UCLA professor suspended, labeled a racist because he refused to grade black students more leniently

In the wake of the death of George Floyd last year, a student in professor Gordon Klein’s class on tax principles at the UCLA Anderson School of Management sent an email asking that Klein go easy on black students when grading the upcoming final. Klein notes that the student who wrote the email was not black.

“We are writing to express our tremendous concern about the impact that this final exam and project will have on the mental and physical health of our Black classmates,” the student wrote. (There was no project in this class, and it was unclear to me who the “we” in this case was. I suspected the student simply used a form letter he found online and neglected to change the subject.) “The unjust murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, the life-threatening actions of Amy Cooper and the violent conduct of the [University of California Police Department] have led to fear and anxiety which is further compounded by the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on the Black community. As we approach finals week, we recognize that these conditions place Black students at an unfair academic disadvantage due to traumatic circumstances out of their control.”

The student then requested that the final be a “no harm” exam — meaning it should be counted only if it boosted one’s grade. “This is not a joint effort to get finals canceled for non-Black students, but rather an ask that you exercise compassion and leniency with Black students in our major.”

It’s at this point that professor Klein made a mistake or, at the least, did something he now recognizes was naïve in the current environment. Instead of tap-dancing around the issue of giving in to the demand for unequal treatment based on race (as he was aware other professors were talking about doing), he wrote a response 20 minutes later which suggested the idea of treating students this way was at odds with MLK’s dream of a society where treatment of people was not based on race. It’s worth noting that the student who had sent the intial letter was one Klein knew from a previous class so they had something of a friendly relationship. Here’s the full text of Klein’s response:

Thanks for your suggestion in your email below that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota. Do you know the names of the classmates that are black? How can I identify them since we’ve been having online classes only? Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half? Also, do you have any idea if any students are from Minneapolis? I assume that they probably are especially devastated as well. I am thinking that a white student from there might be possibly even more devastated by this, especially because some might think that they’re racist even if they are not. My TA is from Minneapolis, so if you don’t know, I can probably ask her. Can you guide me on how you think I should achieve a “no-harm” outcome since our sole course grade is from a final exam only? One last thing strikes me: Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the “color of their skin.” Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition? Thanks, G. Klein

Not long after his response, the student who’d sent the first email apologized:

I apologize if any of this seemed offensive, but I was just trying to raise awareness about any institutional factors that may be affecting the people in our community. I meant this in no way shape or form as an email to discredit what you have done for your students and if it seemed like I was asking too much, I apologize. I appreciate what you have done for us in this class by posting videos online so that students can access them at any time, and testing this class only on the contents of the videos. They really do help us students during these trying times.

Again, I apologize if it seemed like I was asking you to give preferential treatment to people because they are Black, I just wanted to raise awareness for everyone right now because it is tough times, and is affecting everyone here in one way or another, we could choose to have this conversation or simply omit it.

I know times have been tough, and that the end of the quarter is always just as stressful or arguably more stressful than us students have it, and if I made you feel like you did not do enough, I truly do apologize.

Klein assumed that would be the end of it. Instead, part of the exchange wound up being posted online and screenshots were sent around including to Professor Brett Trueman, the head of the school’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Trueman called the letter “inexcusable.” By that evening students were calling Klein a racist and demanding his resignation.

Soon after, they circulated a petition demanding I be fired; within a day or two, nearly 20,000 had signed — without knowing anything about me or taking into account, as far as I could tell, the implications of non-color-blind grading. I was attacked for being a white man and “woefully racist.” On June 5, three days after I was first emailed, I was suspended amid a growing online campaign directed at me.

One day after the email asking for special treatment, the school’s official Twitter account tweeted this:

Over the next week, Klein received death threats on his voicemail and police officers were eventually stationed outside his house. The school’s dean responded to the situation not by defending Klein but by suspending him and banning him from campus.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the story. Some voices inside the school pushed back. The Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom condemned Klein’s suspension by pointing out that professors have the right to say no to requests about their grading. Their letter went on to say that placing Klein on administrative leave over a single statement would create “a chilling effect for other instructors, especially untenured ones.” The school’s Discrimination Prevention Office determined the email didn’t warrant an investigation.

And in response to the petition which was started demanding Klein’s firing (which got 21,000 signatures), another petition was started calling for Klein to immediately be reinstated because he had done nothing wrong (that one eventually got 76,000 signatures). The petition said the school shouldn’t allow “cancel culture” to demand the firing or suspension of a professor who was arguing that “he values equality for all, no matter their race, color, or origin.”

Three weeks after it started, Klein was reinstated. Unfortunately, that didn’t undo the damage the allegations and the suspension had done to his reputation. Cancel culture left a mark on his career even though it didn’t succeed in getting him fired.

You see, most of my income comes not from teaching at UCLA but from consulting to law firms and other corporations. Several of those firms dropped me after they got wind that I’d been suspended — the better to put distance between themselves and a “racist.” That cost me the lion’s share of my annual income. The students involved in this escapade may have moved on to other causes. I have not. I’m not sure I ever will.

Now Klein is suing the UC system for breach of contract, for violating his right to privacy, for placing him in a false light, for retaliation and for negligent interference with his consulting business. The complaint doesn’t list a specific amount sought for each of the causes of action but just says the amount will be proven at trial.

It’s obviously not positive that any of this has happened, not for Klein and not for UCLA, but maybe something positive can come from it. Perhaps a few high-profile lawsuits like this one will convince deans and college administrators to think twice when a cancel culture group on campus tells them to dump one of their own professors.