ver the past few weeks, Rollins College has been victimized by unfair reporting in certain sectors of the conservative media. We think the record needs to be set straight because we believe in Rollins and, more important, we cherish the values of fair and open discussion.
The problem with much of this unfair reporting is that it implies that a student can be suspended at Rollins for disagreeing with a professor over the interpretation of religious texts. But this is false.
As retired professors who have spent many hours in the classroom and in discussions with students and faculty colleagues at Rollins, we can affirm that academic disagreements are never grounds for the suspension of any student. Nor was the student in question, Marshall Polston, suspended for an academic or religious disagreement with his Middle Eastern humanities professor, Areej Zufari. As Rollins President Grant Cornwell emphasized, such a disagreement would "never ever ever" result in the suspension of a student.
For those who have not followed the drama, here are the facts:
- Polston and Zufari clashed in class.
- Polston received a failing grade on his first paper for Zufari. Another Rollins faculty member re-graded Polston's essay and found Zufari's grade of 52 percent to be appropriate.
- Polston claims his temporary suspension was due to conflicts with Zufari, but Cornwell has affirmed that it was due to "vulgar" and "mean-spirited" comments on a Facebook message to a female student.
Rollins administration's investigation revealed no wrongdoing on the part of Zufari.
What is little known by the public is that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits a school from revealing information about a student that is not already in the public record, even to defend itself against false claims. Some people may have mistaken Rollins' muted response to Polston's case as due to culpability rather than legal constraints.
In the meantime, as reported by the Orlando Sentinel, Cornwell and other Rollins officials had received 10,000 emails, many of which were filled with "hatred and violent imagery." This deluge of vitriol is due to the misleading reports that have spiraled into the blogosphere — reports that falsely claim that Polston was suspended for a religious disagreement.
Polston, in fact, had run into difficulties at his previous school, the University of Florida, where he was accused of stalking and entering another student's room against her wishes. The Alligator, the unofficial UF student newspaper, discussed this incident in the article "Suspended Rollins student was accused of stalking while at UF." The article noted that the female student had transferred from UF and was afraid to talk about the incident, her only comment being, "He's not the hero people want to think he is."
Polston is certainly capable of making some people uncomfortable. On March 9, he sent an email to Zufari upon learning about his low grade, and wrote, in part, "It's very clear you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. You may have a college degree but you belong in a reform school."
He concludes with this: "I hope we don't have to escalate this issue and you'll stop this crusade against me. I would really hate to get in contact with some national media personalities that I'm good friends with but I'm going to have to take it there or pursue legal options if you don't stop your harassment toward me."
It is apparently Polston's carrying through with this threat that led to the unfair reporting that has threatened the good name of Rollins College. Furthermore, the hostility that this falsely reported case has generated has also led Zufari to give up her teaching position at Rollins.
It is unfortunate that a good professor can be so intimidated and a fine college can have its name sullied simply by the propagation of fake news in service to a political agenda. The whole affair is chilling enough to remind us of darker days in American history.
Hoyt Edge is a professor emeritus of philosophy and former associate dean at Rollins College, and Robert L. Moore is a professor emeritus of anthropology.