Thursday, January 5, 2012

And the Winner Is...

The votes are in, and we have a winner: the no-doubt proud recipient of the prestigious 2011 Curmie Award for Most Embarrassing the Profession of Education is…. (drumroll)… the unnamed teacher at Mercer County (KY) Intermediate School who decided that shoving a 9-year-old autistic boy into a bag intended to store gym balls was an appropriate punishment. Note: it now appears that it was the teacher’s aide, not the teacher per se who put young Chris Baker into the bag. Still, it’s difficult to exempt the teacher from equal if not greater culpability.

All told, some 32 votes were counted. Voters could choose as many candidates as they wanted. I sort of tracked the voting, so I know there was at least one ballot that included votes for six of the eight nominees, and there was at least one “bullet.” The eventual winner was included on exactly half the ballots; all eight nominees received at least two votes.

Thinking about the nominees after announcing them, I came to the realization that the eventual winner was sort of in a category of its own: the only nominee to be a teacher as opposed to some sort of administrator, the only one to deal with the potential for physical harm to a student, the only one in which the victim was a single child as opposed to a group, an adult or an adolescent. It was also the most recent case. One or more of these facts may have contributed to the margin of victory, even if no more than that. In any case, I appreciate and thank all those who voted. I thought this was kind of fun; I hope you enjoyed it, too.

Second-place finisher, and therefore de facto winner of the unofficial Curmie: Higher Education Division award, is David W. Rasmussen, the Dean of the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University, who tried to justify his decision to allow representatives of the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation to have veto power over faculty hires in exchange for a substantial grant. His argument that “it seems to me it would have been irresponsible not to do it” proves he is utterly devoid of the ethical sensibility we ought to require of our educational leaders in particular. Our readers agreed, and he attracted nine votes.

Tied for third, with seven votes apiece, were—to steal the phrase from our friends at Popehat—censorious asshats. More to the point, they’re just dumber than dirt: Thomas Fleming of Pennsylvania’s Richland School District decided to shut down a high school production of Kismet because the central characters are Muslims (yes, really).

Lisa Walter of the University of Wisconsin-Stout took down a transcendently innocuous poster of the TV series “Firefly” from a faculty member’s office door, then somehow managed to convince Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen to endorse her arrogant and stupid actions in the face of all reason.

Also in the “dumber than dirt” and “censorious asshat” categories was 6th-place finisher Dwight Probasco of Wasilla High School in Alaska, who refused to let his school’s choir sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” at graduation because it was written by a gay man.

In fifth and seventh places are administrators too biased, cowardly, lazy, or otherwise inept to stay out of the way of faculty who are just doing their jobs. The top brass at the University of Missouri hung two of their faculty out to dry after Andrew Breitbart, perhaps the single least credible person in the country, doctored and distributed a tape he shouldn’t have had access to in the first place.

And Dean Linda Ammons of Widener Law School went after the job of a veteran professor on the pretense that he had constructed a hypothetical scenario of killing his dean… and, because she’s black and female, that makes him racist and sexist, too. Well, she either has the mental capacity of a Cuisinart (without the functionality) or she has an agenda—political or personal. Note: while I continued to track this case, I didn’t write about it further after my initial piece. My blog piece drew some tentative conclusions: it turns out that I was right, but perhaps my reluctance to excoriate Ammons in February the way I would have later in the year accounts for a finish lower than I would have predicted.

Rounding out the group is Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a Trustee of New York University, who, along with his gutless and compliant fellows, initially withheld an honorary degree from Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, because he didn’t support Israel enough. The over-reach and the irrelevance of the rationale netted him a couple of votes, but he wasn’t going to do any real harm to a public figure of Kushner’s status; this may have influenced some readers to vote elsewhere.

So… back to our winner. I confess that this wouldn’t have been my choice for the Curmie, but I said I’d go along with what the readers decided, and I meant it. My initial reluctance was founded on two things: 1). the fact that the story was recent enough that there’s still a possibility of some revelation that would affect our understanding of the story, and 2). the seemingly unpremeditated nature of the act (indeed, it was only the fact that this had occurred before that made me nominate this teacher at all). To some extent, this fiasco could be the result of inadequate training, a spontaneous reaction.

Except… well, no, it couldn’t. It does not require special training to understand that thus confining a young boy—any small child, stricken with autism or not—in this manner is criminal at least in the ethical sense if not the legal one. As reader Kirsten wrote in a comment, “The other stories are appalling on an intellectual level. But the last one is just plain inhumane and could easily have caused physical & mental harm to a child who already has other issues to deal with.” Yes. What she said.

As we look ahead to the rest of 2012, I’m thinking of dividing the Curmie for this year into taxonomies: administrators and teachers in separate categories, universities and primary/secondary schools, likewise. Or not. We’ll see what the year brings. Maybe there won’t be any worthy candidates. Uh huh. That’s likely to happen. The name of the blog is “Sweetness and Light and Everything Right,” after all…

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