An emotionally charged group of hundreds of students, faculty and community members met Thursday night to address a University of Wisconsin professor’s statements about the Hmong community.Kaplan's version of the story has never been presented, strangely enough. The quotes are obviously cruelly torn from the teaching context. It is irrational to think that a law professor would assert things like this as a matter of belief. Kaplan isn't a racist, but anyone ought to know that a real racist who is clever enough to be a law professor would express himself subtly, not by bursting out with racist comments (unless he's lost his mind).
Law professor Leonard Kaplan made several statements during his Feb. 15 class that offended a group of students, who were coined the “Magnificent Seven” by those in attendance at the forum.
According to an e-mail sent to several law and Hmong students, Kaplan spoke for 10 minutes using “racist and inappropriate” remarks, allegedly saying, “Hmong men have no talent other than to kill,” and “all second-generation Hmong end up in gangs and other criminal activity,” among other comments.
I don't know what the actual quotes were, and the repetition of the purported quotations from the email is giving them the aura of reality. Even if they are true, however, anyone who thinks about how teaching works ought to be able to imagine how there might be some pedagogical context in which those words would be said by the professor, perhaps phrasing a hypothetical or characterizing the thoughts of another person. Obviously, it would help to have an accurate report to counterweight the email (which I don't think was intended to go out to the press).
Jane Hamilton-Merritt, an author and Nobel Peace Prize nominee known for her writings on Hmong culture, flew in from Connecticut for the forum.As you can see, some people here at the law school believed this event would not focus on what happened in the classroom. You can detect a plan for healing, closure, and positivity.
Originally aimed at addressing cultural acceptance of Hmong people, the discussion shifted focus almost entirely to Kaplan’s controversial comments.
“No matter what we all think is offensive, we’re not going to leave here with anyone ‘winning,’” said UW law student [name deleted], who was in Kaplan’s lecture. “I think the reality is the remarks, … if you agree or not, have been very damaging to the particular students and an entire population.”[Name deleted] thus acknowledged the effect on the students, something that could conceivably be done without needing to get the facts straight or understanding why Kaplan said whatever it is he did. I imagine that [name deleted] believed this was a path toward closure.
With the initial goal of the meeting to be generally about Hmong cultural ignorance, [UW law professor Jane] Larson said Kaplan felt being in the room himself would change the nature of the discussion....But with such a large group assembled and some students very upset, how could you realistically expect them all to sit passively for Hamilton-Merritt's healthful lesson?
UW undergraduate [name deleted] said he regretted Kaplan did not take the opportunity to explain his comments.
“We fully support all research with the marketplace of ideas, but we believe [what Kaplan said] extends far beyond the bounds of academic freedom,” [name deleted] said. “We respectfully request a public repeal and apology, and a (diversity) committee dedicated to faculty and staff.”What?! Procedural rules failed to keep the meeting on track? Who could have predicted that a student would try to refocus things on a matter of pressing, passionate concern? Wouldn't you have thought that someone who was "nominated for a Nobel Prize" and who flew in from the east coast would inspire awed silence?
[Name deleted] then turned to Law School Dean Ken Davis personally, breaking the meeting’s procedural rules, before being cut off by the forum’s moderator.
Davis told the large crowd he hopes to continue the education of his faculty and staff."Continue the education of his faculty and staff"? So it's reeducation time for all of us -- even though whatever it was that Kaplan said seems to be a complete anomaly and says nothing about the rest of us? Personally, I would never choose to approach a racial theme in class by stirring things up with exaggerated statements, and I find it hard to understand why Kaplan did whatever he did. As you know from my recent column, I support traditional law school teaching, but there are some people here who go for innovation. Innovation could lead a teacher to do things that distress the students and unleash difficult emotions. I would suppose that it would be the deepest concern about racism that would take a professor down this path.
“Sometimes we stumble, but we try to learn and try to move forward,” Davis said. “Within the Law School community, this will not be the end to learn about the wonderful community within our state.”
Law student [named deleted] said he was hoping for more of an open forum where both sides were represented, adding several students may plan a “counter-forum.” He said he thinks Kaplan’s comments were conveyed as “bold and obviously untrue” and should be a part of the law education process.Don't you love the voice of reason?
“Every law professor offends their students — that’s their style,” [name deleted] said. “The last thing I’d want is to have professors treading on thin ice because they’re afraid of offending people.”
Several students from Kaplan’s class gave their accounts of the incident in question.
[Name deleted], who was in class when Kaplan made his comments about the Hmong community, said she was outraged and upset she didn’t immediately respond to the comments in class.The law professors want you to speak in class. The presentation is usually designed to create an occasion for speaking. Why not go in the next day and speak up? Kaplan's class is ongoing. There are endless opportunities. Did you ever get the impression that Kaplan was trying to close down discussion as opposed to stimulating it? When does a teacher stimulate discussion so much that instead of speaking in class, you choose to go outside of the class?
“When I heard these comments, I was disturbed, shocked and angry at Kaplan and at myself for not speaking up, and at my classmates,” [name deleted] said.
