By Jake Altinger and Camille Liptak
News about DACA has turned some classrooms into rhetorical battlegrounds, and few of those battlegrounds have been more explosive than Professor Jeffrey Robinette’s Economics class. The professor’s politically-charged commentaries have offended some students, provoked curiosity in others and raised larger issues about the boundaries of academic freedom and classroom conduct at PPCC.
Hours after the media reported President Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), PPCC student Rufino Agustin asked Robinette his opinion about it.
“Show ’em the door,” Robinette said to the class. “They’re benefitting from their parents’ crime.”
Robinette went on to say he had no sympathy for the families that might be broken up by deportations, and compared DACA recipients to a bank robber’s wife who spends the cash her husband illegally acquired.
Agustin immigrated illegally to the U.S. from Mexico in 1989, and is now a U.S. citizen and a retired Army veteran.
“Was I offended?” he asked later. “No. I’m not one of those guys that every time somebody shouts, ‘Send ’em back home!’ or somebody talks about illegal immigration, gets all defensive.”
Not every student feels the same as Agustin.
Elizabeth Tabera, 33, is in the same class as Agustin. Tabera illegally immigrated to the U.S. in 2004 and is now a permanent legal resident.
“I know how it feels, not being legal here,” Tabera said. “You don’t feel safe even being in school when instructors are not being supportive or saying those comments.”
Economics student Kevin Kosewicz, a 31-year-old Marine Corps veteran, said Robinette should have been more respectful in expressing his opinion.
“That’s almost an abuse of authority – that you’re going to be so derogatory towards people,” Kosewicz said.
Robinette refused to comment on his conduct.
The incident raises important questions about the boundaries of professors’ academic freedom.
Consistent with the First Amendment to the Constitution, the principle of academic freedom protects professors’ rights to share controversial material or opinions in class. However, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act holds that educational institutions receiving federal funds have a duty to provide an educational environment free of discrimination on the grounds of race, color or national origin.
College president, Dr. Lance Bolton, said PPCC “expect[s] faculty, when holding class conversations about potentially controversial issues to do so in a way that respects the diversity of backgrounds, lifestyles, race, ethnicity, military experiences, social and economic statuses that our students bring to PPCC every day.”
Students who have taken Robinette’s course said he is very conservative and biased in his teaching.
“His bias kind of cuts off a big piece of knowledge,” Kosewicz said, specifically noting that Robinette denies the existence of climate change caused by human activity. “If you have such a negative opinion about those things, can you even present that information in a way that people can learn from?”
Tabera said she sometimes finds herself wondering in Robinette’s class, “Is this really the system? Is that how it is, just because that’s what he thinks?”
“He’s definitely blurring the line when it comes to his personal bias and what is the doctrine,” Kosewicz said.
Robinette’s bent does not have the same effect on every student, however.
“It doesn’t hinder my abilities to learn economics,” Agustin said. Rather, Agustin said Robinette’s bias leads him to learn more on his own. “Maybe his views are so strong – I don’t want to say clouded – but maybe his views are so strong that I need to read more to see exactly how it is.”
According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), professors have no obligation to be politically balanced or neutral in their teaching.
Yet, the association also says “the selection and interpretation of course material should be assessed solely on the basis on educationally appropriate criteria.”
Robinette often begins class by discussing articles in the news and their economic implications.
“He does give you different websites,” Kosewicz said. “But they’re all what you’d consider conservative sites.”
Among the sources Robinette has cited this semester are Breitbart, CNS News, Activist Post and Zero Hedge.
The independent fact-checking organization Media Bias/Fact Check categorizes Breitbart and CNS News as having an extreme “right bias” and rates their factual reporting as “mixed.” Media Bias/Fact Check categorizes Zero Hedge and Activist Post as “conspiracy/pseudoscience” sites and rates their factual reporting as “mixed” and “low,” respectively.
President Bolton said faculty may use material from a wide variety of sources “to illuminate the diversity of thought and encourage the critical thinking that may be encountered about any controversial issue,” but they should “focus first and foremost on accomplishing the learning objectives of the course.”
However, the issues with Robinette’s style of instruction go beyond his biased sources and opinions.
“I noticed a lot of people are intimidated by him,” Tabera said. “They don’t really want to have a conversation or talk about anything because they feel that he’s going to push you to the limit or something.”
Tabera describes Robinette as confrontational to students who disagree with him.
“He’ll make you feel uncomfortable to talk and say your opinion,” Tabera said. “Sometimes I’d rather not say anything. Just let him go because it’s going to come up to an argument.”
“I felt very threatened by him,” Rachel Jenkins, another student, said. Jenkins said she would be “put down automatically for having a different belief.”
Jenkins walked out of Robinette’s class on the first day. “I didn’t want to be in that learning environment, because I didn’t think it was a learning environment.”
This raises concerns regarding the line between education and indoctrination in the classroom. According to the AAUP, “whenever an instructor insists that students accept as truth propositions that are in fact professionally contestable . . . without allowing students to challenge their validity or advance alternative understandings, the instructor stands guilty of indoctrination.”
Not every student feels the same way about the atmosphere of Robinette’s class.
Kosewicz said few students regularly speak up, but Robinette had never struck down anyone who wanted to speak.
“Sometimes it feels like you’re underneath a very strong authority figure – a dictator – and then at other times the discussion’s more open,” Kosewicz said.
Agustin was less critical.
“When he presents his opinion, obviously, he’s very passionate about it,” Agustin said.
William Slaser, another student in the course, felt similarly.
“I can get it. The guy’s a big guy, and he’s boisterous. That probably comes from 20 years of military experience.” Slaser said.
Robinette is not the first professor at PPCC to be involved in a controversy concerning academic freedom since the 2016 presidential election.
Jared Benson is a professor of history who teaches at PPCC and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Benson was involved in a similar controversy concerning academic freedom last November when a recording of his course at UCCS, Resistance and Revolution, was published on The College Fix and Breitbart. The author of the Breitbart article accused Benson of “indoctrinating students with a heavy dose of Marxist revisionism.”
Benson uses a question-and-answer lecture format, but the recordings only revealed Benson’s responses. “We’re asking students for their interpretations,” Benson said. “If an educator, at any level, is not allowing the students to have their voice, that’s where we start crossing the line into indoctrination.”
Some students have been so offended by Benson’s rhetoric they have walked out of his classes. However, Benson disagreed with the suggestion that his rhetoric might create a hostile learning environment for conservative students, in the same way Robinette’s comments might create such an environment for DACA students and immigrants.
“Ideas are up for debate, but not the humans in the classroom,” Benson said. “I would never say to a student, ‘Get out.’ And that’s essentially what he was saying. I’ve never attempted to show students in my class the door. There is no comment that says, ‘Conservatives, get out,’ or ‘Liberals, get out.’”
PPCC Literature Chair, Janele Johnson, echoes Benson’s remarks. Johnson believes “long-term learning happens at the edge of discomfort,” and often urges her students to discuss controversial topics so they get used to conflict and do not avoid it entirely.
“We professors who do want to move our students into harder, more challenging discourses, can, and, I think, should intervene if people truly get out of line.” Johnson said. “There is indeed a difference between attacking or challenging a person and attacking or challenging an idea.”
Student ambassador to the Global Village Mandetebe Bitema asked that students affected by DACA not be offended by Robinette’s remarks, reminding them that “one voice does not count in thousands of other PPCC voices that are behind you.”
Immigration lawyers will answer questions about DACA 6-7 p.m. Sept. 22 in the Grove on the Centennial Campus.