Dr. Gil-White replies to the University of Pennsylvania's attempt to gut his course Psychology of Ethnicity


From: Francisco Gil-White, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania
To: Robert Rescorla, Professor of Psychology and Director of Undergraduate Studies, University of Pennsylvania
Re: Pending approval of my course “Psychology of Ethnicity”


Dear Dr. Robert Rescorla,

This is a reply to the notice I received from you concerning the approval of my course Psyc 472, entitled Psychology of Ethnicity, which is “still pending.” You have informed me that the university will not approve this course unless I address the evaluating committee’s concerns. The problem, however, is that addressing the committee’s stated concerns, as you have reported them to me, requires that I gut my course and turn it into something entirely different.

I will not beat around the bush: I do not believe the objections that have been raised by the committee with respect to my course are honest. Rather, I believe the university is trying to ban my course. To make my case, I shall begin by examining the university’s objections at face value, and I will demonstrate that they are groundless and, moreover, absurd. Then, I will proceed to examine the larger context in which my course is being objected to in order to uncover the real reasons behind the effort to ban my course.

A) Objections to the style of my course.

The style of my course is an issue that you consider “the most difficult of all to think about,” and it is on this that you spill the most ink. So let’s begin with this, because if this “most difficult” objection can be shown to be baseless my case is already made. You state:

“You have deliberately set the course as a kind of debate between you and the students. You properly note that such a format can be a highly valuable pedagogical tool. Moreover, you go out of your way to emphasize that you want the students to disagree with you. But the committee is concerned that the students who take this course may not be in a position to enter into such a debate in a way that makes the experience positive for them. There is, of course, an extreme asymmetry between your knowledge and that of the students on these topics. As a result, it is almost guaranteed that the positions you take and the arguments that you make will prevail. Under those circumstances there is the danger that students will feel coerced into accepting your position. I appreciate that this is far from your intent. But you must remember that the students in this course are undergraduates, many of whom have relatively little background in psychology and even less self-confidence in their knowledge. They are not graduate students or colleagues who can confidently adopt a position different from yours and defend it. The committee is concerned that some of the students may feel extremely uncomfortable and even bullied by the instructor. This is particularly a problem when the students know that the instructor will be issuing their grade. Whether instructors like it or not, students do not easily shake the belief that they get a poor grade if they challenge an instructor's beliefs. I know from talking with students about the last occasion which this course was given that this concern needs to be taken seriously. You should anticipate that although many students will thrive on this teaching style, a significant number will find it oppressive and bullying. It is not acceptable for even a few students to feel this way about courses we give in psychology.”

First I must correct you, because I do not invite my students to disagree with me. I do not set up the course as a debate between me and the students (as if this was an opposition) but rather I invite the students to participate with me in figuring out what is true, rather than taking a passive role that simply accepts everything I say. Why? Because I could be wrong, and want my students to be aware of that. So what I do is that I explain to my students that they are not required to agree with me, and that I enjoy being challenged whenever they don’t. I also explain that, in the final paper, students who defend a view contrary to my own automatically receive one point higher (i.e. if I think they deserve a B, then they get a B+) in order to correct for my own biases.

The concern, as you state it, is that my students will feel bullied by my teaching style, which invites debate. Of course, this is possible with any instructor, in any course, depending on how the instructor conducts him or herself. It is certainly not simply a function of whether the students are invited to join a debate, and my course would hardly be the first to so invite the students. Therefore, one cannot go from the fact that I have invited my students to debate to the conclusion that they will feel bullied, so reaching your conclusion, and making this objection, requires the added premises that 1) a college student is some kind of helpless child, and 2) the university’s job is to protect college students from any kind of mental discomfort.

That is absurd.

So what you need is independent evidence that my students in fact felt bullied, and this evidence should be strong enough to make the case that there is a real problem worthy of comment. You state that you have spoken to some of my students and they said they felt bullied. I have no way of verifying your claim. However, I do have the student evaluations, and you have this data as well, because you got the evaluations first (and in fact I got them from you).

