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Michael Gutsell Review Article

Michael Gutsell Review Article

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Published by: FIRE on Feb 09, 2010
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8BINGHAMTON REVIEW
JANUARY 2010
e Systematic Attack on Free Expression in BinghamtonUniversity’s Masters o Social Work Program
by Adam Shamah
FREE SPEECH
O
ne year ater graduate student Andre Massena’s ree-speechbattle with the University madenational headlines, the Masters o Social Work (MSW) department is again atthe center o a ree-speech controversy that orces us to reassess the University’scommitment to ree expression. At the end o the all semester, MSW student Michael Gutsell was expelledrom the Graduate School ater a series o incidents that Gutsell and the Foundationor Individual Rights in Education(FIRE) maintain are protected by theFirst Amendment o the United StatesConstitution.Two separate incidents were theocus o a December 4th meeting o thedepartment’s Advancement Committee, which addresses concerns related toMSW students’ academic or proessionalbehavior. e department's reaction toboth highlights its agrant disregard or itsstudents' rights.e rst occurred on October 27th,during a class with Proessor Kevin Murphy. According to statements by Gutsell,Proessor Murphy told the class that they  were to reach a unanimous decision as tothe content and ormat o their midtermexam. Once the class reached a consensus,they were inormed that the exerciseitsel was their exam. Having tricked hisstudents, Proessor Murphy joked aboutthem coming ater him ater class, to whichGutsell responded jokingly, “well just becareul when you start your car.”e second matter presented to the Advancement Committee was a story that Gutsell told during a November17th meeting o Murphy’s class. etopic being discussed was, according toGutsell, “the docking o employee pay or inraction.” Gutsell mentioned that inOntario, where he once worked, it is illegalto dock an employee’s pay unless thatemployee violated the law. He proceededto tell a related story about an incident
 
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that occurred years earlier. “I said that anemployer had tried to dock my pay ortaking a pick-axe to a chair. It was my pick-axe but they couldn’t prove it wasme so they were unable to dock my pay,”Gutsell wrote in a statement to the Ofceo Student Conduct (OSC).Gutsell’s statements to the OSC and Advancement Committee explain that thepick-axe was his, but that he was not theone who used it to destroy a chair; that wasdone by a ellow employee. But he admitsthat he may not have made that clear inclass, and explains that although he hadnoticed some negative reactions by hisclassmates, he did not clariy the ull story because he did not want to disrupt hisclassmates ater the discussion had movedon to other topics.Nonetheless, several studentsapproached Proessor Murphy ater classto articulate concerns over Gutsell’s story and to claim that his presence in classmade them uncomortable. “‘I he’s talkedabout destroying property, what suggestshe wouldn’t do that in this setting,’”summarizes their thoughts as relayed by Proessor Murphy during the Advancementmeeting.ese two incidents—whichaccording to FIRE represent “at worsta series o misunderstandings based onsubjective overreactions to innocent,relevant classroom speech”—were used by the Advancement Committee as the basisor Gutsell’s expulsion.On November 20th, Gutsell wascontacted by University Police to addressthe two incidents. It was then that he was inormed that the joke he made aterthe midterm assignment was now beingconsidered a “threat.” Ater an interview with Proessor Murphy—through whichUPD learned that the proessor did noteven remember the so called “threat” andthat the “pick-axe story” was relevantto class discussion—UPD concludedthat they had “no basis or criminalcharges” and dismissed the investigation. A similar investigation by the Ofce o Student Conduct was also dropped. Allthe same, Gutsell was dismissed rom thesocial work program on December 7th, when the department chair accepted therecommendation o the AdvancementCommittee. As should be obvious, “[n]one o theutterances [made by Gutsell] constitutes anoense worthy o expulsion or exclusionrom classes, none o them is even anoense,” according to FIRE in a letter toPresident DeFleur supporting Gutsell.en why did the department choose toexpel him? And why haven’t his rights beenprotected? According to the AdvancementCommittee’s ruling, the “signicantdiscrepancy…between the purportedintention o [Michael’s] verbal behavior andthe ways in which [his] communicationsare perceived by others…” is the reason thecommittee called or his expulsion. Duringthe advancement hearing, CassandraBransord told Gutsell that the matter hasto do with “what you say and the tone in which you say it.”ese unreasonably strict standardsseem to be regularly accepted as departmentpolicy. Earlier in the semester, Gutsell hadbeen orced to sign a contract, or “writtenplan,” as a condition or his advancementin the program. Among several academicand proessional requirements was oneprovision which required Gutsell to “buildand maintain rapport with peers [and]instructors…” FIRE explains that this “setan unacceptably high burden, as thoughsomehow all people in the departmentare supposed to get along all the time without misunderstandings or complaints. With regard to another provision o thecontract which stipulated “no reportsrom instructors or students that they areuncomortable with you” as a condition orGutsell’s advancement, FIRE points outthat “no exception was made or untrue,unsupported, or unreasonable reports.”Gutsell signed the contract inSeptember ater returning rom medicalleave last spring. Proessors’ concerns,including one subjective report about “rudecomments” Gutsell made in class, wereconsidered cause or the written plan anda subsequent “trial period” this all, during which Gutsell’s perormance would beevaluated by his proessors and departmentchair Laura Bronstein beore he wouldbe allowed to advance in the program.One particular incident, says Gutsell, inparticularly caused a peculiar overreactionby the department. Ater registeringor classes last Spring, he emailed thedepartment secretary thanking her or herhelp with the registration process: “is isexcellent. ank you again or all your hardon helping me with this. It is very muchappreciated.” e email was obviously missing the word “work” ater the word“hard,” but nonetheless caused considerableconcern amongst the department’s aculty.Gutsell’s trial period ended ateran October 27th meeting o the Advancement Committee, during whichthey recommended advancement, only toreverse course several weeks later with theexpulsion. As
Review 
readers may be aware, thisis not the rst time FIRE has intervenedon behal o a student whose rights were
“They don’t like a lot of disagreement. They don’t like diverse views [and are]very much about conformity.”
-Michael Gutsell on the MSW Department 

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