• July 26, 2014

Videos 'Ripped' From Online-Course Footage Bring Threats to Instructors

The University of Missouri system has been besieged with angry letters and phone calls, and top officials at its St. Louis campus have asked an adjunct faculty member to resign, as a result of the conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart's posting videos this week that appear to show two labor-studies instructors advocating union violence.

A contributor to Mr. Breitbart's Web site produced the two videos, which run roughly seven minutes each, from about 30 hours of lecture footage taped as part of a distance-education course and uploaded onto the university's Blackboard course-management system.

Because the footage includes depictions of students in the classroom and was supposed to be accessible only to faculty members, students enrolled in the course, and university technical-support personnel, its wide-scale online distribution has raised concerns about students' privacy rights and the unauthorized use of online course footage to put colleges' faculty members under political pressure.

Mr. Breitbart declined Thursday to comment or respond to allegations that the videos were selectively edited to look incriminating.

After Mr. Breitbart's Web site posted the videos on Monday, the university system initially responded with a statement distancing itself from the comments that the lecturers are depicted making. "Obviously, the comments on the video do not reflect the position of the University of Missouri," said the statement from Jennifer Hollingshead, a system spokeswoman. Officials at the St. Louis and Kansas City campuses, where the lectures were delivered, "are looking into the situation," her statement said.

On Thursday, however, Gail Hackett, provost of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, issued a statement denouncing how the videos are presented on Mr. Breitbart's Web site, based on the campus's continuing review of the raw classroom footage used to make them.

"From the review completed to date," her statement said, "it is clear that edited videos posted on the Internet depict statements from the instructors in an inaccurate and distorted manner by taking their statements out of context and reordering the sequence in which those statements were actually made so as to change their meaning. Such selective editing is disturbing, and the release of students' images without their permission is a violation of their privacy rights."

'A Hatchet Job'

The statement from Provost Hackett nonetheless said the St. Louis campus "has accepted the resignation of its lecturer."

But on Thursday, Don Giljum, the adjunct instructor at the St. Louis campus who is depicted in the videotapes, went from saying he planned to resign that day to saying he had not tendered his resignation and was reconsidering his decision to do so.

Mr. Giljum said he had been told by his immediate supervisor at the St. Louis campus, Deborah Baldini, associate dean for continuing education, that both the campus's chancellor and provost had called for him to resign, even though he had never been given a chance to discuss with them the allegations made in the video. Mr. Giljum said the only opportunity he has been given to defend himself was a brief conversation with Ms. Baldini in which, he said, he told her the statements he is shown making in the video "were taken totally out of context and completely edited. It is nothing but a hatchet job by this person who wants to destroy unions and destroy labor education."

The administrators' request for his resignation "is a huge mistake on their part," Mr. Giljum said, arguing that, based on the videos, "they are going to sacrifice academic freedom and the open and free-flowing exchange of thoughts and ideas between teachers and students."

Regardless of what happens at St. Louis, Mr. Giljum, who politically identifies himself as a communist, has already lost one source of income because of the controversy over the videotapes. The St. Louis-based Local 148 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, for which he had worked as business manager, demanded his resignation on Wednesday. Mr. Giljum said he is worried that Southwestern Illinois College, where he teaches a class on labor relations, will ask for his resignation as well.

The other instructor depicted in the videos is Judith Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. The footage used for the videos show her and Mr. Giljum team-teaching a course titled "Labor, Politics, and Society" through video conferencing. In a statement issued on Thursday, she said neither she nor Mr. Giljum ever advocated violence in their classroom lectures, but they felt compelled to discuss it given the violent history of the labor movement.

In the statement, Ms. Ancel said she is "outraged at Mr. Breitbart's invasion of our classroom and his attempts to intimidate us and my colleagues at the university." She called Mr. Breitbart "a master of taking quotes out of context, deletion of what doesn't serve his purpose, and remixing to achieve totally different meaning," and cited several points in the video where she believes statements by her and Mr. Giljum were taken out of context or otherwise distorted.

Plan to 'Go After' Educators

If Mr. Breitbart's Web site has broadcast a misleadingly edited video, it would hardly be the first time. The site is notorious for having put up the video that purported to show a Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, saying she had discriminated against a white farmer, when a review of her comments in context show that she said no such thing. (Ms. Sherrod, who was forced to resign after the video came out, has sued Mr. Breitbart.)

Mr. Breitbart's Web site also publicized the 2009 hidden-camera videos of employees of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn, which appear to show the employees advising a pimp and prostitute on how to deceive the IRS about their activities and income. Law-enforcement officials who investigated the allegations have said the videos were edited to make it look as if the employees were actively engaged in wrongdoing when, in fact, they were not.

Mr. Breitbart had indicated in an April 18 interview on Hannity, Sean Hannity's show on Fox News, that he planned to "go after" educators and their union organizers.

Mary Lou Hines Fritts, chief information officer for the Kansas City campus, said on Thursday that the classroom footage used in the videos on Mr. Breitbart's site technically could not have been downloaded, and the videos must have been made by capturing streaming video through a process commonly known as "ripping."

Wandra B. Green, a spokeswoman for the campus, said, "What we believe was that an individual who had valid access used a third-party tool to capture the video, and, after they did that, they modified it for their personal use, without authorization from UMKC."

Public reaction to the videos has been heated. Web sites associated with the Tea Party movement in Missouri have been urging activists to contact university and state officials and demand, among other things, that the faculty members involved in the course be fired and that the labor-studies program be suspended. Both Mr. Giljum and Ms. Ancel said they have been barraged with angry phone calls and letters, and Mr. Giljum said he has received explicit death threats over the phone.

The American Association of University Professors issued a statement on Thursday characterizing the videos on the Web site as an assault on "the academic freedom and employment security of the instructors," and "the privacy and safe classroom environment of the students, some of whom speak on the video clip."

"When students voice their views in class, they should not have to fear that their comments will be spread all over the Internet," the statement said. "When faculty members rightly explore difficult topics in class, they should not have to fear for their jobs or their lives."

The statement called on the two campuses and the university system "to speak out clearly and forcefully in defense of the rights of their professors and students."

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.