In today's Springfield News-Leader, Editorial Page Editor Tony Messenger offers the first real examination of Frank Kauffman, the Missouri State University professor who gave the assignment that was at the heart of former student Emily Brooker's lawsuit against the university.
In that lawsuit, which was first publicized in the Oct. 31, 2006, Turner Report, Miss Brooker, a Christian, claims Kauffman ordered her and her classmates to write letters to the state legislature advocating gay adoption.
One point stressed in Messenger's column is that the recent investigation of the school's social work program uncovered serious problems, but none of those involved Kauffman:
The media portrayal of the Brooker-Kauffman conflict is that the liberal associate professor tried to force the Christian student to sign a letter that violated her beliefs. Ever since the conservative Alliance Defense Fund filed the lawsuit on Brooker's behalf, it's how the story has been described in print and on air.
It's not true.
Kauffman notes that Miss Brooker was allowed to do an alternative to the assignment. But Kauffman and Miss Brooker agree that she was subjected to a star chamber interrogation by officials in the social work department:
It was another social work professor — not Kauffman — who suggested in an e-mail to other faculty that Brooker be subjected to the department's "Standards of Essential Functioning" process.
The meeting called wasn't because of Kauffman's class, but questions from more than one professor about Brooker's behavior.
From the day he was hired, Kauffman was no fan of the "SEF" document. It's a list of rules separate from other university academic procedures that lays out potential disciplinary action for students who don't get with the program. The rules have never been applied consistently, Kauffman argues. They shouldn't have been applied in this case.
But they were, and Kauffman — sheepishly, he says — participated. In the SEF hearing, Brooker was subjected to unrelenting questioning about her religious beliefs. She was threatened with not being able to graduate. She was intimidated and scared. It was a pitiful performance for higher education professionals.
It's one of the points upon which Brooker and Kauffman agree.
"That was far worse than what happened in the classroom," Brooker says.
The real problem wasn't Kauffman's liberalism or even his fumbling of some aspects of an assignment but the atmosphere at the social work program that outside observers would later, in a report, call "toxic."
"The toxicity created the environment that allowed the Alliance Defense Fund to take advantage of our lack of professionalism," Kauffman says.
Messenger offers a revealing portrait of Frank Kauffman and a much-needed counterbalance on this story, which started Missouri on the pathway to the recently-passed Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act.