This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting on this situation.
Ferris State University in Michigan has suspended a professor for a posting a provocative, often-profane video for students ahead of the new semester this week.
Barry Mehler says in the video that he’s fearful of teaching in person during COVID-19 because he’s already 74 years old, and that he’s retiring at the end of the semester. So while it’s possible that being put on administrative leave isn’t the worst of outcomes for him, Mehler’s faculty union says the suspension is an attack on academic freedom generally.
‘Back to the Show’
“Back to the show,” Mehler says in the YouTube video, in which he first appears wearing an astronaut-style helmet. “I want to introduce myself before we actually meet F to F, as we say these days, which everybody knows means fuck to fuck—which really means that we’re all fucked.”
Mehler, a tenured historian of science and racism, tells students that when they see him in person in class, he’ll be wearing the $300 helmet because it has high-efficiency particulate air filters to protect “both me and you from this deadly virus that’s going around.”
Mehler then delivers a profanity-laden soliloquy about how no “cocksucker of an administrator is going to tell me how to teach my classes because I’m a fucking tenured professor. So if you want to go complain to your dean, fuck you. Go ahead. I’m retiring at the end of this year, and I couldn’t give a flying fuck any longer.”
He adds, “You people are just vectors of disease to me, and I don’t want to be anywhere near you. So keep your fucking distance. If you want to talk to me, come to my Zoom.”
Mehler later explains that his speech was inspired by a similarly vulgar soliloquy from the HBO television show Deadwood, about life in a gold-mining town, and he uses the opportunity to address the concept of plagiarism.
Things get stranger from here, with Mehler citing Calvinism and predestination as the reasons he’ll assign students’ grades randomly, regardless of individual effort (he later says students can earn an A, but he doesn’t explicitly say he’s joking about random grades). He also says that if students want to protect their grandparents from COVID-19, they should protect him, too, as he’s old enough to be their grandfather.
“When I look out at a classroom filled with 50 students, I see 50 selfish kids who don’t give a shit whether Grandpa lives or dies, and if you don’t expose your grandpa to a possible infection with COVID, then stay the fuck away from me. If you don’t give a shit about whether Grandpa lives or dies, by all means, come to class.”
Mehler continues, “Before any of you go running to complain, and it happens every semester—‘Dr. Mehler said I shouldn’t come to class’—let me clarify my attendance policy to you.” Professors, he says, “have complete discretion with regard to attendance policy,” and “Everything you need to earn an A is available to you on our [online] Canvas page.”
There is “no benefit whatsoever from coming to class,” Mehler says. “I will not take questions in class, because I’m wearing this fucking helmet in order to stay alive. So please come. Enjoy the show. I’ll be there regularly, because I have no choice. You, on the other hand, have a choice. Thank you very much.”
Mehler says the show is sponsored by Camel cigarettes, an example of “pure capitalism, turning death into profit.”
Breakdown or Breakthrough?
Some online commenters have speculated that Mehler was having a “breakdown.” But his “show,” which was clearly scripted and rehearsed, may also be read as the primal scream of a professor forced to teach in person during a new surge in COVID-19 cases, after nearly two years of navigating pandemic-era teaching already.
Mehler didn’t respond to a request for comment. It remains unclear exactly what his intentions were—or how he feels about being put on administrative leave.
Charles Bacon, professor of physics and chemistry and president of Ferris State’s faculty union, said the union considers Mehler’s suspension from teaching to be an “attack on academic freedom and a part of the continued attempt nationally to enforce uniformity on faculty and intimidate higher education faculty by suppressing intellectual discourse.”
Asked about speculation about Mehler’s well-being, Bacon said, “I assure you, Barry did not have a breakdown. In fact, his style, which he developed over the last decade, is to be controversial in order to challenge students’ inherent mental models and biases. It is something that we all strive to do.”
Mehler’s classes tend to be “extremely popular,” Bacon also said, “in particular because he challenges students’ assumptions and makes the class extremely interesting. In fact, we have had administrators visit his class and come away with statements like, ‘I wish I’d had a professor like you when I was in college.’”
Ferris State certainly hasn’t praised Mehler’s pedagogy in this instance, saying in a statement that it is “aware of a course video distributed to students, in early January, by a faculty member believed to be Prof. Barry Mehler. The faculty member has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.”
President David Eisler said in a separate statement, “I was shocked and appalled by this video. It is profane, offensive and disturbing and in no way reflects our university or its values.”
Sometimes professors do use stunts to get students’ attention or turn their assumptions about the world upside down. Sometimes those stunts are wild: a professor of physics at Columbia University stripped down to his skivvies onstage and beheaded a teddy bear during the opening lecture of his frontiers of science course in 2013, for instance. The professor in that case, Emlyn Hughes, said this at the time: “In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain and start over again.”
Mehler’s meaning is less clear. But it’s clearly tied up in ongoing fights between administrators and faculty members about mandatory face-to-face teaching during the Omicron variant–driven surge in COVID-19 cases.
Bacon, of the Ferris State faculty union, said, “We tried to get accommodations last semester for those faculty, like Barry, that had legitimate concerns for going back to face-to-face. Even faculty with immune-compromised systems were denied the option to convert to online.” This semester, he added, “is also mostly face-to-face, with no accommodation for faculty, such as Barry, who would like to do online.”
Ferris State began this semester in person, as planned. Jeremy Mishler, university spokesperson, confirmed that no professors had been granted waivers to move designated face-to-face classes online. Students enrolled in face-to-face courses may request remote accommodations, however.
The university encourages but does not require that students be vaccinated against COVID-19. Masks must be worn indoors.