Baofu: Lecture misunderstood


Responding to allegations that he made racially biased statements, Professor Peter Baofu has… Responding to allegations that he made racially biased statements, Professor Peter Baofu has said that his comments were misinterpreted by a small group of students.

Baofu said his comments on race and gender were part of his method for open sparking debate, through which he incorporates discussions of culture, society, nature and the mind.

“My task, as a university professor, is not to advocate (be it for ideological glorification or condemnation) but to understand (be it for scientific explanation or prediction),” Baofu wrote in an e-mail to The Pitt News.

After Bafou’s statements during an open lecture were brought up again during one of his classes, a group of concerned black students met with Susan Hansen, academic dean of Semester At Sea, to express their concerns about the professor’s lecture and what they described as an uncomfortable atmosphere aboard the ship.

Baofu said his attempt to lead debate about society, culture and genetics is important in understanding “why women, on average, tend to be better in nursing than in physical combat, or why blacks, on average again, are more successful in sports than in mathematics.”

“This should not be taken as something good or bad, but solely as an open debate for understanding, since it can go either way (good or bad),” Baofu wrote.

An e-mail from some of the students aboard the ship to members of the Semester At Sea and Pitt communities also mentioned what the students described as a tense environment.

Jennifer Anukem, a member of Student Government Board, has said she will try to hold professors on Semester at Sea directly responsible, through Pitt, for what she sees as violations of the Academic Integrity Code.

Pitt’s Academic Integrity Code exists in part to guide “student-faculty interactions in the classroom and other academic contexts,” according to Pitt’s Web site.

Anukem said she does not believe Baofu’s remarks were meant to challenge his class.

“If this was to provoke intellectual conversation, and this was making some students uncomfortable, then he should have stopped,” Anukem said.

“He’s reverting to this as an explanation of his racist ideology,” Anukem added, explaining that she believes Bafou’s answer is “just his excuse for all the commotion and trouble he has caused.”

As Semester At Sea’s academic sponsor, Pitt is in charge of appointing a dean for the ship through an advisory committee made up of Pitt faculty members. The dean chooses a list of faculty members for the voyage, who are approved by the academic departments at Pitt.

The Institute for Shipboard Education makes the final decisions about faculty by hiring the professors. Pitt decides which courses will be taught on each voyage.

Robert Hill, Pitt’s vice chancellor for public affairs, said Pitt does not hire the professors on Semester at Sea, but that all professors follow certain guidelines when teaching.

“We do value the academic freedom of professors to deem what is appropriate for their class,” Hill said.

Margaret Esch, a student on Semester At Sea, wrote in an e-mail that she thinks a good debate in Bafou’s class became “quite heated, and blown a little out of proportion.”

Esch said said she was sorry Baofu came under fire for what she thought were “a few hurt feelings.”

“How do we expect to further our education and expand our minds if we are closed off to opposing ideas and opinions?” she asked.

Paul Watson, director of enrollment management for ISE, said the issue wasn’t generated only by what was said in the classroom, but also by the environment in which the comments took place.

“It wasn’t only what was said, but that the students were almost shouted down,” Watson said. “They didn’t feel like they were allowed to respond.”

Robert Ruck, a history professor at Pitt, spoke generally about academic freedom, though he said he knew nothing of the Semester At Sea incident and could not make specific comments.

“What a teacher says in class is sometimes misrepresented or misunderstood,” Ruck said. “That is not to say a teacher does not misuse the classroom.”

Ruck said teachers try to get their students’ attention and challenge their ways of thinking. His classes frequently involve racial issues, and Ruck said that “if you are too sensitive, you become overly cautious.”

“You will have some situations that are legitimate and some that are not,” Ruck said.