Gagging Graglia

Can We Talk?


photograph by SOMEPHOTOGRAPHER / illustration by SOMEARTIST

When the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to the University of Texas last semester, he urged the 5,000 gathered to fight for a diverse college campus by protesting the Hopwood decision. He also urged them to treat law professor Lino Graglia like "a moral and social pariah," as punishment for what Jackson called his "racist, fascist, offensive speech." The irony of calling for diversity yet wanting to silence objectionable opinions was not lost on law student Mark Paredes. Paredes, who is black, and four other minority students were given the option to drop Graglia's Constitutional Law II class last semester - an option no one exercised. "I feel a certain level of frustration that there are so many that only get [to hear] the sound bites, yet want to silence [Graglia]," Paredes said.

Those who are confronted with objectionable words often want to silence the speaker. At UT, Graglia spoke his mind and the public response was predictable: There were demands that he be censured or fired for saying that minority students aren't capable of competing with whites and Asians in an academic environment.

Clearly, in the minds of most people, Graglia's comments were hurtful, insensitive, and basically outrageous. But in Graglia's mind, he's just saying aloud what others have been whispering for years - that many minorities grow up in environments where academic failure isn't condemned. Graglia, a 67-year-old son of Italian immigrants, maintains that minority students' grades and test scores give credence to his statement. While he says he is sorry he offended anyone, he stands by his remarks. "I didn't think I was dropping some kind of a bombshell," Graglia said in a recent interview. "I have been saying these things for years. They are merely statements of fact, that some cultures seem to place more emphasis on academic success than others."

Students, state lawmakers, and others have called for Graglia's ouster, but university officials counter that a tenured professor cannot be dismissed for expressing his opinions, and they will not sanction him for his comments.

In fact, efforts to punish Graglia pose a threat to academic freedom and free speech, said Jay Jacobson, executive director of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The purpose of a professor is to profess his or her beliefs, to open students' minds to a wide range of ideas and to challenge their own conclusions," Jacobson said. "Requiring teachers to put on a straightjacket of orthodoxy defeats the whole purpose of a liberal education."

UT law professor Sandy Levinson agrees, saying that while he joined 50 of his law school colleagues in a letter denouncing Graglia's statements, he would never call for Graglia's termination from the university. Graglia's comments - and the public's reaction to them - serve to highlight the difficulty of engaging in a serious public discussion about race, particularly as it pertains to affirmative action. The topic demands both sensitivity and honesty - a heady combination that can create quite a dilemma. If the only way to end racism is through intelligent dialogue and education, what do you do when such dialogue seems impossible?

Daniel Bonevac knows first-hand what it is like to talk openly about race at the University of Texas. The chairman of the UT philosophy department found himself unexpectedly on the hot seat last semester when he participated in a panel discussion titled, "Is Lino Graglia Right?" While organizers of the panel discussion had noble intentions - to bring students and faculty together to discuss this divisive issue - the event quickly degenerated into a shouting match with a stunned Bonevac bearing the brunt of anger from students who objected to his comments about affirmative action. "There seemed to be more of a reaction to what I wasn't saying than to what I was saying," Bonevac said later.

What Bonevac did say was that he believes the Hopwood ruling will actually help some minority students. By accepting only students whose test scores and grades meet UT standards, Bonevac said, the school will actually see an increase in minority retention. "It's misleading to say every student in Texas can succeed at UT," Bonevac said during the discussion. "In some cases we are setting students up to fail. Minority students are often overmatched in intellectual terms, and it is often difficult for them to succeed." Bonevac went on to predict that, as Hopwood is enforced, minority students who aren't accepted at UT will go on to obtain degrees from less competitive colleges and universities - thus decreasing the drop-out rate of minorities from schools where they are "overmatched."

Of course, Bonevac's argument overlooks the fact that where one goes to school often plays an important role in one's future. But the fact that his analysis is problematic shouldn't preclude him from expressing his views. "Anyone who raises a question about these affirmative action programs is perceived as raising a question about these students' right to be [at UT]," said Bonevac. "I don't know how to avoid that, but that isn't what I was trying to say. I'm not talking about the resegregation of higher education."

But to many of the students and faculty listening, Bonevac's comments raised the red flag of segregation. Audience members raced to the microphones launching verbal assaults, most beginning their comments with, "How dare you...?" One student asked: "How dare you want to deny minority students the right to attend their school of choice." Another said: "How dare you question my abilities?" And,"How dare you make a mockery of the Civil Rights struggle?" asked Student Government President Marlen Whitley.

