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TUSCON, Ariz. – An Arizona official who led the effort to suspend Mexican American studies from Tucson public schools is considering taking his fight to the state university system.
Arizona’s superintendent of schools, John Huppenthal, says Tucson’s suspended Mexican American studies curricula teaches students to resent Anglos, and that the university program that educated the public school teachers is to blame.
“I think that’s where this toxic thing starts from, the universities,” Arizona Superintendent of Schools John Huppenthal said in an interview with Fox News Latino.
“To me, the pervasive problem was the lack of balance going on in these classes," Huppenthal said.
Huppenthal's comments reflect an ongoing battle in Arizona over how public school teachers should present issues of ethnic conflict and discrimination in U.S. history and culture—a showdown that resulted in the suspension of Mexican American studies from Tucson Unified School District.
The possibility of government intrusion into what is taught in university classrooms, however, alarms educators and free speech advocates.
“It's an affront to freedom of speech,” Antonio Estrada, director of the Mexican American Studies program at the University of Arizona in Tucson, told Fox News Latino in an email. “We do not indoctrinate, we educate. Academic freedom will be lost if these programs are not sustained at the university level.”
Estrada said he has been worried that Huppenthal and other politicians hostile to Tucson’s public school Mexican American Studies Department will go after the university programs as well.
As a State Senator, Huppenthal helped pass Arizona’s HB 2281, which banned public school courses that advocate the overthrow of the United States, promote racial resentment, or treat students as members of an ethnic group rather than as individuals. The law targeted Tucson’s Mexican American studies program specifically.
After taking office as superintendent last year, Huppenthal determined that Tucson's Mexican American Studies program was out of compliance with HB 2281 and ordered the district to abandon the course of studies or lose 10 percent of its funding—about $14 million over the fiscal year. An administrative law judge upheld Huppenthal’s order in December and the school board voted four to one to shut the program down the next month.
The decision outraged a long list of Latino organizations and free speech advocates across the country, including the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the American Library Association, and prompted a caravan of “Librotraficantes”—“book smugglers”—to travel to Tucson to deliver restricted books and conduct literary workshops.
But Huppenthal is not satisfied with the suspension of the Tucson program. He views the University of Arizona as another source of what he believes are biased educators.
Huppenthal says he became concerned about the Mexican American studies programs at Arizona’s universities after a visit to an ethnic studies course in Tucson High School in 2010. (The encounter was filmed for the documentary “Precious Knowledge.”)
During the visit, Huppenthal says the former director of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies Department, Augustine Romero, characterized Benjamin Franklin as a racist. Huppenthal objected, pointing out Franklin’s role in the Abolitionist movement.
“He was taught in the university system, so that raised questions in my mind about what’s going on in the university too,” Huppenthal said of Romero. “It was obvious that these kinds of things were coming from somewhere.”
Romero disputed Huppenthal's recollection of the encounter.
“I didn’t say he was a racist,” Romero told Fox News Latino. “What I did say was that we need to recognize – beyond all the good things that Benjamin Franklin did – that he also warned the country of the tawning of America, which for all intents and purposes means the browning of America,” Romero said.
“There’s some validity to what Huppenthal was saying," Romero added, "but what we’re trying to do is expose children to a much broader perspective, so that we’re not indoctrinating.”
Romero’s view of Franklin did not alarm historian David Waldstreicher, author of “Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution.”
Though Franklin became affiliated with the Abolitionist movement, he also owned slaves and kept the Abolitionist movement at arm’s length until it became a powerful political ally, Waldstreicher said.
“There are historians who think that because Franklin opposed slavery at the end of his life and he was an Abolitionist, he should not be portrayed as a racist," Waldestreicher said. "I think that based on the few things that he wrote in his life, it is fair to say that he was a racist and that he was not anti-slavery most of the time.”
When asked if he had brought his objections up with university officials, Huppenthal said he had not, but that he may raise the issue in the future. “There’s only so many of these battles I care to take up at one time,” Huppenthal said.
Huppenthal isn’t the only one who views the University of Arizona’s Mexican American Studies program with suspicion.
Attorney General Tom Horne, who authored the 2010 law used to suspend Mexican American Studies from Tucson public schools when he was serving as state superintendent, said in a telephone interview he also had concerns.
The readings selected for the Tucson public school’s Mexican American Studies summer institutes, which were held at the University of Arizona, bothered Horne.
“I’ve seen troubling materials on the agenda of that conference,” Horne said.
He cited the example of a panel conducted by Tucson social studies teacher José González in the 2009 institute called “Teatro Mexicayotl: Planting The Seed of Xican@ Activism.”
“It is unethical and unprofessional for teachers to use their power over students to get the students to be activists in support of the teachers’ political causes,” Horne said. “Encouraging civil engagement is legitimate, but not solely in service of the cause of the teacher’s political ideology.”
Horne did not attend the summer institutes and neither Horne nor Huppenthal have a background in teaching. Horne is a lawyer by profession, while Huppenthal holds a degree in engineering and a master’s in business administration.
Advocates of Tucson’s Mexican American studies resent being portrayed as racists, saying their classes were culturally relevant and fostered critical thinking.
“It’s utterly ridiculous. His assumption – and it’s a false assumption – is that we’re politicizing students to act on our behalf,” González told Fox News Latino, when asked about the panel he presented.
“Part of the state standards is to teach civic engagement,” González continued. “They can form their own opinion. They don’t need adults to tell them what’s right and wrong. They can do that themselves. These students have minds of their own.”
David Hudson, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and a scholar at the First Amendment Center, agreed that government interference in university curricula would threaten academic freedom.
“It’s a dangerous precedent for a government to be dictating what a university can teach. That’s just troubling,” Hudson said in a telephone interview. “As a policy matter, you do want people to be presented with different sides and all that. But the whole concept of the first amendment is that the government shouldn’t weigh in and impose its own view.”
Horne said he did not plan on taking a leading role in scrutinizing Mexican American Studies in Arizona colleges, a job he said would fall to the Board of Regents, which sets policy for Arizona’s public universities.
The Board counts Huppenthal among its members. Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed HB 2281, also sits on the Board of Regents.
Brewer’s office did not return phone calls or email requests for comment.
The allegations against Mexican American studies programs say more about politics in Arizona than the state of the discipline, according to Devon Peña, the former director of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies.
“There’s people doing PhD’s in Chicano studies all over the planet. They wouldn’t be doing that if it weren’t a legitimate field of study,” Peña said.
Peña viewed the attacks as politically motivated. “There is a precedent, and it’s called McCarthyism,” Peña said. “It’s just a witch hunt of a different color. Now, instead of going after the reds, they’re going after the browns.”
Bias in the classroom has a way of sorting itself out, according to Peña, who noted that the material produced by scholars must go through peer review before publication – a standard to which public officials are not held.
“Politicians are never vetted,” Peña said. “They just go out and say stuff.”