Professor who called students ‘disease vectors’ suspended

Michigan’s Ferris State University has suspended a professor for posting a provocative and often profane video to students ahead of the new semester.

Barry Mehler said in the video that he was afraid to teach in person during Covid-19 because he was 74 and would be retiring at the end of the semester. So while being placed on administrative leave may not be the worst outcome for him, Professor Mehler’s faculty union says the suspension is an attack on academic freedom in general.

“Let’s get back to the show,” Professor Mehler said in the Youtube video, in which he first appears wearing an astronaut-style helmet. “I want to introduce myself before I meet F to F, as they say these days, what everyone knows means to fuck to fuck – which really means we’re all screwed.”

Professor Mehler, a tenured historian of science and racism, told students that when they see him in person in class he will wear the $300 (£220) helmet because it has high-efficiency particulate filters to protect “me and you from this deadly virus that is circulating”.

Professor Mehler then delivered a profanity-laden soliloquy about how “no motherfucker from an administrator is going to tell me how to teach my classes because I’m a fuckin’ tenured professor. So if you wanna go complain to your Dean, fuck you. Go ahead. I’m retiring at the end of this year, and I don’t give a fuck anymore.

He added: “You are only vectors of diseases for me, and I don’t want to be near you. So keep your fucking distance. If you want to talk to me, come to my Zoom.

Professor Mehler later explained that his speech was inspired by an equally vulgar soliloquy from the HBO television show. dead wood, about life in a gold city, and that he took the opportunity to address the concept of plagiarism.

Things got stranger from here, with Professor Mehler citing Calvinism and predestination as reasons why he will assign students’ grades randomly, regardless of individual effort (he later said that students could get an A, but he doesn’t explicitly say he’s joking about chance). notes). He also said that if the students wanted to protect their grandparents from Covid-19, they should protect him as well, because he is old enough to be their grandfather.

“When I look at a classroom full of 50 students, I see 50 selfish kids who don’t care if grandpa lives or dies, and if you don’t expose your grandpa to possible Covid infection, then stay the course. fuck away from me. If you don’t care if Grandpa lives or dies, by all means come to class.

Professor Mehler continued: “Before any of you go complaining, and it happens every semester – ‘Dr Mehler said I shouldn’t come to class’ – let me clarify. my attendance policy. Professors, he said, “have complete discretion regarding attendance policy”, and “Everything you need to get an A is available to you on our [online] Canvas page.

There is “no benefit to coming to class”, Professor Mehler said. “I won’t answer questions in class, because I’m wearing this fucking helmet to stay alive. So please come. Enjoy the show. I will be there regularly, because I have no choice. You, on the other hand, have a choice. Thank you very much.”

Professor Mehler said the show was sponsored by Camel cigarettes, an example of “pure capitalism, turning death into profit”.

Professor Mehler did not respond to a request for comment. It’s unclear what his intentions were – or how he feels about being placed on administrative leave.

Charles Bacon, professor of physics and chemistry and president of the Ferris State faculty union, said the union views Professor Mehler’s suspension as an “attack on academic freedom and part of the ongoing nationwide attempt to impose uniformity on the faculty and to intimidate the higher education faculty by suppressing intellectual discourse”.

Asked about speculation about Professor Mehler’s well-being, Professor Bacon said: ‘I assure you Barry has not had depression. In fact, his style, which he has developed over the past decade, is to be controversial in order to challenge the mental models and biases inherent in students. It’s something we all strive to do. »

Professor Mehler’s courses tended to be “extremely popular”, Professor Bacon also said, “particularly because he challenges students’ assumptions and makes the course extremely interesting. In fact, we had administrators who visited his classroom and came away with statements like, “I wish I had a teacher like you when I was in college.”

Ferris State certainly did not praise Professor Mehler’s pedagogy in this instance, saying in a statement that it is “aware of a lecture video distributed to students in early January by a member of the body professor who would be Professor Barry Mehler. The faculty member has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.

Chairman David Eisler said in a separate statement: “I was shocked and appalled by this video. It is profane, offensive and disturbing and in no way reflects our university or its values.

Sometimes professors use stunts to grab students’ attention or subvert their assumptions about the world. Sometimes these stunts are crazy: A Columbia University physics professor stripped down to his underwear on stage and decapitated a teddy bear during the opening lecture of his course on frontiers science in 2013, for example. The professor in this case, Emlyn Hughes, said this at the time: “To learn quantum mechanics, you have to take your clothes off, clear all the junk out of your brain, and start over.”

Professor Mehler’s meaning was less clear. But it is clearly linked to ongoing fights between administrators and faculty members over mandatory face-to-face instruction during the spike in Covid-19 cases caused by the Omicron variant.

Professor Bacon, from the Ferris State teachers’ union, said: ‘We tried to get accommodations last semester for teachers, like Barry, who had legitimate concerns about coming back face-to-face. Even professors with immunocompromised systems have been denied the opportunity to convert online. This semester, he added, “is also mostly face-to-face, with no accommodations for professors, like Barry, who would like to do online.”

Ferris State has started this semester in person, as planned. A university spokesperson confirmed that no professors had been granted waivers to put designated face-to-face classes online. Students enrolled in face-to-face courses can, however, request remote accommodation.

The university encourages but does not require that students be vaccinated against Covid-19. Masks must be worn indoors.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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