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Syracuse U. Won’t Expel Graduate Student Over Facebook Posting

A Syracuse University graduate student who had been prohibited from student-teaching because of a Facebook posting will be allowed to finish his degree this spring, the university said on Wednesday. The decision came just a few hours after a free-speech group publicly denounced Syracuse’s handling of the matter.

Matthew S. Werenczak, a master’s student in social-studies education, made the comment on Facebook last July while he was a tutor at a local high school as part of a Syracuse class.

Mr. Werenczak said that during a field trip, he had heard a local NAACP representative say, “We need to start hiring our teachers from historically black colleges.” Since he and another tutor had just introduced themselves as Syracuse students, Mr. Werenczak said he found the remarks offensive.

On his personal Facebook page, he wrote that the comment was an example of “racism” and implied that his hard work tutoring at “the worst school in the city” was not being valued.

A few months later, after a fellow student brought the post to the attention of the School of Education, Mr. Werenczak’s adviser wrote him a letter saying he might be removed from the program because the Facebook post was “unprofessional, offensive, and insensitive.”

Mr. Werenczak said in an interview that he had been shocked at the school’s reaction, and he thinks his outspoken criticism of parts of the program’s curriculum and classes was a contributing factor.

“You don’t always have to agree with the material presented to you in a college class,” he said. “I had differing opinions. It’s disappointing that freedom of expression at Syracuse only extends to certain people, or it only goes so far.”

Mr. Werenczak also said he was frustrated by a lack of due process at the university, which did not formally charge him with any violation of its policies or code of conduct.

In the letter, the adviser, Jeffrey A. Mangram, wrote that Mr. Werenczak could either voluntarily withdraw from the school or meet a series of conditions. Those included undergoing anger-management counseling, completing a diversity course, and writing a reflective paper to be reviewed by a committee. He was also prohibited from completing his required student-teaching in the fall semester.

Mr. Werenczak said he reluctantly opted for the latter choice, completing all of the requirements by early December. He said it was unclear whether the school would readmit him into the program until he was notified late Wednesday afternoon by Mr. Mangram.

Earlier Wednesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued a press release decrying the situation as a violation of free-speech and due-process rights. The advocacy group had also sent a letter to Syracuse’s chancellor, Nancy E. Cantor, on January 10.

“It’s a pretty clear-cut case of someone being punished for their off-campus speech,” Robert L. Shibley, the group’s senior vice president said on Wednesday before the school reinstated Mr. Werenczak. “He was effectively suspended without any real due process. There was no disciplinary hearing.”

Kevin C. Quinn, Syracuse’s senior vice president for public affairs, dismissed any due-process concerns, saying in an e-mail that “the matter was handled in accordance with the school’s standard process.”

Mr. Quinn said that Mr. Werenczak “will be allowed to continue his student-teaching this semester on the same terms and conditions as all other students.”

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by west.m]

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