A part-time adjunct professor at DePaul University has been suspended over an argument he had last September with Muslim and Palestinian students concerning the Middle East situation and Israel’s role in it.
The case has raised troubling questions both on campus-where many students and professors were not aware of it until several months after the fact-and off.
Did 58-year-old Professor Thomas Klocek “verbally attack” the students for their “religious beliefs and ethnicity,” “demean their ideas,” “dishonor their perspective” and “press erroneous assertions,” as the school has charged? Or is it a case of “political correctness run amuck” at the nation’s largest Catholic university, as another professor calls it?
Those questions may eventually be answered in court. Klocek (pronounced Klo-check), who has taught at the Chicago university for 15 years, has retained a lawyer, who says he intends to file a lawsuit against the school.
Klocek himself has also gone public about the case: On March 1, he participated in a press conference in which he stood in front of the school’s Lincoln Park campus with his mouth taped shut and his arms and hands bound while his attorney read a list of demands.
As of now, he remains without a job and is in danger of losing his health insurance coverage as well.
At issue are events that took place during 15 to 20 minutes last Sept. 15, when Klocek attended a Student Activities Fair on DePaul’s Loop campus.
Klocek has taught for the last 15 years at DePaul’s School for New Learning, a special school for adult college students on the university’s downtown Chicago campus. His courses have ranged from Critical Thinking to College Writing to Languages and Cultures of the World. By all accounts, he was a popular teacher and his classes were always full.
A Roman Catholic, Klocek has a keen interest in Middle East politics and problems, primarily through contact he has had with Catholic and other Christian groups in the region. He told Chicago Jewish News during several phone conversations that he has been particularly concerned with the fact that some Christians feel they are being pushed out of lands they consider to be theirs because of the tension and fighting between Israelis and Palestinians. Christians from these groups have told him that “many of them simply can’t live with it, and a lot of them have left,” he said.
He is concerned, he said, that “by the year 2020 or so, there may be no effective Christian presence in the Middle East whatsoever.” He also believes that Christians “were in the Middle East eight centuries before” Muslims and that “they have the right to have some say, but often don’t.” Klocek also said he is sympathetic to Israel.
What happened, then, on the afternoon of Sept. 15 has been pieced together from accounts by Klocek, his attorney, John W. Mauck of the law firm Mauck & Baker, accounts from the school and from the DePaulia, the student newspaper, as well as from an e-mail account by Salma Nassar, president of the DePaul group Students for Justice in Palestine and one of the students who was involved in the incident. (Nassar did not respond to requests for an interview from Chicago Jewish News).
Here’s what all the parties agree on: The trouble began when Klocek stopped at a booth run by Students for Justice in Palestine and one next to it from UMMA (United Muslims Moving Ahead.) He picked up some literature from the SJP table and read a sheet depicting the death of Rachel Corrie, the American activist who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer when she tried to stop a house demolition in the West Bank town of Rafah.
The handout described Corrie as being “murdered by Israeli bulldozer” and went on to state that she “was deliberately ran (sic) over, twice, after a two-hour confrontation between the non-violent international activists and the Israeli armed forces.”
Klocek said he turned to the student staffing the SJP booth and said, “You know, there’s more than one perspective on the Middle East conflict. You’re only presenting one side here.”
Students at the booth “began to engage me in conversation,” he said. Klocek expressed his belief that “strictly speaking, right now there is no such place as Palestine on the map. The Palestinian people were simply Arabs who lived in the West Bank and Gaza.”
One of the women at the table told him that she was a Palestinian, then, according to Klocek, “she got up from the table and said, you know, the Palestinians are being treated by Israelis the same way Hitler treated the Jews.”
“I took umbrage,” Klocek said. “I told her that was an absolutely scurrilous statement, an absolute lie. I said that I believe the Israeli armed forces have exercised very careful restraint in their responses to what has been almost daily suicide bombings. There is a big difference between (Israelis) targeting a terrorist and someone strapped with bombs going in to a cafe or a seder and blowing up people.”
Then, Klocek said, “the UMMA people began to come over. It was eight against one. A very spirited conversation” ensued.
Klocek said that when he felt the discussion was generating more heat than light on both sides, he decided that neither side was going to convince the other and started to leave. When a student asked if he had any connection with the university, he told her who he was and what courses he taught.
As he walked away, Klocek said, “students began coming after me, and I thumbed my chin at them. It’s an Italian New Jersey expression meaning, ‘I’m finished,’ ‘I’m out of here.'”
Some of the students involved had a different interpretation of the encounter. (Apparently students from the two organizations were the only ones present, and the account of events that differ from Klocek’s account comes from them.)
