Mangling the Truth

[Cross-posted from Free Exchange on Campus.]

One of the greatest insults to the American system of governance, a system based on open discussion and debate, is the deliberate lie. Yet the lie has been with us since the beginning—the rise of the concept of “objectivity” in journalism, in fact, occurred as a rejection of pervasive bias and lie in political discourse. The lie has to be constantly fought. It may never go away but, if allowed to continue unchecked, it will grow and destroy us.

One of the peculiarities of the lie is that those who use it most are loudest to scream that they are lied about, taking advantage of the necessity of combating lies as a smokescreen for promulgating them. David Horowitz’s Front Page Magazine, for example, provides a constant stream of accusations of lying (the most recent being this) while publishing articles so filled with outright distortions and lies that they would make Stephen Glass (the “reporter” who made up stories published in The New Republic and subject of the movie Shattered Glass) blush.

One recent example is “Standing Up for Academic Freedom,” an article over the byline of Phil Orenstein that appeared on January 22nd.

Rather than pointing out each and every lie and distortion in the article, I will focus today on only a few. First, though, I want to write a bit about the intent, the reason for the lies.

One of the drumbeats of the right against higher education these days is the canard that the professors are trying to indoctrinate their students. The idea is that the faculties are deliberately keeping conservative viewpoints out of the classroom. The reason for this campaign is that universities remain one important arena of American life yet to come under right-wing domination. If enough fear can be created about indoctrination, state legislatures can be convinced to pass laws bringing classroom behavior under their control.

As there is no evidence that indoctrination is happening, in order to keep up the campaign the right has had to invent it, taking the occasional anecdote about professorial behavior and blowing it up into everyday occurrence and, when the anecdote isn’t really strong enough, embellishing it to the point where the professor’s conduct appears outrageous.

One of the many who have come under such attack is John Gerassi, a professor at Queen’s College, whom I wrote about in 2006. Another is the subject of that recent article, Anthony Gronowicz, an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Social Sciences department at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).

Among many other charges, Orenstein claims that:

Professor Gronowicz was summoned to appear before a peer review board. His classroom conduct was reviewed and as a result, he was demoted from a full time professor to adjunct status and given only one class assignment.

Gronowicz was brought up before no “board.” And Gronowicz was not “demoted.” He had received a short-term full-time appointment that was not renewed, returning him to his previous adjunct status. This is a common occurrence at CUNY (the system BMCC is part of), providing administrations needed flexibility in meeting coverage needs. Finally, Gronowicz was not “given” just a single class: the others he had been assigned did not carry—that is, enrollment was too small for the college to justify running them.

The core lie in the article, though, has to do with the experience of one student in Gronowicz’s class in the fall of 2005—an experience that, for some reason, was not publicized until the end of 2007, two years later. According to Orenstein, the student (Aaron Haberer) saw:

his grades gradually plummet to an “F”…. When Aaron realized the poor grades he was receiving were a direct result of expressing his firm belief in the righteousness of American government and his religious principles, he reported Gronowicz to another professor. This professor advised him about his academic rights and helped him file a formal complaint. Some of his fellow classmates likewise filed complaints when Aaron urged them to do so. Aaron fought for almost an entire semester and finally his grade was raised to one that he felt he deserved.

According to Gronowicz, there was no formal complaint. For privacy reasons, he would not comment directly on the student’s grade other than to say that Orenstein’s depiction is completely erroneous.

Whatever grade Haberer did receive, Orenstein’s statement at the beginning of the article, then, is a complete fabrication:

Aaron Haberer… received a failing grade for disputing his professor’s virulent anti-America, anti-religious demagoguery in the classroom. Aaron’s story is an example of the type of flagrant abuses of student academic rights that increasingly typifies much of the college experience today.

Where is the evidence Haberer received an F? Not having talked to the professor or other students in the class (who rated Gronowicz highly), Orenstein takes from thin air (or student pique) the accusation that Haberer’s grade rested on his political attitude. He offers no defense for this statement and would be hard-pressed to do so, especially since Gronowicz has preserved the exams and grade sheets from the course—documentation that Orenstein’s claim is preposterous. Also, Orenstein presents no evidence at all that Haberer’s so-called “experience” “typifies” anything that happens in any classroom. He relies only on the unsupported word of one student. There is nothing in what he writes that remotely proves that what he imagines happened to Haberer ever really happens at all.

Looking up Gronowicz on ratemyprofessor.com, I found this:

Dr. Granowicz is a very intelligent teacher and a great guy. Though his views are stridently liberal, he’s happy to debate you if you disagree and does not hold it against you. If you do the work and take notes, you will do well. He’s very laid back and quite funny too.

At least one student disagrees with the Orenstein depiction completely. In fact, I saw no indication that any student felt Gronowicz lets politics get in the way of fairness in grading.

Towards the end of his article, Orenstein writes that:

Aaron feels that no student should have to go through the lengthy process he endured merely to get a fair grade based upon his course work, not upon political opinions or religious beliefs.

Nowhere in the article does Orenstein detail this “lengthy process” that Haberer “endured.” In fact, according to Gronowicz, there was no such process. The student took the course, received a grade, and that was it.

There’s much more in this article that would fall under the category of “egregious attempts at deception,” but they hardly warrant response. The point here is that truth has fallen victim, once again, to desire for political gain.

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