Prof says criticizing 'safe space' culture led to dismissal

A former adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University says he was barred from his classroom and “ a criminal” over a joke about a call center in Pakistan.

Dr. Trent Bertrand, who taught international economics at Johns Hopkins University for six years before being suspended on December 6, opened up about his experiences in an essay published Wednesday by the James G. Martin Center.

Bertrand says the trouble began after he told a joke during a class discussion about outsourcing, which begins with an American worker, who had just lost his job, calling a mental health hot-line run by a call center in Pakistan.

When the American tells the Pakistani employee that “I am really depressed and actually suicidal,” the call center employee replies, “Great. Can you drive a truck?”

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As a result, a complaint was filed against Bertrand with the school’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), prompting him to criticize the school in an email to his colleagues, in the hopes that they would support him.

“Johns Hopkins is dedicated to the world of ideas...[…unless of course those views diverge from the dominant groupthink protected under the banner of ‘political correctness’ or threaten the safe spaces and comfort of anyone else],” Bertrand wrote in that email, calling the OIE a tool for enforcing “Safe Space Culture” [emphasis in original].

Two weeks later, he reports that security guards met him at the door to his classroom and barred him from entering.

“The next day, I received a letter from my dean suspending me from my teaching duties—just three classes before the end of the semester,” Bertrand continues, noting that the school’s justification for suspending him was that three students (out of 68 in the class) had complained that the joke created a “hostile learning environment.”

At that point, however, Bertrand claims that “the investigation into those complaints by Johns Hopkins’ Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) had not even started, but still the administration somehow concluded that my teaching had to be terminated immediately.”

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While the formal cause of Bertrand’s suspension appears to stem from the complaint students made about the joke, he believes that the “real reason” for the suspension was because he criticized the school and the OIE for catering to “Political Correctness” and “Safe Spaces” culture.

In an interview with Campus Reform, Bertrand said he was under investigation until April following his suspension, during which time the OIE interviewed nine of his former students, two of his teaching assistants, and two faculty members, as well as Bertrand himself.

He learned he was cleared of all charges on July 14, long after the two-week turnaround time OIE had promised after completing its investigation in early April.

Campus Reform obtained the email from OIE exonerating Bertrand, which noted that “applying the preponderance of the evidence standard, OIE finds that...your conduct was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to rise to the level of harassment under the University’s Anti-Harassment Policy.”  

Bertrand no longer teaches at Johns Hopkins, as the school declined to renew his contract when it expired on June 30, citing a number of factors including the OIE investigation, according to an email obtained by Campus Reform.

While Bertrand said he can’t be certain of the exact reasons that the school declined to renew his contract, he told Campus Reform that he’s “certain the investigation played a role.”  

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Johns Hopkins provided Campus Reform with the following statement about Bertrand’s dismissal, confirming that Bertrand had been the subject of an OIE investigation, but asserting that his dismissal was “based upon a number of factors” independent of his political views.

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