The Bizarre Case of a CUNY Professor, His Science Syllabus and a Title IX Probe

By Jillian Kay Melchior | 1:53 pm, October 15, 2016

Science classes are surprisingly full of controversial topics. David Seidemann, a professor at Brooklyn College CUNY, says he recalls students nearly coming to blows while debating issues like climate change or creation versus evolution.

So this fall, he included a simple warning on his syllabus: “This classroom is an unsafe space for those uncomfortable with viewpoints with which they may disagree,” Seidemann wrote, adding two hazard road sign emojis for emphasis. “All constitutionally protected speech is welcome.”

That statement, as well as his grading stipulations, landed Seidemann in front of his department chair, who told him to immediately change his syllabus over concerns of potential Title IX violations, the professor says. Title IX is the federal law the forbids discrimination based on gender.

Seidemann says his problems began after a student anonymously complained about his syllabus, saying the triangular emojis could actually be interpreted as an attack on LGBT students because during World War II, Nazis forced gay men to wear triangles.

The triangular warning sign used on the syllabus.
The triangular warning sign Seidemann used.

On the syllabus, Seidemann also wrote that up to 10 percent of the student’s grade relied on “class deportment, effort, etc.,” a rubric that applied “only to select students when appropriate.” Seidemann says he’d used that phrasing to suggest that students who weren’t science whizzes but who put in extra effort could earn extra credit. But the student interpreted it as potentially discriminatory, an allegation Brooklyn College CUNY apparently took seriously.

Seidemann says his experience this semester shows how administrators can use Title IX to chill speech. “The Title IX police, the PC police, the thought police—if charges that are so irrational can go this far, how can anyone feel comfortable speaking freely?” he says. “This case is the canary in the coal mine, showing that Title IX is so broad that it can be used to sweep up instances that have no Title IX implications at all.”

Brooklyn College CUNY denies the professor’s account of the events, telling Heat Street in an emailed statement, “Seidemann was never investigated by the Title IX office and the syllabus didn’t violate Title IX.”

Likewise, in email correspondence provided by Seidemann to Heat Street, the Title IX officer initially wrote on Sept. 27, “There have been no charges filed against you nor has there been any ‘investigation’ into your syllabus conducted by this office.”

But in another email, dated Sept. 29, Seidemann’s department chair tells him that it was the college’s Title IX officer who contacted her about potential problems involving the syllabus.

Title IX officer, Patricio Jimenez, did not answer Heat Street’s queries, instead referring us to the college’s spokesman. But in a Sept. 30 email reviewed by Heat Street, Jimenez told Seidemann, “My office considers the matter to be closed,” raising questions about whether a Title IX investigation had, in fact, been open, despite what the professor was initially told.

Seidemann says he also learned his syllabus had been reviewed by the college’s lawyer, without his knowledge.

Seidemann says that he has tried to pin down exactly what happened, decrying “absolute stonewalling from the administration.”

In addition to the free speech implications, Seidemann says he’s also concerned about the lack of due process for professors accused of gender-related bias and discrimination under Title IX.

“This issue is so serious,” Seidemann says. “If Title IX is involved, as it was, that immediately brings up the issue of sexual harassment [or gender-based bias]. It becomes essential to give the accused due process while, of course, protecting the accuser. But in this particular case, there was zero due process.”

Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.