Bonevac, who is white, said he is troubled by how difficult it is to talk about race. "People tend to be intimidated because they are immediately dubbed a racist when they say they oppose [affirmative action] programs."

Several who attended the panel discussion where Bonevac spoke said they left discouraged by the inability of educated people to discuss an issue that is vital to the future of the university. "The purpose of the forum was to shed light on a difficult subject, not generate heat," said panel moderator Randy Cooke, who grew more and more exasperated each time he had to call for the crowd to settle down.

"It's a shame that we can't find a way to talk about this without everyone shouting," said UT student Stephen Roley, after the forum. "But it's also a shame that I feel I have to defend my right to be a student because of the color of my skin."

Some point to a racial harassment suit students have brought against Graglia and the campus newspaper, The Daily Texan, as another example of how difficult it is to debate the issue of race and affirmative action without fear of repercussions. Ken Emanuelson, a law student in Graglia's class, agrees that speaking one's mind can be costly. "Graglia said what he thinks. I think that is something that should be encouraged," said Emaneulson, who agrees with the Hopwood decision. "But the major fallout from Graglia is no one wants to say anything for fear of becoming the next target. There's a huge disincentive for me to say what I think. That's not a healthy climate for education."

But is the healthier climate for education one where professors make blanket statements about a portion of the student population without reaction? UT student Maribel Garcia said that she has a problem with the idea that Graglia's rights are being so vigorously defended, while the rights of minorities on campus are given little consideration.

UT law professor Jim Harrington, who also directs the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the school needs to do more than simply defend Graglia's First Amendment rights. Dialogue needs to be followed with actions - actions that show the school is serious about its commitment to diversity. "There's a lot of wringing of hands and talking about free speech, but that fails to recognize the damage that has been done by Graglia's comments," Harrington said. "A lot of faculty members get upset at the media because they are resentful of the way what is being said about Graglia reflects on the rest of the faculty. The reaction fails to recognize that there needs to be dynamic change here if we want to do something to attract and keep minority students."

Harrington said UT could learn a lot from the Ivy League schools, which he says aggressively pursue minority students and then work hard to keep them. And, he adds, the minority drop-out rates at those schools are much lower because the Ivy Leaguers follow through on their commitment to the students throughout their academic careers. While this may be more challenging in a public institution, it is not impossible, he said. "Academia doesn't generally believe it needs to be part of the community," said Harrington. "There is a real lack of leadership and creativity when it comes to finding solutions."

Graglia freely admits that he isn't an expert on education, and is therefore not qualified to come up with solutions. But when pressed further, Graglia groused: "You can't make someone who is four feet tall, six feet tall."

Graglia pointed to minority test scores, drop-out rates and his years of teaching experience, as well as research by Laurence Steinberg, who penned the 1996 book Beyond the Classroom, as basis for his statements. Steinberg tracked thousands of kids of varying ethnic and economic backgrounds enrolled in nine public schools from 1987 to 1990, in an effort to determine the cause for what the author calls "the dumbing of America." The blame is largely placed on "parents who have little interest in their children's education," and a "peer culture that demeans academic success and scorns students who try to do well in school." Steinberg also discusses the emphasis different cultures place on education as an explanation for why some ethnic groups generally perform better academically than others, and he calls upon four-year colleges to tighten their admissions standards so that students are forced to take school more seriously.

But minority drop-out rates, test scores, and other empirical data tell only part of the story. What the information doesn't show is the lack of support systems available to minority students, many of whom are products of economically disadvantaged school districts. To not recognize and address these facts, to lay the blame purely on a cultural phenomenon, is to deny many students the chance to achieve. Lino Graglia believes it's his job to point out the failings of minority students in the system, but not to consider ways the system can help the students succeed. But even if he has no responsibility for improving student success, the University of Texas does. Perhaps the real issue here is not whether Graglia should be muzzled, but how UT can get back to the business of salvaging the enrollment of minority students and redoubling efforts to ensure their academic success (see "Cream of the Crop" ).

Ultimately, law student Paredes thinks, the Graglia controversy has forced students and professors to engage in more open discussions about race and affirmative action. He adds that many students would rather listen to Graglia's views and make up their own minds rather than silence him altogether. "Sometimes I think - and I've told [Graglia] this - that he needs to couch what he says in more diplomatic terms," says Paredes. "But essentially, the campus is enriched by people with different views."

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