Is a UCLA Professor Racist For Refusing to Be Lenient With Give Black Students Following the Death of George Floyd?
What Are the Ethical Issues?
A University of California (UCLA) professor, Gordon Klein, who teaches financial analysis, law, and public policy at UCLA, filed a lawsuit on against the University on September 27. He claims UCLA was attempting to depict him as a racist in an attempt to improve the university's image. He characterized it as a publicity stunt.
In court documents, Klein alleged he "suffered severe emotional distress, trauma, and physical ailments for which he has been treated by his primary care physician, a gastrointestinal physician, and a psychiatrist." He also claimed that he suffered financially and emotionally because he was suspended and later reinstated for refusing to give Black students leniency on their final exams following the death of George Floyd.
The documents filed with a state court alleges he was suspended in June 2020 for three weeks after he refused to mark students' work based on the color of their skin. He is suing for unspecified damages 'not only to redress the wrongful conduct he has endured, but also to protect academic freedom.'
According to a variety of sources, Klein discussed his reasons for suing the school with a post on the website "Common Sense with Bari Weiss" and said he was seeking unspecified damages "not only to correct the tortures he had endured but also to protect academic freedom. "He's suing UCLA for breach of contract, violating his privacy and retaliatory discrimination.
I’m interested in Klein’s case for two reasons. First, he wrote a book, Ethics in Accounting, and, like me, he is one a few accounting professors who have published a book on such a topic. My book, discusses the issue of the “ethical slippery slope.” It holds that once a decision is made to give in to the pressure of others and compromise one’s values, that person begins the slide down the slippery slope and it’s difficult to reverse course and do what that person believes is the right thing to do. Klein avoided the slope by standing up for his values from the beginning.
The incident that spurred the lawsuit began on the morning of June 2, 2020, when Klein received an email from who he said was a non-Black student asking that Klein grade Black students with greater "leniency" in the wake of Floyd's death and the civil unrest that followed.
"We are writing to express our tremendous concern about the impact that this final exam and project will have on the mental and physical health of our Black classmates," the student wrote, according to Klein. The student, whose name was not released, then requested a "no harm" final exam, meaning that it would only count if it helped a student's grade.
Klein said that while he supports the university's "Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion" agenda that the student used to make his case, he felt that agenda violated the California Constitution's prohibition of "race-based preferences in public education."
The professor added that he was "shocked by the student's email" and felt it was "deeply patronizing and offensive to the same Black students he claimed to care so much about."
In response, Klein emailed the student, and asked: "Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black half-Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half? Also, do you have any idea if any students are from Minneapolis? I assume that they are probably especially devastated as well. I am thinking that a white student from there might possibly be even more devastated by this, especially because some might think that they're racist even if they are not."
Klein thought his response would end the matter, believing he had made a strong case for why he could not offer leniency to Black students. But that did not happen. Instead, he said that by the evening, students were calling for him to be removed from UCLA and a petition with 20,000 signatures circulated demanding that he be fired. Three days after the first email, Klein was suspended by UCLA.
Klein alleged that the school was "rattled" not by the harassment targeted at him but because school administrators were worried about its reputation. He said he was left "confused and hurt" by their actions.
Ultimately the UCLA's Academic Senate's Committee on Academic Freedom ruled that the case did not warrant an investigation because instructors are entitled to say no to requests for changes in the grading structure, and Klein was reinstated less than 21 days later.The student's email was a template. Other faculty got an identical letter. Afrikan Student Union leader Cydni Willhite says it was Klein's tone that galled them."What kind of professional says that to a student? A simple 'no' would have sufficed and we would have went on our merry way," Willhite says. "A lot of other professors got the same exact email from students and said, 'no.' And guess what, the students sucked it up and took the final. That was it."
It all comes down to the tenor of Klein’s response to one student’s email suggesting Black students should be given leniency because of the trauma over the George Floyd matter. This implies that had Klein been more understanding about the email and its position, the students would have left him alone.
There is no way of knowing whether this would have been true. In a sense, Klein was simply a messenger sending a message that in general, and specifically in the Floyd situation, professors should not have to compromise their values to support students’ desires. From an ethical point of view, we could say that Klein was the messenger, and the message was no such compromises should be made because if they are, then the ethical slippery slope rears its ugly head.
I’m sensitive to the plight of Black students in this matter. Former police office Derek Chauvin was convicted in the death of George Floyd and that should have released the pressure-cooker environment we found ourselves in on May 25, 2020, when the incident first happened. The fact that Chauvin received a 22 ½ year sentence shows that the courts, and the country for that matter, supported the cause of George Floyd. Moreover, it may have been signal to police that enough is enough because, after all, this wasn’t the first incident of police overreaction to an incident with a Black American. However, feelings run much deeper because of repetitive incident with Black Americans that had been occurring throughout the country.
I’ve been a professor for almost 40 years and would have handled the matter differently. I would have offered Black students in my class the opportunity to take an Incomplete in my course and have them make up the final during a specified period of time (i.e., one year) after which the students would be graded on their exams and their grades recorded.
Playing devil’s advocate, critics of my position could argue that I would have been invoking the ethical slippery slope concept because what would happen if, in a similar incident, a student of a different ethnicity was involved.
Ethical issues are often obscure because of the emotions of a situation. The George Floyd situation and reaction of Professor Klein is one such incident.
The bottom line is students should not dictate how professors should respond to difficult and traumatic experiences in students’ lives. It’s up to the professor to decide what to do. Perhaps the way UCLA ultimately handled the matter was the right approach. This incident should be a wakeup call those ethical issues are not easy to deal with and we should have some compassion for both sides of an issue.
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on October 7, 2021. Steve is the author of Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.