First of all, let me remind you that the total evaluations we got are 32, from a class that had a little over 40 students, so this is a pretty good sample. Second, I remind you that the scale on which professors are evaluated goes from 0 to 4, with the following meanings: 0 = poor, 1 = fair, 2 = good, 3 = very good, 4 = excellent. As it turns out, there is no category of performance where my students, on average, did not grade me ‘good’ or better. But as you can see below, the overwhelming majority of my scores in fact hover right around ‘very good,’ that is to say, right around 3.

Overall quality of the instructor: 2.9

Overall quality of the course: 2.7

Instructor’s ability to communicate the subject matter: 3.1

Instructor’s ability to stimulate student interest: 3.2

Instructor’s accessibility and willingness to discuss course content and any problems: 3.5

Value of assigned readings: 2.3

Amount learned from this course in terms of knowledge, concepts, skills and thinking ability:  2.9

In almost every category of performance the average student considers me ‘very good.’ That’s the average student, because the modal student considers me ‘excellent’ (I concede that in two categories ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’ are tied in first place). So the students have spoken, and what they say is that they are satisfied customers. If the students are happy, since they pay the bills, who is the university to speak for them and disagree?

I must point out that these are the highest evaluations I have ever gotten, and yet this is also the strongest resistance I have ever gotten from the university to my teaching. Isn’t that absurd? It is. And therefore one begins to suspect a hidden motive, different from the one the university is explicitly defending.

But the absurdity is greater still. Notice that I got my highest grade in the category that evaluates my ‘accessibility’ = 3.5. Naturally, if the students had felt bullied by my teaching style this would not be my highest score. And mind you, to get a score as high as 3.5 what is necessary is near-unanimity at the higher end of the scale. In fact, only three students in the entire sample of 32 responses gave me a grade below 3 in this category, and of these only one was below 2.

A couple of students did write in the evaluations that they felt intimidated, and if you did speak to any students I would have to assume that it was these. However, it is perfectly clear from the above numbers that these students represent a vanishingly small minority. Moreover, this small minority reaction is diametrically contradicted by other explicit statements that students made in the evaluations, as follows:

1) “It was very interesting to have a professor that doesn’t require that you believe the lessons, and accepts criticism.”

2) “I found Francisco’s teaching style very exciting. I love how he encouraged us to question everything we read and everything he [himself] said.”

3) “Although Francisco may seem controversial, I feel that his teaching is something rarely found and much needed. He has taught this class to question ideas that have been taken for granted.”

4) “I think that Francisco is a great professor—he is not only an extremely articulate speaker but he also is always willing to hear an argument against his own. His honesty and the way that he pushes students to really think through their arguments instead of just congratulating students for saying anything at all in class is something I haven’t experienced with many professors. The class was really interesting and changed the way I think about a lot of things in the world.”

5) “I thought that Francisco’s ability to stimulate student interest and encourage student participation was excellent.”

6) “Very informative class about the evolution of race and ethnicity concepts, and the establishment of social/educational/political/economic forces that shape human decisions and [illegible].”

7) “I found the course stimulating and refreshing. Best course I’ve taken at Penn. Gil-White is definitely a top teacher and asset to Penn.”

8) “Most interesting class I’ve taken.”

9) “This is the best class I’ve taken at Penn.”

10) “Perhaps one of my most inspiring classes at Penn. Learned to think critically and not just accept information because it has been given to us. Very valuable.”

The number of comments above = 10, and they are not the totality of positive comments, merely the ones that referred to my teaching style or else declared my course to have been the best experience they had had at Penn. Of the 32 responses, the total number of students who bothered to write a comment is 19. So what we have is that a majority of those students who wrote comments praised my teaching style, or else simply declared the course the best they had taken.

This is, first of all, rather strong evidence that I am a good teacher, because this course was being taught for the first time, and I don’t suppose it is common for a new course to be judged the best that students ever took. It is also rather strong evidence against the claim that my students felt bullied by my teaching style.

