When it comes to higher education, professors are often held in the highest regard. And rightfully so — they possess years of experience and expertise, so we must acknowledge and appreciate the wealth of knowledge that they supply to younger generations of scholars.
And while there is no doubt about the respect we must provide our professors, it is only fair to expect that students receive respect in return.
Many have seen the viral video of a Columbia Law professor flinging expletives at a student. Such behavior demonstrates the power trip that professors perpetually hold over students’ heads.
In the video, a student explains how it would be beneficial if the professor, Daniel Capra, spoke a bit slower, especially on behalf of the international students in the class. The professor denied her request and proceeded to curse her out with an audible “f**k you” that was caught on the lecture recording.
As a professor, Capra has every right to run his classroom the way he intends. He sets the pace and the syllabus, so the speed of his lecture is his prerogative. Yes, it is inconsiderate that he refused to accommodate this student as he certainly could have offered alternate solutions. But he is in charge, so his decision is justified. What’s not justified is the vulgar profanity that followed.
No student deserves to feel unsafe or targeted in a learning environment, especially since they pay — sometimes exorbitant amounts of money, like at Columbia — to be there. According to the Columbia Daily Spectator, Capra later released an apology and Dean Gillian Lester also condemned such behavior.
However, there have been other instances in higher education, particularly among the Ivy League, where accountability fails to materialize and unequal power dynamics continue to prevail.
For example, Harvard was recently placed under the microscope with another viral video that circulated the Internet. According to The Harvard Crimson, over 100 students staged a class walk-out last month, protesting Professor John Comaroff’s “continued presence on campus after he was placed on leave last year for violating the University’s sexual harassment and professional conduct policies.”
This relates to a 2022 lawsuit alleging that Harvard not only ignored years of sexual harassment accusations against Comaroff, but they were also aware of his misconduct prior to hiring him. Despite this, he returned to campus last fall.
Once again, this illustrates the need for action and accountability in regards to professor misdemeanors. The fact that Comaroff was cleared to teach despite such serious claims is appalling, and quite frankly, offensive. Not only is this severely agonizing for current students, it also completely invalidates the trauma of those who bravely spoke up about the assault they endured.
While this demonstrates the protection that tenured professors unfairly receive, it is also important to point out the unequal power dynamic that continues to plague the classroom. The Harvard Crimson reported that Comaroff allegedly “retaliated against students who warned of his misbehavior by threatening their careers.” Using fear and intimidation, Comaroff asserted his power and resources in an attempt to silence his vulnerable students.
Furthermore, Comaroff apparently “broke into a smile and nodded at the protestors” during the walk-out. Such mockery is blatantly disrespectful to the students who are attempting to voice their concerns, and this is a clear example of how one professor is more formidable than hundreds of students.
Here at Penn, professor misconduct is omnipresent when it comes to Amy Wax. By now, we are all aware of Wax’s “racist, xenophobic, and homophobic” commentary and her continued ability to teach at Penn. Her bigoted, prejudiced statements create hostility and hatred within the classroom. How can any student feel safe and respected when their professor is blatantly discriminating against them?
Capra, Comaroff, and Wax may be under scrutiny for different reasons, but these instances all demonstrate the power that professors have over students. Being a distinguished professor means you have expertise and authority, but that shouldn’t grant automatic immunity.
There is a difference between authority and power, and professors must realize that their position does not warrant the latter. It is not difficult for meaningful respect to occur on both ends of the student-professor relationship in order to facilitate a positive learning experience. Students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition in order to learn, not to get mistreated.
At the end of the day, status and prestige cannot excuse immoral and inappropriate behavior. Professors deserve respect, but students certainly do too.
EMILY CHANG is a College junior studying Communication and Law & Society from Holmdel, N.J. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.