A Metropolitan State College of Denver history professor's credentials to teach a course in Native American history have been questioned after a student complained that he conducted the class in an "insensitive" and "racist" manner. Sophomore Lily Boyce identified herself in a written complaint to college officials as "an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Lakota Tribe" and argued that professor Thomas Altherr shouldn't be teaching the "American Indian in American History" class because he is white.
The episode has ignited a controversy over "political correctness" on the urban campus. The fuss spread to the school's newspaper, The Metropolitan, whose editor landed in hot water because of an allegedly insensitive caption on a photo of Boyce.
College administrators are now investigating Boyce's claims, which she says were laughed out of the classroom, and they're handling the case with kid gloves. An investigation was launched after Boyce submitted a detailed list of complaints about Altherr's conduct in classes earlier this semester. Altherr then submitted an equally detailed rebuttal. Their dispute includes varying interpretations of Altherr's use of material from the movies Dances With Wolves and Blackrobe.
History professor Jerry Ring, who was instructed to listen to a tape of Altherr's class during which Boyce had participated in a discussion, said in his March 15 report that "Professor Altherr conducted the class in a very professional and orderly manner." Ring concluded his report by saying, "I could not find a single instance in which Professor Altherr demonstrated any form of racism one way or another. He was invariably polite and extremely sensitive toward all of the students."
As late as this past Monday, various college deans were still huddling with Metro State president Sheila Kaplan and the college's attorney about the matter. There were hints that Altherr will be absolved.
"I don't think it's going to be said that he was out of line," says James Dixon, associate dean of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who is heading the investigation. "But I think there's this large cavity in which all of us can fall if we don't talk to each other and try to figure out what we're doing as we're chatting with each other or at each other. I'm personally trying to figure out...if there's some common ground."
There seems to be little common ground, however, between Boyce and Altherr, who has taught the class since 1979. What Boyce has said she needs "in order to consider this issue resolved" includes, among other things, a ban on Altherr teaching the class again, having only Native American instructors run the class, and the establishment of both a separate Indian Studies department and an American Indian Advisory Committee. She also has demanded a public apology from Altherr. He has strongly denied that he's racist and says he has nothing to apologize for.
Of Metro's 17,000 students, 21 percent are minorities, a 54 percent increase since 1988, according to the college. Administrators have touted the school's "diversity," but some students have complained about ugly incidents. School administrators have had to contend with anti-Semitic vandalism and a mysterious flier circulating on campus that crudely excoriated Mexican Americans.
A Hispanic freshman ended up leaving the college after someone scrawled "Go back to Mexico, Miss Spic" across her picture when she was profiled in the school newspaper. Other minority students, frustrated with racial incidents on the campus, have threatened to follow suit.
Worried administrators have tried to iron out the problems, but many students say "political correctness" is not the answer. Boyce's complaints about the class have stirred strong opinions at Auraria.
"I'm a First Amendment buff," says Megan Reyes, president of Metro State's student government, "and I think it's absolutely ridiculous to walk around on eggshells not knowing what to call some person. We're all curious about someone who is different. I think P.C. has interrupted that curiosity."
Reyes describes Boyce's demand for a separate department for Native Americans as "tokenism," saying, "It seems to me that putting them [other departments] aside is like saying `Okay, fine, here's your Chicano studies department. Now leave us alone and let us teach our white stuff.'
"I think it's a wise teacher that understands the limits for not having experiences in that culture that allows him or her to bring people in that are of that culture and to use resources from that culture, whether it's text, music or whatever. You don't have to be Native American to teach Native American history."
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Darren Gallant, a 26-year-old meteorology major, says that having only Native Americans teach a Native American class would be equivalent to "saying that only white people can teach a white-dominated subject like math. That's not America. That's not free speech."
Gallant, who is black, adds, "Political correctness doesn't serve me. It doesn't serve minorities at all. It serves those white liberals who want to `take care' of me. I don't want to be taken care of by them. They've fucked me up already.
"I don't want all these liberals making their minds up for me about political correctness. I would rather know someone has these racist opinions so I can avoid them. Racism, in this country, has been allowed to become very sneaky because of this political-correctness movement. I want these nuts to feel free to speak their crap so I know where they are so I can attack them with a logical argument. As long as we have political correctness, people will be afraid to speak their minds."
Altherr and Boyce, who both speak their minds, do happen to agree on one issue: how the campus newspaper handled a photo of Boyce that accompanied a story on their dispute. The caption under the photo was "Wounded Me," an allusion to the Wounded Knee massacre that provoked a storm of protest on the campus about the student paper's "insensitivity" to Native Americans. Both Altherr and Boyce objected strongly to the caption, and newspaper editor (and new Westword contributor) Jeff Stratton was reprimanded by school officials.