Professor may sue university for censoring cheeky challenge to ancestral indigenous land claim

Citing John Locke, Stuart Reges argued the Coast Salish people "can claim historical ownership of almost none" of University of Washington's 350 acres because they didn't develop it.

Updated: January 22, 2022 - 8:35am

A computer science instructor put a target on his back in 2018 by purporting to explain "Why Women Don't Code," and he's still causing headaches for the University of Washington.

The Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering removed the course syllabus created by Stuart Reges because he followed its suggestion to include a "land acknowledgment," which recognizes indigenous people who allegedly occupied a university's land.

Several government entities have recently issued such statements, including surburban Portland's Washington County, three Rhode Island towns, City College of New York and Utah State University.

But Reges wrote a land acknowledgment informed by political philosopher John Locke's "labor theory of property," under which the Coast Salish people "can claim historical ownership of almost none" of UW's 350 acres because they didn't develop it.

The university's own archives show the land was a "dense forest" before UW cleared and graded it, he wrote in an essay for Quillette.

The Allen School reposted a censored version of Reges's syllabus and created a "shadow section" of intro to computer science to compete with his course. Director Magdalena Balazinska told his students they could switch to the new course, offered at the same time.

The dispute has reached a tense standoff after a civil liberties group representing Reges accused UW of unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination and retaliation.

"Are your faculty members' First Amendment rights important to you, or is it worth violating your legal obligations to get your precious land acknowledgment statement out there?" the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education asked UW

"I'm considering filing a lawsuit" if the university doesn't back down, Reges told Just the News Friday. "I intend to use the same land acknowledgment for my spring course."

He said around 170 students, or 30%, left his course for the shadow course, which leaves enough for him to keep going. Reges started a new three-year contract this year. "I don't think it would be easy for the university to cancel that early," he said.

President Ana Marie Cauce told the Faculty Senate she wouldn't weigh in because the dispute "would come up to me" if they adjudicated it, according to an automated meeting transcript Reges shared.

As an immigrant, Cauce said she came to America in part because Cuba didn't allow free speech, but "a syllabus is a very different matter" than sharing an opinion on Twitter.

Balazinska doesn't see a problem with preventing faculty from disagreeing with the administration's preferred narratives on subjects of disputed relevance to any given class. 

The syllabus is "not the appropriate place or manner for a debate about land acknowledgments," which are not "politicized statements ... but are rather statements of fact" about the "ancestral lands" on which institutions sit, Balazinska told Fox News.

Sharing Locke's theory "dehumanizes and demeans Indigenous people" and violates UW's relationship to the Coast Salish and the state's federally recognized tribes, she said. Balazinska told local radio host Jason Rantz she wouldn't answer who determines "what content is deemed offensive." 

"They don't see this as a simple disagreement," Reges told The College Fix. "There is almost a religious aspect to it, as if I am guilty of blasphemy."

The Student Senate responded by approving a resolution 50-1 that denounces the "harmful land acknowledgement ... mocking the Indigenous peoples of this land."

In addition to more Allen School recruitment of indigenous and black students, the resolution demanded UW "commit to a 3% annual increase in the student population of Alaska Native/Native American students," reaching 24% by 2030.

This is the first controversy for Reges since his reappointment, but he has been poking the establishment since the early 1990s.

Stanford fired the instructor in part for boasting in a letter to the new federal drug czar that he carried "illegal drugs" on campus. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Office of Drug Control Policy threatened to yank the university's federal funding if it didn't sanction him.

Hired in 2005 to redesign UW's computer science intro courses, Reges was the first Allen School lecturer to get a promotion to "principal lecturer" and its only current faculty member to have won the Distinguished Teaching Award, he wrote in Quillette in 2020. (It was his third such award.)

That essay accused UW of retaliation for the "Why Women Don't Code" essay, which riffed on the controversy over fired Google engineer James Damore, by giving Reges a "highly unusual one-year probationary appointment" for the 2020-2021 academic year.

"The administration had to obtain special permission from the provost to make such a short appointment" when his rank merits a three-year extension, Reges wrote. He said he was told faculty chose the "middle ground" when presented three options for Reges, including "no reappointment."

The university denied the one-year reappointment was probation or demotion, telling the student newspaper at the time it wanted to evaluate a "transition in management structure" for his courses. 

UW was on notice that Reges was thinking of adding the reverse land acknowledgment in December, when he emailed the faculty mailing list with his proposed text and sought feedback. "Nobody responded," he wrote in the Jan. 12 Quillette essay.

The Allen School's "best practices for inclusive teaching," last updated in September 2020, recommend putting a land acknowledgment on syllabi, and its own suggested message about the Coast Salish people is labeled "an example."

By "encouraging faculty to include a land acknowledgment, the [diversity, equity and inclusion] experts invited each of us to express our own opinions on the topic," Reges said.

Balazinska strongly disagreed, ordering him Jan. 4 to remove the "inappropriate" and "offensive" statement from the syllabus, according to FIRE's recounting of their email exchange. Reges refused, claiming he was being singled out.

His boss then said faculty were not allowed to deviate from the official text and that his version was "causing a disruption to instruction" and irrelevant to the course. 

She unilaterally took down the syllabus, whose web page read it had been "temporarily removed due to offensive statements." The Allen School told an angry PhD student on Twitter that night that it only learned "a few hours ago" about the statement Reges shared with faculty a month earlier and his syllabus was being scrubbed.

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FIRE's legal warning letter to UW Jan. 11 said it can't acknowledge "the right of faculty to discuss these issues within their syllabi" and then discriminate by viewpoint. Balazinska's order makes plain that UW also won't tolerate "a more assertive or bellicose" land acknowledgment than UW's.

It has not provided evidence of "substantial disruption or obstruction of any other legitimate educational interest," and thus UW's action against Reges "would deter — and is specifically intended to deter — faculty from continuing to engage in protected speech," FIRE wrote.

UW spokesperson Victor Balta told Just the News the school was reviewing FIRE's letter.

The Allen School "received several complaints through various internal channels beyond what was on social media," Balta said. The 170 students who left the course for "the alternate option, despite the extra steps required of them to do so, is a clear demonstration of the extent to which students felt that these actions disrupted the learning environment in his class."

Balta didn't answer how many students in the class complained before Balazinska told them about the land acknowledgment in the removed syllabus, or respond when told Reges was considering litigation and would put the same text in his next syllabus.

Faculty are not "require[d]" to use a "specific land acknowledgment," Balta said, denying that Reges actually wrote one. "Allen School leadership invited him to move the discussion outside of the classroom" to avoid disruption and express disagreements "in a more appropriate setting."

As for President Cauce's potential involvement, Balta said her remarks to the Faculty Senate were "purely hypothetical" because she serves as the "final decision maker" in any adjudication.