But the evidence for the latter point is stronger still. Some of these students, as you can see above, went out of their way to say how great it was to have a professor who didn’t ram material down their throats and force them to agree (see responses 1, 2, 4, and perhaps 3). These students are saying that if anything characterizes my teaching style, it is the fact that I do not bully them. Penn students, it would appear, are not as fragile as you make them out to be; they heartily join the give-and-take of debate, and they emerge unscathed and even refreshed and empowered by the experience.

Against all the above one could point out that my teaching style did not receive unanimous praise. But that will be true for almost every professor, in every course. If the university requires that my students praise me unanimously, then I am being held to a different standard than other professors at this university. And that of course would be unfair.

B) The structure of the course.

About this you state the following:

“…the committee noted that while the readings for the early part of the course appear to contain balanced presentations from peer-reviewed journals, those of the last several topics are from sources that have not been vetted in the usual manner of the psychological literature. Since the course instructor is the author of some of those articles, the committee is concerned that the balance evident in earlier topics is absent for the last several topics.”

There is no requirement that everything professors present to their students be material that was already published in a peer-reviewed journal. In fact, professors often present material to their students that has not been published anywhere. If this were not the case, students would be deprived of being exposed to ongoing work that professors are engaged in and which is in fact the cutting edge of their research. This is why professors do this all the time and I am hardly the exception.

So the objection to this is absurd.

But the objection is doubly absurd in my case because I have been teaching for three years a course entitled Biocultural Psychology which employs as its main textbook a manuscript of mine that has not been published in any peer-reviewed journal and which, being a book, will not be published in a peer-reviewed journal anyway. In this course the objection has never been raised that students were being exposed to material that had not been peer-reviewed and, after I first taught it, it was approved without incident (in fact, practically without any requests for reform).

There is also an objection above that presenting, in the second half of the course, primarily material that I have myself authored somehow means that the course is not balanced. But this is false. As the syllabus makes quite clear, the first half of the course is devoted to a refutation of the approaches of others to ethnic prejudice and hatred that so far have led social psychologists and other social scientists exactly nowhere. When I am done with that, I present my students with what I believe is a viable alternative, which is the one I have been pursuing in my own work and about which I am the expert. So the course is not unbalanced in the least. My own approach to ethnic prejudice and ethnicity is offered once the prevailing views, to the best of my ability, have been shown to be useless. The discussion is therefore balanced, and because of its dialectical structure it is much more educational than a simple review of approaches, as my students themselves have attested above.

So far, not one reasonable criticism.

C) The content of the course

About this you state the following:

“The committee applauds your willingness to deal with the psychological issues that are involved in topics as controversial as those of the course. It can be especially valuable for students to see how scientific psychological methods and findings can be applied to topics about which they care deeply. But the committee expressed concern that your description of how you will approach the last several topics of the course seems to have little to do with the psychological issues involved and instead to hinge on political interpretation of historical facts. The committee feels that this focus may not be appropriate for a course in psychology.”

There are two objections above, though presented as one, so allow me first to separate them.

1)  The last several topics of the course have little to do with the psychological issues.

2)  The course contains a political interpretation of historical facts.

Let us make clear what is meant by the phrase “the last several topics of the course.” My course explores the question of why there is ethnic prejudice and hatred, and in the second half of the course I explore the questions of why black people and Jews have traditionally been the victims of so much of this in Western cultures. What I do in this part of the course is discuss at length the cultural context of anti-black racism, and then I do the same for antisemitism.

The first objection above says that these topics “have little to do with the psychological issues.” But since we now have an entire sub-discipline called ‘Cultural Psychology,’ the obvious is no longer being denied (or at least not by everybody): culture has an effect on the way people think—that is to say, on their ‘psychology.’ Naturally, political issues are included in ‘culture.’ Given that I was hired to teach cultural psychology in this department, isn’t it absurd that anybody should complain when I explain to my students the effect of culture on psychology?