[Name deleted], who was in Kaplan’s class and first circulated mass e-mails to gather support, said she has been inundated with e-mails from both hate and support mail from around the country.This is a classic example of the behavior of email. I can see how a student might feel too confused or intimidated to speak in class and might then send out an email as a way to process what happened and get ready perhaps to go back to class and engage with the teacher in a good way. But once something this inflammatory is in email, it escapes. It goes viral. It takes on a life of its own:
[Name deleted], who is in the class but did not attend lecture Feb. 15, met with Kaplan regarding the comments."The fact he believed his statements to be true"? And how did you come to be in possession of that "fact"?
“We all genuinely believe that he is sorry we are hurt,” [name deleted] said. “What came as a shock, an injury and an insult was the fact he believed his statements to be true. He was not willing to repeal his statements.”
ADDED: Today's Badger Herald also has this letter from Gerald Cox. CORRECTION: I think these are in fact 3 separate responses to a column on the subject by Gerald Cox (which would explain why the paragraphs don't fit together too well!):
I was in the class, this is all being taken out of context. If anything he was supporting Hmongs and criticizing Wisconsin failure in incorporating them into Northern WI society. Look at all the talk this has stirred! If anything he’s remarks helped bring light to a situation. He is not a racist and his remarks were not racist.Cultural difference is quite the petard.
I’ve had Kaplan for a few courses and he is not a racist, and these remarks were completely taken out of context. The initial email describing Kaplan’s comments removed the context and intentionally led readers to conclude that Kaplan believes all Hmong are criminals and gangters which is obviously not something Kaplan believes. I feel bad that the student was offended but this student should publicly apologize to Kaplan for clearly misrepresenting his beliefs, the context of the discussion, and ignoring the fact that his effort to integrate cultural differences into the legal process class was designed to argue that the law should be more sensitive to cultural differences.
Especially as a professor, he should not be using terrible, ridiculous, ignorant stereotypes to prove his little point because you know what, to some, it is a terrible, ridiculous, and ignorant way of making a point. That’s not to say Kaplan’s a racist, but just because he isn’t a racist doesn’t mean he didn’t make ignorant, racist remarks. People make mistakes, he made a mistake, he should apologize, the Hmong student should not have to apologize for being offended (that suggestion just has no merit) and everybody should just learn and move on.
MORE: Here's the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's coverage of last night's event. Excerpt:
The students, who would not elaborate on what Kaplan had said, said in the beginning that their main goal was for faculty and students to be educated about the Hmong community and culture. But two of the students later broke down in tears as they talked angrily about the way Kaplan and the administration had responded to their concerns, with one student telling the crowd, "You have alienated us."So this is how the quotes came to be quoted. Did no one record the class?
The fallout began when law student [name deleted], a Hmong who grew up in Eau Claire, circulated an e-mail among a dozen classmates accusing Kaplan of making "racist" comments during a class that focused on the intersection of culture and the law. [Name deleted] was not in class that day; she compiled the remarks from others.
Kaplan, who has refused the students' request to apologize publicly, did not show up at the forum even though he was expected to.Expected to by whom? The faculty knew he wasn't going to be there.
For his part, law school Dean Kenneth Davis, who has overseen the fallout of the incident, which has not involved disciplinary action of Kaplan, would not comment, saying only that he was committed to moving forward with efforts to improve cultural understanding among faculty and students.The idea of the meeting really was that there was some way to go forward without needing to know what happened. But people care about the truth. I understand the impulse to say: Whatever happened, happened. Let's emphasize the positive and talk about the good things we can do in the future. But the human mind doesn't work that way. We want to understand the world we're in as we think about what to do about it.
So it was no surprise when, toward the end of the forum, a woman in the audience drew applause when she complained:
"I'm left not knowing what happened. But I'm supposed to engage in a dialogue about it? . . . I'm left hanging."
[Name deleted] said Thursday night that her e-mail "wasn't well-informed" but "the remarks have had a damaging impact."Ah! The tragedy of the viral email.
The students who were in Kaplan's class said they met with him to voice their anger and that he dismissed their opinions. They said that he apologized for hurting their feelings, but he stood by the comments he made in class.Whatever they were!
However, law students were still upset by his remarks.Whatever they were!
[Name deleted], a law student who is not in Kaplan's class, said she had been part of the discussions with the administration and was upset by the outcome. "Every corner we've turned, we've been dismissed by the faculty and our peers at the law school," she said.This is a terrible tragedy. I'm sure these students really are suffering, and I'm sure Kaplan, who was teaching about cultural difference, cares about this suffering. Contemplate whether his silence is benevolent forbearance.
She also said: "We feel so intensely alone. We have not gone to class. We have worked eight hours a day. We don't sleep very well. I want everyone to know you have alienated us."
[Name deleted], who was not in the class but was part of the discussion with Kaplan, broke down in tears while talking about the meeting. She said that she told Kaplan, "I know these things you said about Hmong people aren't true."
NOTE: I've deleted the student names that originally appeared here. I didn't like using the students' names, and only had them because they were in the newspaper article I was commenting on. Obviously, the names are still available in the linked newspaper articles.