The debate over Temple’s academic freedom is making its way from the Student Center to the courtroom.
Christian M. DeJohn, a graduate history student and a war veteran, is suing the university over claims that the approval of his graduate thesis was purposely delayed by professors who “conspired to deny him the same rights of other graduate students” due to his military background.
“This is at the core of Temple’s mission. This is the core of Temple’s identity,” said David French, the lawyer who is arguing DeJohn’s case through the religious legal network Alliance Defense Fund. “We believe, on the basis of evidence in Christian DeJohn’s case, that Temple abandoned its mission and engaged in a political vendetta.”
The lawsuit, filed Feb. 22 in U.S. District Court, names Temple University, President David Adamany, former history chair Richard Immerman and history professor Gregory Urwin as defendants. Urwin is the history department’s senior military historian and is an associate director of Temple’s Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy.
DeJohn’s complaint comes less than two months after he raised similar allegations during testimony to a state legislative committee investigating academic freedom. The committee, which held testimony on Main Campus during winter break, is visiting public and state-related universities to see if claims of biased teaching are cause for corrective legislation.
During the hearings, Adamany repeatedly defended the professionalism of the university’s professors while Urwin and history professor Jay Lockenour disputed DeJohn’s claims of discrimination.
“Do I discriminate against the military personnel and veterans in my charge? You bet I do,” Urwin said in a statement to the committee. “I make it clear to them that I will not approve their M.A. theses or their Ph.D. dissertations unless they meet the standard for excellence that is expected of products of a top graduate program. I subject my ‘civilian’ students to the same brand of discrimination. That is the standard that the people of this commonwealth pay me to uphold, and I take pride in doing it.”
According to the lawsuit, DeJohn entered the graduate program in January 2002 but was called for active duty after that year’s spring semester. While overseas, he received e-mails “full of anti-war messages” from the history department.
Once back in class, the suit says DeJohn heard Urwin’s “diatribes against the United States military in Iraq and the alleged failures of President Bush.”
“I am convinced that my difficulties in completing my M.A. program at Temple are a combination of both ignorance of their legal obligations – and the rights of deployed service members – on the part of Temple University professors and administrators, as well as a manifestation of Temple University professors’ widespread personal opposition to the ongoing war in Iraq, and to the men and women who are fighting it,” DeJohn wrote in an October 2005 letter to former College of Liberal Arts Dean Susan Herbst. The letter was also sent to local media.
DeJohn did not return a request to comment for this article.
DeJohn’s lawsuit also claims Urwin wrote notes on a draft of DeJohn’s thesis that said his “absurd” arguments read like a “hissy fit in print” and made DeJohn sound like a “crackpot.”
French, a longtime free speech advocate who has championed other First Amendment cases against Pennsylvania universities, said saved e-mails, letters and the copy of DeJohn’s thesis with Urwin’s notes will be critical to adding credibility to the complaint.
“There are quite a few documents that say what they say, and no amount of spin or argument otherwise can change their meaning and content,” French said.
Although Urwin said federal privacy laws restrict him from talking about a student’s academic performance, his statement to the state’s academic freedom committee said he currently oversees a number of doctoral students who are former members of the Army, Navy and Air Force.
“Our ‘military’ graduate students are an asset to our doctoral program,” Urwin wrote to the committee. “They are intelligent, highly motivated, poised and bring [to] their studies a cosmopolitan outlook bred by years of service both at home and abroad. Even the most left-leaning of my colleagues enjoy working with students of such caliber.”
Professor Immerman did not reply to a request for comment. Immerman has directed reporters’ requests to the university’s communications office, which released this statement about the case:
“Temple University is confident that the complaint brought by the Alliance Defense Fund will be shown to be without merit. The university will vigorously defend itself and our faculty, including professors Urwin and Immerman, in this frivolous and baseless action.”
French said the university’s position does not surprise him.
“Let’s be clear,” he said. “This lawsuit challenges the heart of the university’s academic integrity.”
On the same day DeJohn’s lawsuit was filed, French also submitted a case against Pennsylvania State University’s code on intolerance.
In the Penn State case, French is representing undergraduate student Alfred Joseph “A.J.” Fluehr.
French argues in both suits that each university violates the rights of students by using a speech code policy “that is vague, overbroad, and suppresses the discussion of controversial viewpoints.”
In DeJohn’s case, Temple’s codes in its Policies and Procedures Manual, Student Code of Conduct and Tuttleman Counseling Services Web page are specifically mentioned.
Brandon Lausch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.