Claremont McKenna Attempted to Punish a Professor for His Speech
Image via Heterodox Academy
Earlier this year, the Claremont McKenna Dean of the Faculty’s Office informed members of the government department that Chris Nadon, a tenured professor of government, needed to be removed from teaching a required introductory course as a result of student complaints about his speech, according to reports from within the department.
Some of Nadon’s students describe his teaching style as “Socratic,” meaning that he engages students in back-and-forth dialogues. Nadon is also known for his use of provocative and sometimes controversial examples. He often points out that “hot babes and hunky dudes” outsell lengthy philosophic texts. Earlier this year, he employed the example of teen girls cutting themselves when discussing akrasia, which is the state of mind in which one acts against their own interest.
Whenever Nadon teaches Introduction to Political Philosophy, he assigns Plato’s Republic. In one section of the Republic, Socrates argues that political society requires censorship. This year, a student commented that America does not have this type of censorship. In response, Nadon brought up the censorship of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s novel was banned from libraries and school reading lists and was even reprinted without the n-word.
Then, an international student interjected. The student, who asked to remain anonymous, had never read Huckleberry Finn and knew next to nothing about its content. The student asked why the book was controversial, and Nadon replied that it used the n-word, saying the racial slur aloud.
Another student in the class, who also asked to remain anonymous, recalled the moments that followed the incident: “There was an audible reaction by some people… I looked around, and I was like, ‘Did he really say that?’”
On October 14, 2021, the Associate Dean of Faculty, Ellen Rentz requested to meet with Professor Nadon regarding “serious concerns” that a student brought to the dean’s office.
“When you look in the Faculty [Handbook], serious concerns could raise to the level of firing. If I’m gonna have a meeting with an associate dean that might lead to my termination as a teacher, I would like to know what that meeting’s gonna be about before I go into it,” Nadon said.
Later that day, Nadon wrote back that he “would appreciate if any serious concerns be communicated to [him] in writing.”
That night, the associate dean responded, “I have communicated my concern in writing, and I have requested a conversation. Is this possible? Please let me know."
The associate dean insisted that they meet in person and Nadon continued to demand that the complaints be communicated before such a meeting. About ten days after the associate dean’s first communication, the Dean of Faculty, Heather Antecol wrote to Nadon requesting a meeting while claiming that he had previously been unwilling to meet. Nadon denied this claim, saying that he was willing to meet so long as he was informed of the contents of the complaint in writing. Nadon then told his students about his communication with the dean’s office regarding his teaching.
“I received an email from [Dean Antecol] telling me that my merely informing students that I was under investigation might now subject me to some form of [civil rights] investigation… because that would be understood as taking retaliation against the student,” Nadon said. At this point, Nadon had not been subjected to any sort of formal investigation.
Claremont McKenna’s Civil Rights Policy states, “It is a violation of College Policy to retaliate, intimidate, or seek retribution in any way against an individual because he or she raised allegations of discrimination, harassment, sexual misconduct, or other Prohibited Conduct…”
Nadon said that the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a free speech watchdog, called the dean’s warning “concerning” via email. Earlier that year, FIRE announced that Claremont McKenna was the No. 1 school in America for free speech.
More than a month after Nadon first asked for a detailed description of the complaints, Antecol sent him the student’s complaints regarding his teaching in writing. Nadon refused to share the specific complaints. “If you ask me, what are the specific complaints made by a student in my classroom, I'm not willing to discuss those because a classroom is not a public space,” he said.
Neither Dean Rentz nor Dean Antecol responded to requests for comment.
Nadon claims he heard “nothing about [his] teaching from the administration or anyone else” until the spring semester. This was a time of transition for the government department as Minxin Pei’s term as government department chair was coming to an end with Jon Shields slated to assume the position at the end of the semester.
At this time, Nadon claims that Pei and Shields requested to set up a meeting regarding Nadon’s course offerings for the next semester. “The department… had already arranged… who was going to teach what in the fall. The political philosophy group meets together, we discuss what we think needs to be taught and who is going to teach it and then we submit this… to the department,” Nadon said.
The political philosophy group within the government department originally planned on having Nadon teach two courses in the fall semester, Introduction to Political Philosophy and an upper-level political philosophy class. Nadon claims he met with Pei and Shields on February 23, and they insisted that he teach a second upper-level class instead of the introductory course due to a pressing need for more upper-division political philosophy classes.
Nadon agreed to teach the upper-division political philosophy class. Then, Nadon claims that Shields and Pei asked him to specify what class he would teach, but Nadon asked to discuss this with the other professors in the political philosophy group first.
Later that day Nadon reached out to James Nichols, a professor in the political philosophy group, about what course he should offer. “That's when [Nichols] told me that Pei had spoken to him the previous week and told him that… the Dean [of Faculty told Pei] that she had received new complaints about my teaching,” Nadon said. Nadon also claimed that Professor Nichols said that there was no need for an additional upper-level course and the dean asked that Nadon be removed from teaching required courses.
