Posted on December 8, 2004

Setting the Record Straight

Sara Dogan,, December 8, 2004

From the beginning of its campaign for an Academic Bill of Rights in Colorado, Students for Academic Freedom has had to cope with a partisan press whose editors and reporters often have agendas that override their journalistic responsibilities and concerns. The first news stories on the Academic Bill of Rights, for example, misrepresented the plain meaning and intentions of the legislation. They described the Bill as an attempt by conservatives to get legislatures to impose hiring quotas on universities. In fact the Bill outlawed such quotas.

The press has also transmitted without comment the false accusations of the American Association of University Professors that the Bill would impose “political standards” on universities. But the Bill specifically refers to “the spectrum of scholarly viewpoints” as its standard. Moreover, if universities would adopt the provisions of the Bill of Rights—which are entirely drawn from the traditions established by the AAUP before it was taken over by faculty leftists—there would be no need for legislation and we would welcome that. In fact, this is precisely what has happened in the state of Colorado, where the entire public system of higher education has voluntarily adopted the Academic Bill of Rights.

The Colorado victory did not take place without an extended political battle. One of the leaders of the opposition was a Political Science professor named Oneida Meranto. Professor Meranto was so hostile to the idea of an Academic Bill of Rights that she threw students who supported it out of an academic club she advised and essentially out of her class. The Chronicle of Higher Education for November 26 has a story on Oneida Meranto and these battles, and unfortunately the Chronicle account exemplifies the worst aspects of the press coverage of the academic freedom campaign.

In all aspects of these conflicts, Oneida Meranto was the aggressor, abusing students in her classroom where she berated them for their political and religious views, dropping them from her class when they disagreed with her, and abusing them in public after they protested her treatment. In the course of these actions against her own students, Meranto even broke federal law, for which she was disciplined by her own college.

None of this is reported in the Chronicle story by reporter Jennifer Jacobson. Instead Meranto is portrayed as a victim—of her students, of “death threats” from anonymous e-mailers and even of breast cancer, for which the students are not exactly blamed, but whose introduction into the story creates a decidedly negative impression of their alleged aggressions against her. In short, attempts of Oneida Meranto’s students to defend themselves from the unprofessional attacks of a faculty ideologue are portrayed by the Chronicle in a way that validates Meranto’s own persecution fantasies in which the Academic Bill of Rights is seen as a plot to deprive “liberals” like herself of a job—an absurdity on its face, to which the Chronicle unfortunately lends credibility. (To repeat, the Academic Bill of Rights specifically forbids the firing of professors on the basis of their political viewpoints.)

Every piece of information concerning the conflict between Oneida Meranto and her students was provided to the Chronicle’s reporter, Jennifer Jacobson, by Students for Academic Freedom. But instead of using the information to write a balanced and accurate article, Jacobson reported the events of the last year entirely from Meranto’s perspective, giving almost no weight to the testimony of the students damaged by her actions and suppressing crucial facts like the disciplinary action Metro State University took against Meranto for violating federal law.

The Meranto saga began in the fall semester of 2003, when Metro State College students George Culpepper and Nick Bahl, both of whom were enrolled in Meranto’s Latin American Politics class, reported instances of abusive comments she made about them and discriminatory acts she took towards them solely because of their political views. In a letter-to-the-editor of the student newspaper, The Metropolitan, Bahl described his experience in Meranto’s classroom:

I was enrolled in Meranto’s Latin American Politics class for about half of this semester. I was afraid to speak while I was in her class, I learned absolutely nothing from her, and she eventually forced me out of the class. I was found, by the Dean’s office, to have done nothing wrong….Anyone who has taken a class with Meranto knows that sarcastic grin which comes to her face when she says certain things that are discriminatory, derogatory, one-sided, politically biased, and inappropriate in the classroom setting. Her grin is the way in which a perceptive person will know how she feels on the issue she is talking about. One day in class, Meranto decided to discuss the Academic Bill of Rights. While she was preaching she said, “The very fact that we’re even thinking about that (philosophical diversity) is ridiculous,” and questioned, “How can you teach Native American Politics or African American Politics from a conservative viewpoint?” She wasn’t looking for an answer to her question.

Meranto ultimately “dropped” Bahl from her class, after he emailed the Chair of the Political Science department complaining that she was never on time. Bahl also reports receiving anonymous harassing emails, one of which displayed a familiarity with his classes and course work, which should only have been known by upper-level administrators. In January, Bahl was informed by the President’s Office that Meranto had filed a formal complaint against him, accusing him of violating the school’s Student Handbook and of creating an environment of “hostility” which hindered her ability to teach.

Culpepper also reported experiencing harassment from Meranto, not only in the classroom, but also in meetings of the non-partisan Political Science Association, of which Meranto served as faculty advisor. Meranto accused Culpepper, the president of the College Republicans, of working with the Independence Institute, a Colorado think tank in connection with the Academic Bill of Rights and of trying to get herself and other liberal professors fired. Meranto’s paranoia was so real to her that she told the students that the “Republicans need to withdraw from the Political Science Association” of which she was faculty adviser. This led Culpepper to file a complaint against her and to testify about her conduct at a hearing organized by legislators interested in passing an Academic Bill of Rights.