When a contradiction rises to this level of perfect opposition to reason, and yet is produced by an intelligent person, one suspects a hidden motive. One might let that slide, but in the context of the absurdities that were examined earlier, above, that is difficult. And given that the second objection here turns out to be equally absurd, it is in fact impossible.

This second objection states that my course contains a “political interpretation of historical facts.” The suggestion is that historical facts perhaps should have interpretations but certainly not political ones, and for this premise I will need an explanation, because I cannot imagine what if anything could be wrong with a political interpretation of historical facts. Perhaps more to the point, however, I have never seen an interpretation of historical facts, by anybody, that was not at least implicitly political. So my last-ditch effort to make sense of this objection, then, would have to be that the problem is with having presented historical data. Period. But it is impossible to talk about culture without introducing historical data, and I was hired to teach cultural psychology.

So once again we have a contradiction so perfect that no matter how much we squeeze it nothing reasonable drips. Once again, one suspects a hidden motive.

Let me explain what I mean by “hidden motive.”

My students learn, first, how their own brains tend to think about race and ethnicity, because of how natural selection designed them, according to our best current theories. So they get the evolutionary psychology approach. Then they learn how propagandists can exploit the features of human cognitive design to make them believe certain things that contradict the facts, the better to turn them into racists. This is the cultural psychology approach which they also get.

One of my examples of the latter is poignant: I trace the history of the so-called ‘eugenics’ movement, which sought to disenfranchise, harass, and even exterminate various categories of people (in the US, through forced sterilization). The movement was pseudo-scientific, which means that, because outright bigotry was held in contempt by many, but science was held in high regard, its adherents pretended to be improving public policy with ‘science,’ while in fact they resolutely scorned science as they went about attacking certain hated minorities. What eugenicists needed was something that looked like a scientific test of ‘superiority’ and ‘inferiority’ so they could claim to have science on their side as they went about oppressing or erasing those whom they hated.

It was the ‘psychologists’ who would provide that.

Quite a few psychologists -- very prominent ones -- took Alfred Binet and Theophile Simon’s tests, which had been designed to measure ‘stuff learned,’ and they pretended instead that they were measuring an innate and general mental ability: so-called ‘intelligence.’ Why did they do this? Because Binet and Simon’s tests were designed to measure ‘stuff learned’ in a French school (the better to identify children who might benefit from alternative pedagogical approaches). Those in the US with an educational experience approximating that of the French state schools (which have always been very good), would be middle- and upper-class whites, so if American psychologists pretended that these were tests of ‘intelligence,’ black people would come out looking dumb, because, coming from a different cultural background, and suffering tremendous inequalities in their access to education (especially at the time), they would score relatively lower in tests designed around the culture of the French school. This was (is) scientific fraud. But there was also a moral fraud: the pretense that if someone should be found to be more or less intelligent this affects in any way their dignity.

Now, this is not a minor issue, because the eugenics movement that American psychologists helped launch with such great success went on to inspire the German Nazis, who designed more drastic forms of extermination against Jews, Russians, Serbs, Roma (Gypsies), and others. In addition, the eugenics propaganda of American psychologists resulted in the forced sterilization of thousands of innocent Americans, merely because aristocratic whites in the US had labeled them ‘Black,’ ‘Mexican,’ ‘Jewish,’ ‘white trash,’ or ‘feebleminded’ (many died in the operations). The same eugenics propaganda was used as a weapon against Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement.

So, to recapitulate, in the context of explaining why there is so much anti-black racism, my students get the evolutionary psychology approach, and the cultural psychology approach. The latter has a strong focus on how certain prominent psychologists went about inventing phony psychology and thus had a tremendous impact on American culture, which culture in turn affects the psychology of ordinary people living in the US today.

But the committee objects that this discussion has “little to do with the psychological issues”?