That evening, Nadon spoke with Mark Blitz, another professor of political philosophy. Blitz agreed no additional upper-level course was needed, according to Nadon.
“This was completely fabricated by Pei and Shields to try to get me out of teaching [Introduction to Political Philosophy]. Neither Pei nor Shields had consulted with anyone else… who teaches political philosophy about the pressing need for an upper-level course.” Nadon claims that the dean did not want him to teach the introductory course as a result of student complaints.
Introduction to Political Philosophy, the course Nadon was removed from, is a required course for Claremont McKenna government majors. Nadon claims that Mark Blitz said that “he wasn't surprised that the dean wanted him removed from [the course]."
During the initial meeting with Pei and Shields, Nadon was unaware of the dean’s demands. “No mention was made [at the meeting with Pei and Shields] whatsoever of… any commands or orders they’d been given by the Dean of the Faculty’s office… They had not been honest in telling me the reasons why they were asking me to give up the [philosophy] course,” Nadon said. He wrote to Pei and Shields asserting that he was “not willing to go along with this agreement that [they’ve] extorted… on the basis of deception and misrepresentation.”
Three weeks went by, Nadon said, then Pei wrote back and said that Nadon had to teach the upper-level course and that he was “breaking [his] word by not agreeing to teach it.” In the three weeks it took Pei to respond to Nadon’s email, it seems that Pei hired an adjunct professor to teach the section of Introduction to Philosophy that used to be Nadon’s.
“They use this three-week period to create sort of facts on the ground, ‘Well, we’ve already [found] someone to teach these classes; you have to stick with the agreement you gave us,’” Nadon said.
Pei did not respond to a request for comment.
Mark Blitz had a conversation with Jon Shields in which Nadon claims that Shields affirmed “that... the decision to take me out of teaching [the introductory course] came from the dean and that she would also prevent me from teaching [another required introductory course]... Shields stressed that the dean was adamant about this,” Nadon said.
Nadon said that he then met with Jon Shields in April. Nadon said that Shields “informed me, again, that the decision to [remove me from Introduction to Philosophy] had come from the dean’s office, [and] I was no longer to be allowed to teach [another introductory course]. He said he was surprised at how determined the dean was to keep me out of teaching [Introduction to Political Philosophy]. He also told me that he told the dean [that] she was making a mistake in following this policy,” Nadon said that Shields, “told me that everyone on campus knows about [this controversy], so when he was actually speaking to me in my office, he claims that he thought I knew why [he was] there… Nobody had mentioned anything about taking me out of [the class] at the behest of the dean's office. I have no idea how I would've possibly known that.”
Jon Shields is co-director of the Open Academy, Claremont McKenna’s free speech initiative, and a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance. Shields is also a member of the Heterodox Academy, the viewpoint diversity non-profit that awarded Claremont McKenna its Institutional Excellence Award in 2019 for promoting “open inquiry” among other values.
Removal from a required course is not a new type of punishment in academia. In 2019, a tenured law professor at the University of Pennsylvania made comments about black students that many called racist. The school’s administration responded by banning the professor from teaching courses within “the mandatory first-year curriculum.”
Nadon said that his ban at Claremont McKenna indicates that the administration “agree[s] with the view that somehow my teaching these classes constitutes some kind of harm to some students… It’s a stigma that’s put on me.”
Section 4 of the Faculty Handbook begins with a statement on academic freedom: “It is understood that academic freedom includes, but is not necessarily limited to, the rights to engage in free inquiry and exchange of ideas, to present controversial material relevant to a course of instruction…” This includes the freedom to quote offensive slurs.
Nadon recently filed a grievance against the Dean of the Faculty regarding her removal of Nadon from introductory classes, which Nadon believes is a violation of his academic freedom. The grievance process has not yet been resolved.
Last month, I arranged to interview Chris Nadon with a camera crew in his Claremont office. While we were setting up, Jon Shields walked by, looked into the room and saw Nadon talking to the press. Just over a week later, Nadon was allowed to teach Introduction to Political Philosophy again, ending a months-long ban.
Shields did not respond to a request for comment. Claremont McKenna’s Director of News and Media Relations, Gilien Silsby, stated, “The reports are inaccurate. We will provide no further comment.”
As of August 11, Claremont McKenna is still ranked first in FIRE's College Free Speech Rankings, but updated rankings are expected to come out next month.
Editor's Note: The Independent interviewed a number of professors in Claremont McKenna's government department and reviewed college records while investigating this story. Each of Nadon's allegations was confirmed by other professors' accounts and the records reviewed. The professors were not willing to be quoted in this article.