STEVENS POINT – Donna Kikkert said she didn’t think her poetry professor’s reading selection served her needs as a “mainstream” student.
Kikkert, 59, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, said she wanted to study the classics. When the professor of her Advanced Creative Writing Poetry course selected works other than those of Robert Frost, Edgar Allan Poe and others of interest to Kikkert, she said she asked faculty to reconsider the assignments to round out the studies.
The selected texts, Kikkert said in court records, focused on “lesbians, illicit sexual relationships, incest and frequent swearing.” She asserts her complaints resulted in her earning an F in the course. Unable to persuade the university to raise her mark, Kikkert took Professor Patricia Dyjak to court, asking a judge to order her to assign Kikkert an A for the class.
“She has swung the pendulum far to the side of LGBT students and, in doing so, has chosen to totally discount the importance and the validity of the mainstream student population,” Kikkert argued in her claim. She goes on to claim that her grade was “capricious retaliation” for raising concerns about the course content and about Dyjak’s behavior — including an allegation that the professor exposed her breasts while showing the class a back-shoulder tattoo.
In addition to an improved grade, Kikkert asked the court, at its discretion, to suspend Dyjak without pay for a year or fire her.
Dyjak declined to comment for this article through the state Attorney General’s office, which represented her in court because the university is a function of the state. Assistant Attorney General Katherine Spitz requested the case be dismissed on the grounds that Kikkert’s allegations don’t amount to any violation of law.
“Kikkert’s complaint fails because it does not provide any legal authority or other basis (and the defendant’s counsel is aware of none) upon which this court could require Dyjak to teach the work of certain poets in a college course … or to provide any particular student with the grade that student believes she deserves, rather than the one she earned,” Spitz wrote in court records.
A Portage County judge dismissed the case; Kikkert said she is mulling an appeal.
The case emerged at a time when free expression on college campuses has become a heated topic.
At the University of California-Berkeley, for example, protests turned violent earlier this year when conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulous was scheduled to speak at the campus. That speech was canceled. Conservative author Ann Coulter’s speech was canceled for fear of violence at the same university.
A Wisconsin Assembly committee recently approved a bill that could lead to students’ suspension or expulsion for interfering with others’ free expression.
Kikkert’s court case, which focuses on course content rather than campus activities, takes a different approach to expressing personal views in an academic setting. The case also shines a light on a university policy protecting academic freedom — that is, professors’ right to teach their subject matter as they see fit.
UWSP adopted its policy from the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges, which states “teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.”
The AAUP also issued a statement on students’ rights, arguing: “Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion, but they are responsible for learning the content of any course of study for which they are enrolled.”
Greg Summers, UWSP’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the university takes academic freedom seriously because it should be a place where people are free to have honest discussions without the threat of repercussions. He said he believes the university’s job is to teach people how to think, not what to think.
“We’re interested in teaching you the skills necessary to think and form your own judgments,” he said. “Part of that is encountering ideas that you may not be comfortable with and you may not agree with, and being able to encounter those ideas, empathize with them enough to take them seriously and then form your own judgment.”
The UW System Board of Regents voted in December 2015 to reaffirm an expectation that the system upholds the principles of academic freedom, stating “it is not the proper role of the university to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they, or others, find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
Kikkert said she believes a university should challenge students, but she also believes that a professor’s job is to improve a student’s welfare. Part of doing so, she said, is taking students seriously when they suggest a topic for study.
“I think professors need to incorporate having a sensitivity to what students would consider as wanting to learn,” she said.
Summers declined to comment on the court case but said he was familiar with the potential for student disagreement, having taught courses on controversial topics. When he taught the history of climate change, for example, Summers said he focused on the cultural phenomenon, the politics and the economics of the issue rather than trying to convince students of any viewpoint.
“I knew that people probably had different views about the current politics of it, but I always made sure to frame things so that there was a chance for everybody to engage that material from whatever view they had,” he said. “It didn’t make me change how I taught it, necessarily.”
Student protest to the material, he said, mostly came in the form of comments on his teaching evaluations. He said he encourages students to talk with their instructors and departments about concerns over class subject matter.