“It takes a special kind of student to thrive at Rochester,” read my acceptance letter. Thus, I expected a special kind of student body when I arrived here this August — one that included problem-solvers that excelled in an open curriculum, entrepreneurs who were made for the streets, free-thinkers making their own decisions. And for the large part, that’s what I saw. But a bit of scrutiny revealed that, at times, Rochester was subject to a type of myopia, one that’s ironically birthed by the gestative bubble of American higher education.
Upon my arrival, I emailed Ted Pawlicki to plan my computer science schedule. I got no response. Soon afterward, a fellow computer science student told me bluntly that Professor Pawlicki was slightly racist, and that I ought to be careful around him. And soon after that, two other students told me that he was a bigot, and that, naturally, I ought to be careful around him. When I asked why they thought so, they told me that he threatened to send students to Canada when Donald Trump was elected president. Now, this immediately struck me as an intended joke, but perhaps there was more to it. I asked, “What else?” And all I got were hand-wavy responses along the lines of, “Oh, you know, they say he treats minorities differently,” or, “You know, he’s a Trump supporter.” Ah yes, it’s the old, “He’s a Trump supporter so he must be racist.”
A quick Google search revealed the “Canada threat.” I was appalled. Not because of the “threat” — indeed, it could only be called a threat if you have very low standards for what a threat is — but by the immense backlash and media coverage it got, and most importantly, by the subsequent permanent branding of Ted Pawlicki as a bigot.
Whether you took Ted Pawlicki’s remark seriously or not comes down to two things — considering intent and considering context. And if we as a group don’t consider both these things, neither will the ensuing media coverage, resulting in ridiculous polarizing titles such as the Washington Post’s “A Professor Offered to Send Trump Protesters to Canada,” and the Daily Wire’s “University Program Director Forced to Resign for Pro-Trump Remark.” Funnily, the right-wing Daily Wire’s title was more accurate (although the Canada joke wasn’t explicitly pro-Trump, Pawlicki was, at the time, a Trump supporter). On the other hand, the Washington Post shamelessly rode the wave of student backlash and pretended, or convinced itself, that the remark was anything close to a serious offer.
I don’t deny that faculty members need to be sympathetic when choosing their words. Indeed, everyone should be sympathetic when choosing their words. It’s not an absurd “snowflake and safe space” demand, as the right would call it, but an expression of human compassion in a civilized society. However, when we don’t consider the speaker’s intent, we deny them the same sympathy that we accuse them of lacking. And if we don’t consider the context, we’re as “tone-deaf” as we accuse them of being.
This under-sensitivity to intent and over-sensitivity to words is one of the reasons you got Trump in the first place.
Further, even if we didn’t consider Pawlicki’s intent, his remark wasn’t a bias-related incident, as it was reported to be. If it was, tell me who it was biased against, and I’ll gladly admit that I’m wrong. Biased against anti-Trump protesters? That is, the majority of students on campus? John Stuart Mill would disagree, and so would I.
When protesting the establishment, you must not become the monsters you fight. It’s a classic “you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you” test. A test that the left has failed miserably. The Canada joke didn’t deserve a bias-related incident report, nor a “resignation” from directorship, and certainly not the disproportionate amount of media coverage it received.
According to the Daily Wire coverage, then-Vice President of the Student’s Association Lance Floto said, “Female students do not feel comfortable in [Pawlicki’s] class or visiting his office hours.” I assure you, many male students feel the same way. From my experience, he is a little brash, at times impatient, ambiguous in wording homework questions, not very helpful in clarifying said questions, and apparently he’s generally unresponsive to emails. But there is zero evidence to suggest that Ted Pawlicki is or has been bigoted or biased to any minority whatsoever. The fact is, this guy was wrongly and disproportionately targeted.
I hope that the distance of hindsight helps some of you see why the incident was badly handled. If it doesn’t, I’m sad to say that the Rochester student is probably not a “special kind of student.”