Well, no, that’s false. My discussion has everything to do with the psychological issues, and the committee knows this because my examination of current and past anti-black propaganda, and my refutation of so-called ‘intelligence-testing,’ was provided to the committee. Since this discussion cannot possibly be more drenched in psychological issues, the stated objection cannot be the real one. But I have a plausible alternative: The real problem with my course is that psychologists today are still committing scientific fraud to try and convince us that black people are less intelligent (‘intelligence testing’ is a growth industry), and therefore my course is quite embarrassing because, given that I am currently employed in a psychology department, it amounts to whistle-blowing.

How plausible is my alternative hypothesis? Well, when you place it in the context of how the university has been treating me for the past year, this hypothesis looks very good indeed.

Last semester, as you know, I publicly accused the university of violating my rights by having linked promotion in the psychology department to the expression of my political views. The issue was, first, that I had become a staunch and very public defender of the State of Israel against the PLO terrorists, and this was unacceptable to senior faculty member Paul Rozin, who, in his capacity as my official mentor, charged with seeing me through the reappointment process, sent me threats by email making it clear that I would lose my job if I did not change my tune on Israel. There was also a complaint that I was investigating US crimes of war in Yugoslavia and as a result had ended up with a pro-Serbian position, also very public. This, too, was unacceptable, and likewise earned me threatening emails from Rozin. Finally, I publicly slammed the University in the pages of the Daily Pennsylvanian for paying to bring Bill Baker -- an internationally well-known professional anti-black racist and antisemite -- to speak to Penn students. The university never replied to this, and it never apologized to the Penn community for what it had done.

Something else the university has not done is answer my charges.

I posted the threatening emails that I had received from Paul Rozin, and I posted also my demonstration that the complaints which the department had invented in order to deny my reappointment were unsupported by the facts -- candidly, they were absurd. I also posted the letter that I had sent to psychology chairman Robert DeRubeis during the reappointment process to make him aware of what was going on, after which he promised to make sure the process would be fair (it was not). In addition, I attacked the university as publicly as I could, by writing an editorial in the Daily Pennsylvanian explaining all this. Then the story was reported elsewhere in the United States and in Israel, and quite a few people sent angry emails and made angry phone calls to the dean’s office. The result is that the dean decided to extend my current contract by one year, the better to pretend that I am not being fired.

What an amazing situation we are in. I have accused the university of promoting anti-black racism, of promoting antisemitism, and of colluding with the effort to cover up US crimes of war in the former Yugoslavia. And I have accused the university of firing me precisely to achieve these goals, because, after all, I investigate US crimes of war in Yugoslavia, I am a public opponent of antisemitism, a public opponent of anti-black racism, and moreover I got threatening emails that explained to me I would lose my job if I didn’t change my political tune on these issues precisely. And to all of these accusations that I have made (and documented), which are quite extreme, the university has replied with…silence!

The university has not denied my charges, it has not tried to explain them away, and it has not apologized. It has done nothing. This betrays a guilty conscience, because the university also did not dare to fire me on schedule, as it clearly wished, but instead extended my current contract by one year. The university is clearly hoping that the problem will go away (it does spring eternal…).

And just the other day I also got a reminder from psychology chairman Robert DeRubeis, who tells me that the university wishes to consider me a second time for reappointment! As you well know, a copy of the internal documents that were used in the first reappointment process were delivered to me anonymously. These documents demonstrate that the charge I made against the university -- that there was an effort to fire me merely because I have certain political views and I express them in my capacity as a US citizen -- is just. Now, since the first reappointment process was a fraud, and since the university has neither recognized this nor apologized for it, wouldn’t it be absurd for me to expect that the second reappointment process will be fair?

But of course the university would love for me to participate, because it actually thinks it is going to wait this thing out. It is going to try and see if it can tiptoe itself off the stage without anybody noticing. But I intend to keep the spotlight on, and so I will not participate in this alleged second reappointment process. I hereby serve notice.

Neither will I cooperate with the attempt to gut my course and turn it into something else entirely. If the university wishes to ban my course, it will have to do so in the open.


Francisco Gil-White



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