Nassar, the SJP president, described the event in an Oct. 4 e-mail she sent to a number of campus organizations as “a racist encounter.” She wrote that when students “responded to (Klocek) in a polite and professional manner … he continued to make derogatory and racist comments,” including making comments about how all terror attacks have been committed by Muslims. (Klocek said that he was quoting Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, who in turn was quoting Abdel Rahman Al-Rashed, the manager of an Arab news channel, who stated that “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.”)
Nassar went on to state that “we tried engaging Professor Klocek in conversation but he kept interrupting us and did not allow us to answer any of his questions.” In addition, she wrote, “he continuously referred to Palestinians as ‘those people’ and went on to say that Palestinians ‘do not exist.'”
She wrote that when Klocek was leaving, he “made an obscene hand gesture (he flipped us off.)”
Nassar wrote that she and other students from SJP and UMMA immediately reported the incident to the dean of students and the dean of the School of New Learning, as well as to the advisors of their groups. “Professor Klocek disrespected the student/professor relationship,” she wrote. “It was completely inappropriate for him to approach students in an aggressive manner, his racist and ignorant comments about Muslims and Palestinians, and the profanity he used completely crossed the line.” (Klocek admits that he “raised his voice” but denies using profanity.)
In an interview she gave to the DePaulia, the student newspaper, Nassar added that Klocek “was very aggressive and angry and would go from one topic to another. Every time we tried to address a topic he’d get angry and switch.” She reiterated in the interview that his comments were “inappropriate and offensive.”
Nine days after the incident, Klocek was called to the office of Susanne Dumbleton, dean of the School for New Learning. Dumbleton told him that she had received two letters, one each from SJP and UMMA, and that “there were very serious charges against me from the students,” according to Klocek, who never saw the letters.
He said Dumbleton told him that she had met with the students and their faculty advisors from the two groups, and that they were “hurt and crushed” by Klocek’s remarks. “They said you used your title as a professor and your power over them to force them to accept your remarks as true. The dean said she agreed with them,” Klocek related. (Dumbleton did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with Chicago Jewish News.)
She then told Klocek he was suspended, with pay, for the remainder of the autumn quarter. She also advised him to stay off campus, which he did, and suggested that he not talk to the student newspaper, the DePaulia, Klocek said. (The school denies that the latter suggestion was ever made.)
Dumbleton did speak to the DePaulia about the encounter. In an Oct. 1 article headlined “Loop professor takes heat for conduct,” she described the incident and added that Klocek’s behavior was not typical, since he had had “an otherwise positive career of 15 years.”
The article stated that Dumbleton “emphasized the School of New Learning’s dedication to the core values of DePaul” and said she was “deeply saddened by the situation and the loss of intellectual empowerment the students suffered,” adding that the university had made the decision to suspend Klocek. The writer added that “Professor Klocek was contacted Thursday afternoon but failed to respond for comment” before the newspaper’s deadline.
Klocek said he was misquoted in the article as to his remarks to the Muslim students, noting that none of the students present had been taking notes, and added that there was no mention of the fact that Dumbleton had asked him not to speak to the DePaulia. (The editor and news editor of the DePaulia did not respond to a request for an interview from Chicago Jewish News.)
In the Oct. 8 issue of the DePaulia, Dumbleton wrote a letter thanking the newspaper for covering the incident involving Klocek, adding that during the incident, “the students’ perspective was dishonored and their freedom demeaned. Individuals were deeply insulted.” Klocek, she wrote, “is a part-time faculty member whom the university contracts for individual courses. He has no further responsibilities with the university at this time.”
She added that at a meeting with the affected students, “I apologized to them for the insult and disrespect they had endured … I sincerely regret the assault on their dignity, their beliefs, their individual selves … “
Eight weeks after the incident, Klocek said, Dumbleton informed him by letter that he was suspended without pay for the winter quarter but would be allowed to teach one course during the spring quarter providing he would allow “unscheduled classroom observations of your teaching … accompanied by follow-up meetings” with Dumbleton and other campus personnel.
Klocek said he could not agree to those terms. “To be supervised in the classroom is unheard of,” he said. “If my behavior is so controversial, she had 15 years of my teaching to challenge me in the classroom. No one has ever done it. I have very favorable assessments from my students and hundreds of (favorable) letters from students, and the dean admitted it,” he said. He added that many students called him at home asking when he would be teaching again.
Klocek and his attorney contend that his suspension was illegal since DePaul policy states that no faculty member can be fired or suspended without a hearing.
Denise Mattson, the university’s assistant vice president for public relations and spokesperson for university president Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, said that the fact that Klocek met with the dean and Loop undergraduate director several times constituted a hearing. “The dean considers that she and the program director met within a hearing,” she told Chicago Jewish News. “It’s not like with a judge and jury but it is a hearing.”
