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Letter to the Editor: Professor’s response to antisemitic allegations lacks decency

When I read The Sandspur last week, I was appalled. Dr. Stephen Day’s response to the article on Karen Gutensohn’s experiences in his class, and at Rollins in general, seemed wholly out of touch with the College’s ethos. 

The final line of the College mission statement reads, “We value excellence in teaching and rigorous, transformative education in a healthy, responsive, and inclusive environment.” I have never taken a class with Dr. Day, I am not a member of his department, I am not personally connected to Gutensohn, and I am not Jewish; however, his letter to the editor did not uphold “a healthy, responsive, and inclusive environment.”

In the original article, Dr. Day declined the interview with the reporter, Zoe Pearson (‘22). That in and of itself did not seem responsive. What is worse, however, is the tone and language of his letter. 

Dr. Day’s explanation of an incident over a decade ago reveals that this is not the first time he has faced the charge of antisemitism, and his sentence, “I objected to the intrusion and continued teaching as a matter of academic freedom,” indicates a lack of responsiveness. 

As the editor-in-chief of The Independent, I understand the importance of intellectual freedom. However, our publication depends on dignified, respectful conversation, not a refusal to engage. I expect the same in the College’s classroom settings. 

His discussion of Gutensohn’s experiences reads as openly hostile. Take, for example, “The irony of accusations against me is that uncritical supporters of Israel are the ones stoking xenophobia in America.” The link back to the accusations—from Gutensohn—and his suggestion that she was not appropriately critical of Israel in his class both suggest that he is leveling the charge of xenophobia at Gutensohn. This, in and of itself, is the kind of targeted behavior Gutensohn alleged in the original article. 

The claim that, “No one else in the course reported unfair treatment,” is both inaccurate and irrelevant. Dr. Day is correct that no one else felt personally mistreated, but as the original article states, two other students expressed the feeling that Gutensohn was experiencing unfair treatment. Regardless, a professor should always care about and respond to the discomfort of a student, whether it is one student or several. 

He continues: “But learning a subject like Palestinian refugees is not served by prioritizing ‘equitable’ experiences of students who obstinately reject basic truths.” How is implying that Gutensohn “obstinately reject[s] basic truths” healthy or inclusive? 

As a point of reference, I am an English major. My department does not shy away from difficult conversations. My peers and I have had conversations with professors about issues of representation in the media we consume. My professors have made conscious, active choices to change their syllabi so that course materials are more diverse. Our department holds listening sessions for students of color and LGBTQ+ students to express concerns about diversity and inclusion in the classroom. This is what it means to be “a healthy, responsive, and inclusive environment.”

I understand that Dr. Day felt attacked by the article mentioning him. But he declined to sit for an interview; instead of accepting the invitation to participate in the dialogue immediately, he chose to carefully craft a letter that actively dismissed Gutensohn’s claims. 

As a member of the campus community, I found this entire situation alarming. The Sandspur is not a forum for snide comments and hostility. That language has no place on our campus. 

The power dynamic between professor and student is already deeply imbalanced. In any engagement between someone with privilege and someone facing oppression, it is the responsibility of the privileged individual to recognize and set aside their power. It does not matter if Dr. Day was well-intentioned; what matters is the impact his words had on Gutensohn. This is what we as students are taught, and we expect professors to behave the same way. 

Here are the facts as The Sandspur’s readers can see them: Gutensohn experienced discomfort as a result of the way she, as a Jewish woman, was treated. Dr. Day insists he did nothing wrong and disregarded Gutensohn’s comments. Further, he chose to publicly criticize Gutensohn’s attempt to find a positive solution instead of—as a professor should—actively participating in that attempt.

If I were treated this way by a professor, I do not know how I would continue my course of study. Students are here to learn, and professors have a responsibility to facilitate that learning. To publicly lambast a student’s concerns instead of working to address them is outrageous and completely against the College’s mission statement. I cannot even imagine what Gutensohn is feeling because I have never had a professor react this way when I expressed discomfort about the treatment of part of my identity. 

I can only hope that going forward, the College’s faculty will choose to work with students instead of against them.

The opinions on this page do not necessarily reflect those of The Sandspur or Rollins College.

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