As she had already done with Bahl, Meranto also filed a retaliatory complaint against Culpepper in September 2004, alleging that he had violated the Student Code of Conduct. She further issued a call to the members of an organization she created and headed called the “Native American Students for UnAmerican Values (sic).” She asked the students in her organization to host a meeting to come up with ways to get Culpepper expelled from the college. When her claim was brought to him, the Judicial Officer of Metro State rejected Meranto’s complaint, stating “I find no evidence that ties George Culpepper’s actions to a violation of the proscribed conduct. Consequently, the issue of sanctions against George Culpepper, be they expulsion or others as outlined in your complaint are not viable…he and other students have a legal right to bring complaints…of public concern like political bias in the classroom.”

Jacobson fails to mention the rejection of Meranto’s complaints against Culpepper and Bahl or her attempt to have Culpepper expelled. She over the events, using the language of victimization to describe Meranto’s role in the incidents, and omitting any facts that fail to buttress this conclusion. For instance, she states that Meranto’s “ordeal” began when she “butted heads with two students, Nick Bahl and George Culpepper,” implying that the three were on an equal footing when as a professor Meranto had significant power and authority over them. She notes that Meranto and Culpepper “soon had a falling out,” but does not mention that this was due to Meranto’s attempt to throw the College Republicans out of the Political Science Association. Nor did she investigate Meranto’s paranoid claim that the College Republicans were working with the Independence Institute to have her fired. Culpepper’s and Bahl’s complaints against Meranto are portrayed as acts of aggression, when in fact they were attempts to defend themselves in the face of Meranto’s harassment and unprofessional behavior.

While Jacobson thinks it’s appropriate to note that Culpepper became an intern in Senator John Andrew’s office following his testimony at the legislative hearings, she takes Meranto’s account of herself as a “liberal” at face value, and even covers for her to make her appear a victim of conservative attacks. Her journalistic method is on display in this passage: “Articles that Mr. Bahl and Mr. Culpepper had written about her for, posted with a photograph of her in front of a picture of Che Guevara, only fueled the intensity of the hate mail she received she says.” This is set up to look as though inserted the photograph of Guevara when in fact the photograph it published was of Meranto in her office which the editors took from the Political Science Department section of the official Metro State College website. When Jacobson gets around to explaining this, she includes the comment that “[Meranto] says the photograph is three or four years old and that she has since redecorated.” Well, Che Guevara is not exactly a flowerpot. What or who did Meranto replace Guevara with? And why was he on her wall in the first place? Jacobson leaves these questions unasked.

The point is that throughout her account Jacobson ignores or obscures the extremist politics of Meranto, which would allow a reader to judge whether she might be intolerant of conservative viewpoints and thus whether she or the students she threw out of her class and assaulted in the Denver media are telling the truth. Here is an excerpt from a Meranto speech delivered at a campus rally she helped organize, and during which she singled out her students Culpepper and Bahl, and “Whites have failed to prove to us that they are not part of the privileged class. They have failed to prove that they have gained so much from subjugation and domination of nonwhites. They have failed to prove to us that they don’t have racist, sexist tendencies that just might be part of the very essence of their white skin.” In other words, whites are racists and sexists. All whites. By nature. Again if Jacobson had shared this information with her readers, they would be in a better position to make a judgment about Meranto’s claims of victimization, not to mention Jacobson’s bias in reporting this story.

Jacobson similarly fails to report or evaluate Meranto’s public antics, which again would provide readers a way of judging reports about her classroom demeanor. During the controversy, for example, professor Meranto invited a Native American “medicine man” to perform an incense-burning ritual in her office and on campus in an attempt, a Denver Post columnist described, “to ‘cleanse’ the entire Auraria campus of the right-wing scourge,” and “exorcis[e] the school’s conservative demons with a smoldering bowl of what smelled exactly like pot.”

Jacobson’s report also omits a key episode in Meranto’s campaign against her own students, in which she violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which requires schools to obtain a students’ permission before releasing personal information, such as grades. This act of aggression was committed after George Culpepper testified at the legislative hearings about her expulsion of all College Republicans from the Political Science Association because of her belief that they were conspiring to remove her from her job. After Culpepper’s testimony, Meranto told a Denver Post reporter that Culpepper was just griping because he had failed her class. In fact this was a deliberate falsehood, which the Post reporter couldn’t check because of the privacy regulations. Culpepper explained at a second legislative hearing that he dropped the class because he thought it would be impossible to receive a fair grade due to Meranto’s bias towards him as a result of his conservative views. Culpepper also testified that he had a B average in the class prior to withdrawing. Meranto’s assertions to the Denver Post were an attempt to undermine her student’s testimony and credibility.

None of this crucial information appears in Jacobson’s article. Nor does the fact that in August 2004, Metro State Interim President Raymond Kieft placed a six-page disciplinary notice in Meranto’s file stating that she had violated the privacy act in commenting on Culpepper’s grade and telling the Denver Post in December 2003 that he had dropped her class “because he hadn’t done enough of the work and knew he couldn’t pass.”

A fair account of the Metro State saga would have applied similar standards of scrutiny to Meranto’s claims as it did to the students, and would not have read like a brief for one party—in this case the party of the aggressor—which it does. To be fair to Jacobson, fairer than she was to the students in this case, there is a telling moment in her article when she reports that Meranto’s colleagues in the Chicano and Women’s Studies departments at Metro have refused to come to her support. According to Jacobson, Vincent C. de Baca, the chairman of the Chicano Studies Department, wrote in an email, “We had nothing to do with her situation and we want to keep it that way.” It is probable that Chronicle readers would be interested in why Meranto’s colleagues want no part in her defense. Unfortunately, they will not learn this from reading Jacobson’s biased and inadequate account.