Klocek said that he has “decided not to quit, but to fight.” He said he believes the case has important implications not only for free speech and academic freedom but for the treatment of university professors throughout the country who do not have tenure, noting that at several universities, Holocaust deniers have been retained on the faculty because they have tenure.
Mauck, Klocek’s lawyer, said he will argue in a lawsuit that at DePaul, “if you say the wrong things, you’re suspended. If I’m a Jewish student or professor there or a Christian even wondering if I can defend Israel, I would be wondering, when am I going to get suspended?”
He said that Dumbleton’s letters and statements “talk about erroneous positions and the absoluteness of” Klocek’s opinions. “He was suspended for the content” of his speech, Mauck said. “People argue all the time on campus. He hasn’t got tenure and he’s an easy person to kick around when there is a powerful constituency. They are worried about not offending people because they want students,” he said.
Mauck said that he has asked for an apology from the school to Klocek and a full reinstatement to his former teaching position. Neither has been forthcoming. “As of now, there is going to be a lawsuit filed,” Mauck said this week.
In response to a letter from Mauck in which he sought an apology from the school to Klocek as well as financial compensation for Klocek’s lost wages, Shanon Shumpert, DePaul’s associate general counsel, wrote that Mauck’s letter gives an “inaccurate account “of the events. Shumpert added that the university stands by the actions that were taken, which, the letter states, were necessary “due to the inappropriate behavior, the disrespectful gesture, and the threatening attitude and conduct” Klocek exhibited.
“As much as you would like to make this a case of academic freedom, it is not. Klocek’s actions are not protected speech, and his speech does not excuse any of his improper actions,” the letter stated.
It added that Klocek may be able to return to the classroom if he provides the university with “some level of assurance that he acknowledges that the behavior and gestures were inappropriate.” He also must “meet with the students and listen respectfully to their concerns regarding his behavior” and must apologize for his behavior.
Klocek said that he might be willing to have his classes monitored, but that now, with the additional conditions placed on him, he “feels that DePaul has fired him by continuing to put such conditions on his teaching that they know will stifle academic freedom,” according to a communication from his lawyer sent this week. Klocek is preparing to file a grievance with the school’s Faculty Council.
As for Klocek’s health insurance (he has a kidney disease for which he must take medication), the school has offered to pay the employer portion of the premium under the COBRA plan until the end of June.
The university contends that Klocek’s case “is not a case of academic freedom but a situation of inappropriate behavior outside the classroom by a university employee,” according to Mattson, the university spokesperson, who reiterated in a conversation with Chicago Jewish News that “the university doesn’t think it’s about the content of the speech. It’s about the behavior.”
But the Jewish community, alerted to many instances of anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic speech and actions on college campuses throughout North America, may take a different view. (Klocek said he did not contact any Jewish organizations about the incident because he was not familiar with any.) He added that he “does not want to make this (a case of) Jews and Christians against Muslims.”
In Klocek’s case, although several Jewish professors have sided with him, the organized Jewish community on campus has been curiously silent, whether because the professor is not Jewish or because of an atmosphere of intimidation, or for some other reason, it is impossible to say.
Ammi Dorevitch, executive director of Hillels Around Chicago, a consortium of Hillels at smaller local schools, and director of the DePaul Hillel, said that the organization was aware of the Klocek affair but had no plans to become involved in it.
“I see it as an issue between the administration and a faculty member,” she said. “It’s an administrative issue, not something Hillel would get involved in.”
Rabbi Paul Saiger, director of Hillels of Illinois, agreed that “we decided to stay out of it. We don’t know (Klocek), we never had any contact with him, we weren’t present at the thing itself. He hasn’t come to the Jewish community asking for help.”
Rabbi Roy Furman, who teaches religious studies at DePaul, said he has not become involved in the situation because “I only know about it second or third hand, and my guess is that it is a contested situation; depending on which side you were on, you saw things differently.”
He said he doesn’t know if students feel free to take a pro-Israel position on the DePaul campus because “there are relatively few people who are in the moderate camp on either side. Those who are, get along with one another and those who aren’t, don’t. There are some students on campus who have families living on the West Bank, and they see and feel things from a different perspective. They may not be very appropriate in how they present things.”
Jonathan Cohen, a professor of mathematics at the university, takes a different view, seeing the incident as something that sounds like “political correctness run amuck.”
He said that when he read the article in the DePaulia about the incident, he contacted Klocek and spoke to him several times and also spoke to Dean Dumbleton. He said he first felt that “there were hints that she was not entirely happy” abut the situation nor “as much in tune with the students” as it later appeared. However, when he read her letter to the DePaulia, he felt she had hardened her position. “I’m thinking, oh my G-d, what does this have to do with the person I spoke to on the phone? This is slander,” he said.
