Professor Steps Down

 Uncategorized
Sep 272004
 
Authors: Amy Resseguie

Steven Helmericks has trouble sleeping.

He has an unlisted telephone number and a gun to protect himself

and his wife.

The former part-time CSU sociology professor is no longer in the

classroom. He has been reassigned to a research position.

Three months after making a political remark in the classroom,

and one month after he said he and his wife began receiving

threats, Helmericks is speaking publicly for the first time about

what he calls a “benign” comment that was blown out of

proportion.

Conflict and Bias

On June 14, Helmericks began the first session of General

Sociology by introducing himself and the course. Helmericks said he

believed the war in Iraq was unjust and that American troops were

dying unnecessarily.

One student, Heather Schmidt, spoke up and said she did not

appreciate his views because her husband was fighting in Iraq.

Helmericks said he then told Schmidt that he appreciated her views

and that he did not mean to offend her or anyone else.

“He immediately apologized,” said Allison Evans, a junior

biological sciences and zoology major who was in the class. “The

rest of the term was fair. Helmericks was definitely opinionated,

but I didn’t want to let that get to me.”

Schmidt, who could not be reached for comment, was quoted in an

Aug. 13 Denver Post opinion column. According to her quotes in the

article, Helmericks said, “(Bush) is sending boys and girls out to

die for no goddamn reason.” Schmidt said Helmericks dismissed her

objections.

In the article, Schmidt also said that after class she

confronted Helmericks, and he told her to go to a different

class.

Helmericks remembers the second exchange differently.

“I told her, ‘If you are having trouble with what you’ve heard

in today’s lecture, I think you’re going to have trouble with lots

of things we’re going to talk about in this class, and there may be

other sociology classes that might better suit your needs,'”

Helmericks said.

Helmericks also said he was never asked to tell his side of the

story, either by the media or university officials, nor were any of

the other students in the class.

“Basically, nothing happened,” said Bruce Tracy, a junior

English major who was in Helmericks’ class. “To say there was

political bias in that class is a completely personal bias of the

situation. He did not at any time bully or slam down our throats a

political agenda.”

Schmidt never returned to Helmericks’ class, but she did voice

her concerns to Lou Swanson, chair of the sociology department.

“Steve (Helmericks) and I had a lengthy conversation about the

importance of a learning environment and it was a very constructive

conversation,” Swanson said.

The next day, Helmericks said he told his class he wanted open

discussion and that he valued differing opinions and ideas. Some

students disagreed.

Chelsea Skidmore, a senior French major, said the class was very

politically biased and that Helmericks did not handle the situation

with Schmidt appropriately.

“He apologized for his behavior in a manner that seemed as if he

was egging people on,” Skidmore said.

Helmericks wrote Schmidt a letter of regret, though he stressed

it was not an apology.

Both Helmericks and some students in the class said the class

was not the same after the incident.

“After that day, it was over,” Helmericks said.

Danielle Norman, a senior restaurant and resort management

major, also said the class atmosphere was different after that

day.

“He was very guarded in what he said, and I thought that took

away from his teaching,” she said.

“Totalitarian” Education

Later in the summer Helmericks received e-mails from Chuck

Fogland, president of the CSU College Republicans, condemning

Helmericks’ actions in class.

Fogland said he intervened on behalf of Schmidt and other

students who were being “harassed” by a “totalitarian”

professor.

“It is narrow-minded, abusive and unfair, and it is wrong,”

Fogland wrote to Helmericks soon after the incident. “In the

interest of all points of view, (CSU College Republicans) will not

tolerate stifling of debate.”

Helmericks said people are taking his comments out of context,

but Fogland said that is not possible.

“You can’t possibly say (Schmidt) took it out of context,”

Fogland said. “This was a genuine case of harassment and stepping

out of line.”

Some other students who were in the class agree.

“I have never in my life been so offended by a professor at CSU;

I literally dreaded going to class every day,” said Emily Mayfield,

a junior consumer and family studies major.

Helmericks said he is not upset with Schmidt at all.

“She was representing her feelings in her heart at the time, and

I truly believe that her position has been exploited by the

Republican Party to promote a political agenda,” he said.

Not all Republicans are pleased with the situation’s

outcome.

“I am a registered Republican and I am outraged at the way CSU

Republicans have taken this and run with it,” Tracy said.

Threatening Silence

Helmericks said the Aug. 13 Denver Post column sparked an

unending string of threats. Helmericks said people began sending

threatening e-mails and letters to his home, and he received

hang-up calls in the middle of the night.

After presenting the information to the CSU Police Department,

Helmericks met with Swanson and others in the College of Liberal

Arts and determined that it was not safe for him to continue

teaching.

“He wasn’t fired,” Swanson said.

Helmericks said some of the Liberal Arts faculty was so

concerned for his safety that they asked if he and his wife could

leave town for a while, which Helmericks said was not an

option.

“Some people think I was fired, some people have the impression

that I bailed on my classes,” Helmericks said. “The fact is the

university and I came to the consensual agreement that I was in

danger, as were other students and other professors.”

Kathie Helmericks said they received some sort of letter or call

nearly every day since Aug. 13.

“To be just living your life, and then all of a sudden this

happens, you can not imagine what it’s like,” she said.

Helmericks said he misses teaching.

“My voice is out of the classroom. Why? Because I feared for my

life,” he said. “I really miss teaching – that’s where my heart

is.”

Taylor McCue, a sophomore psychology major who was in

Helmericks’ class, said the incident was overblown.

‘This is not a political issue. This is not a students’ rights

issue. This is one student wanting revenge for a statement she blew

out of proportion,” McCue said.

Josh Legoza, a senior mechanical engineering major, agreed.

“(Helmericks) was always very respectful of everything myself or

anyone else in that class had to say,” he said.

Legislative Hearing

On Sept. 9, Schmidt joined students from the University of

Colorado-Boulder and Metro State University at a hearing before the

Colorado General Assembly regarding professors’ political biases in

the classroom.

While students were allowed to speak about the allegations, the

professors were not invited to participate.

“In my view, they were isolated issues,” said Sen. Ken Gordon, a

democrat. “The whole hearing was a witch hunt against more liberal

professors.”

Fogland said the hearing was simply an opportunity for the

students to tell their stories.

“The fact that it was one-sided is immaterial,” Fogland

said.

Jessica Baker, director of the Colorado Student Association,

likened the hearing to “political theater,” and said issues of bias

and disrespect in the classroom need to be handled at the

university level.

“They need to take care of teachers that are whacked, but they

usually do it quietly,” Baker said.

Fogland agreed, saying he wants to see free discussion about all

issues available in the classroom.

“I don’t want professors to feel like their jobs are in danger,

and I don’t want students to feel like if they’ve got a bone to

pick with their profs that they can just go to the dean and

suddenly there’s mega-pressure,” Fogland said. “But I do want

professors to understand that there is a line, and they should

maintain professionalism.”

Kathie Helmericks, however, said the exact opposite has happened

– her husband has been silenced, which could cause other professors

to censor themselves in class.

“If it can happen to Steve, it can happen to anyone, and it

will,” she said.

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