Even in Higher Education, Kentucky’s Got an Image Problem

Prof. Popkin

Just when you thought the state of Kentucky’s overall image problem in the national media couldn’t get any worse (anybody watching “Wife Swap” tonight?), there’s this small, easily-missed item in the On Education column in Wednesday’s New York Times. It seems there’s been a rumor floating around the internets that the longtime History 323: The Holocaust class taught at the University of Kentucky by Professor Jeremy D. Popkin (above, from the NYT‘s web site) was canceled due to complaints by the University’s Muslim population, “which claims it never occurred.”

Over the past year, faculty members and administrators at the university’s main campus in Lexington have collectively received thousands of e-mail messages like this one, repeating the same baseless accusation — that pressure from Muslims had led the university to drop its Holocaust course. Like many who have sent these messages, the writer added her own preface to the one that appeared in Professor Popkin’s mailbox, writing in part: “I cannot see how you faculty can go to work each day and face a generation of young adults that will be lied to even more than my generation. What next? Are we going to rewrite the facts of 9/11 so that they fit the Middle Eastern beliefs? This is simply shameful, and I am disgusted by it.”

Any university trades on its reputation, and in recent years, Kentucky has been trying to improve its own. It has vigorously deepened its academic programs and added to its faculty, in hopes of raising its national standing and proving itself to be more than just a perennial basketball powerhouse. The last thing it needs, university officials say, is this smear on its good name.

“Initially, you get a couple of e-mails that on the face of it are ludicrous,” said Jay Blanton, executive director of public relations and marketing for the university. “We thought, surely people aren’t going to take this preposterous rumor seriously. And then you see it doesn’t die, it persists.”

The university’s president, Lee T. Todd Jr., expressed similar consternation.

“I understand quite well the power of the Internet,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “Information flows instantaneously without respect to somewhat arbitrary borders of geography or nation state. That’s a positive. In this instance, though, the University of Kentucky is experiencing the flip side of that power — the negative impact of an unfounded rumor that flows across a world seemingly without check. It’s disconcerting, although perhaps understandable in that context, that so many people would be the victim of a rumor so patently and obviously without merit.”

Back in November, the University denied the contents of the email through a press release, and even snopes.com regarded the email as a hoax, generated by some hick’s inability to understand that “uk” might not always refer to their favorite basketball team’s school. And though their reputation was besmirched, UK’s Muslim Student Association comes out looking good at the end of the Times piece:

Meanwhile, the e-mail messages put blame for something that never happened on people like Yahya Ahmed, a senior at Kentucky and president of the school’s chapter of the Muslim Student Association. “Something of this nature is not in our nature,” he said. “We’ve tried to promote unity on this campus, and this is detrimental.”

Mr. Ahmed has not taken Professor Popkin’s course. Then again, he has found other ways to educate himself. Last month, he went on a study trip to Israel. While in Jerusalem, he visited Yad Vashem, the memorial museum of the Holocaust.

Okay, so that’s fine: the University did what it could to quell the problem, the course is being offered this spring, and all’s right in the world, right? Well, not exactly. For starters, one has to wonder a bit why this is being reported on now, almost four months after UK disavowed the email. Sure, it’s relatively harmless, and everybody comes out smelling like roses except a few anonymous jerks on the internet (convenient, eh?).

But what about UK’s other chain-email problem? You know, the more recent one? Concerning the UK Student Government President Nick Phelps and that silly “Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim” email forward? That’s been a much bigger story elsewhere, and is newer, so why not report it? Granted, as a story it’s just as idiotic, but as long as a national news organization is going to bother smearing UK, might as well go with something recent. If not something recent, there’s still plenty of examples of our state’s blatant racism, even in higher education.

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