Cohen, who said he comes from a strongly Zionistic family but is himself “not a particularly strong Zionist and not a particularly Jewish- identified person,” said that he believes students at DePaul “were buffaloed” over the incident. “There is a kind of aura of PC about the university,” he said. “Most people are embarrassed by it. It is creepy.”
In Klocek’s case, Cohen said, “if you read the article about what actually transpired, you get a sense that what the students objected to was what he said, not how he said it.” SJP and UMMA “overlap” on campus and “are producing documents all about Israel, hostile to Israel. There is no awareness of the fact that a lot of the suffering is being caused by the fact that (Palestinian terrorists) are blowing up pizza parlors. Otherwise there would be no checkpoints, none of this would have happened.”
He recalled that after Sept. 11, the DePaul administration warned the campus community that offensive speech, especially speech hostile to Muslims, would not be tolerated. At a meeting during this time, some Muslim students spoke up against Israel and American foreign policy. “I was thinking, this is insane,” Cohen said, adding that he was reminded of the incident when Klocek’s case surfaced.
“Maybe Tom (Klocek) was a little bit aggressive, but I don’t think these (students) were shrinking violets,” he said. “I feel the school was very wrong. It was a terrible overreaction. I think they’re giving the wrong message to the students.” Speakers representing SJP, he said, “are incredibly one-sided and nobody complains about their politics.” In addition, he said, speakers representing Islamic Jihad have lectured on campus and the film “Jenin, Jenin,” detailing a known fabrication about the so-called Jenin massacre of Palestinians by Israelis, was shown on campus, and “nobody says anything,” Cohen said.
“My perception is that at DePaul, people feel pressured to be anti- Israel,” he said. “There is a lot of political pressure.” He said that even the Jews in the campus community, including several deans and associate deans, “have to try to be progressive Jews, to support Peace Now and make a point of how much they hate (Israeli Prime Minister) Sharon.”
When an incident such as the Klocek case comes up, he said, “other people sort of distance themselves from it and the school doesn’t find constructive ways to deal with it.”
Another Jewish faculty member, Morry Fiddler, a professor at the School for New Learning, while noting that he could not comment on the incident since he wasn’t present, said that “my sense of the whole thing is there was a rush to judgment. The nature of the content is the kind of content that raises emotions.” He said he has known Klocek for as long as he has been at the university and he has always been in good standing with the school.
Fiddler said that since he works only with adult students he has not seen any anti-Semitism or overt anti-Israel sentiment on campus, but that since DePaul is a Catholic university, “there is a prevailing view of the world.” He noted that several years ago a student’s room was vandalized and a swastika drawn on his carpet. The administration decided to deal with the incident internally and to keep it out of the news. “Was it a judgment call or suppression? I’m not sure,” he said.
Rabbi Saiger, of the Hillels of Illinois, also said he could not speak to whether there was anti-Israel sentiment on campus. “On every campus things go up and down, back and forth, depending on which year, which semester it is,” he said. At DePaul, “there is an active Muslim and Arab student presence, and at times, when they do a program or have a speaker, students may feel uncomfortable.
“Students have not complained about feeling uncomfortable in the classroom,” he said. “I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen at DePaul, but we haven’t been approached with any instances of such occurrences.”
Dorevitch, the director of the DePaul Hillel, said that Hillel is “working on building a relationship with the administration where we can productively address these issues and help create a safe environment on campus, an environment where we can dialogue. We are working on giving students the tools they need to be able to advocate for Israel.”
Perhaps lending credence to the notion of an anti-Israel tone on campus is an art exhibit that opened recently at the library on the Lincoln Park campus. According to a negative article by a Jewish student associated with the campus Hillel in this week’s DePaulia, it includes a picture titled “Rabin Policy” that the student, Shalva Geffen, describes as “a representation of what seemed to be the past Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, attacking Palestinian people.” Geffen writes that the picture made Rabin, who, she notes, received the Nobel Peace prize, “appear brutish.” The exhibit “also undermines the recent progress made by Sharon and Abbas” and “shatters any notion of cooperation,” she writes.
She adds that she was shocked to note that many departments of the university were listed as sponsors of the exhibit.
Saiger described the exhibit as “rather anti-Israel and pro- Palestinian” and said it is “aggravating students. We’re dealing with it in terms of education,” he said. “We’ve been talking to students about it and talking about what kinds of (pro-Israel) programs we’re going to have in the future.”
In the same issue of the DePaulia is a story headlined “New major sheds light on Jewish faith.” DePaul, it notes, is launching a new Jewish studies concentration within the current religious studies curriculum. It will take its place alongside the currently existing Catholic Studies and Islamic World Studies majors.