwyler’s Anthropology 101 class provides an example of this dynamic in practice. The question took the form of a statement claiming, in part, that “Donald Trump and his followers have expressed [...] a variety of cultural beliefs that are diametrically opposed to the m[orals] of the United States.” The ostensibly multiple choice question offered only one answer, “A: True.” Dettwyler later said that she did not penalize students who did not answer or filled in a bubble other than A on the answer sheet, but it is not clear that students knew the question was optional in advance.

All of this raises the question: Why did it take Dettwyler’s obnoxious rant about Warmbier going viral and threatening the university’s reputation – and, more importantly, its tuition-paying enrollment – for the school to cut ties?

Warmbier, a 22-year-old student at the University of Virginia, was arrested in early 2016 during a trip to North Korea. Authorities alleged Warmbier had attempted to steal a propaganda poster and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. Warmbier was returned to the United States last month in a coma; he died a few days later, without waking up.

Of course the wisdom of Warmbier, or any other American, visiting North Korea is open to question. Misbehaving on such a visit in a way that gave the Pyongyang regime a pretext to take another hostage is even more ill-advised. But the last time I checked, being a young, white male is not a capital offense.

Yet Dettwyler’s comments suggested otherwise. In a Facebook post (which has since been deleted), she characterized Warmbier as “typical of a mindset of a lot of the young, white, rich, clueless males who come into my classes.” She also suggested his parents were to blame. Dettwyler left similar comments on an article in The National Review about Warmbier’s death, which have also been since deleted.

The University of Delaware promptly issued a statement disavowing Dettwyler’s comments and observing that she was not employed by the university at the time she made them, since adjuncts work on contract by semester and Dettwyler was not teaching any summer classes. The school subsequently announced it would not invite her back to teach on campus.

As an anthropologist, Dettwyler has spent her career studying human beings without apparently ever learning how to behave like one. One of the characteristics of our species is an ability to empathize with others, to feel their pain and share their sorrows. We are not unique among species in this capacity, but the trait is evidently determined on a more individual basis within the population.

The University of Delaware is not alone in needing to take a look at who it invites to teach on its campuses and how such people conduct themselves once there. Behaviors that cross the line don’t occur in a vacuum and seldom are isolated incidents. Last year, the University of Missouri found itself in the national news when an assistant professor inserted herself into a student protest and called for “some muscle” to remove a student journalist and photographer from the quad.

Melissa Click, who was first suspended with pay and later terminated, had a history of questionable judgment prior to this incident, despite its characterization by her supporters as merely a momentary lapse. A lapel camera captured her hostile response to police when participating in another student demonstration about a month prior to the “muscle” incident. Facing third-degree assault charges for the incident with the student journalist, she reached an agreement with the city’s prosecutor to fulfill 20 hours of community service and a year’s probation, an arrangement the prosecutor told the press was typical in similar cases.

Cases like Click’s and Dettwyler’s suggest that many universities need to subject staff hiring decisions to more rigorous scrutiny. If academic freedom has any meaning at all, it ought to mean freedom for everyone on campus, not just those assigning letter grades at the end of the semester. Instructors who can’t grasp this concept don’t belong on campus in the first place.

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