SSU Students Face Discrimination Professor Claims Right to Academic Freedom

SSU Students Face Discrimination Professor Claims Right to Academic Freedom

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Clara George started this petition to Sonoma State University

Many Sonoma State University students have been negatively impacted by the teachings of Hutchins and Communications Professor Ajay Gehlawat. Students have been facing PTSD, anxiety, and discrimination due to the nature of his class. It wasn’t until recently, a collection of us decided enough was enough. The females struggling in his classes, reached out to the Hutchins department, as well as Title IX to take action. We are standing up against the sexual harassment, general misconduct, and discrimination the professor put us through, as well as other students, through. We believe both his pedagogical choices and his demeanor toward students in the classroom are creating harm. We believe he is not fit to continue teaching at SSU and that the administration should have taken more action sooner. 

 For many Hutchins students at SSU, Professor Gehlawat was the only option for required classes in the major. Despite the fact that one of his courses was titled “Feminism in Film” his synchronous class was far from a positive feminist environment, in fact many might consider it anti-feminist or mysoginisit in the deepest and most covert ways. After requiring the students to watch traumatic images of women and graphic sexual violence against women- class discussions continued to denigrate women. He focused more on the bodies and sexuality of the women in the films than the content of their minds and character. When female participants would provide their perspectives on the films in the discussion, many times their opinions would be undermined or disregarded altogether. Meanwhile, the male perspectives would be acknowledged and even celebrated. 

During Gehlawats class, students experienced sexual discrimination and harassment in many ways. We were required to watch emotionally disturbing films, without trigger warnings, that involved rape, sexual harassment, killing, violence, etc. After we watched these films, we were required to write papers on them and proceed to have 2 hour and 40-minute seminars on the disturbing content. There was no explanation as to why we were learning about this explicit material and how it supported our education. There was absolutely no context for requiring this type of material to be viewed, written about, or discussed in the class. 

When women expressed concerns about the traumatic and graphic nature of the films required - he responded with - “I can teach what I want!” He then replayed some of the most graphic parts of the films on Zoom in class and required  students to keep their cameras on while everyone watched together. Students reported that these experiences were devastating - that the images stayed with them and replayed incessantly in their minds and that his overt oppressive demeanor with regards to the subject matter caused extreme amounts of stress, and are still causing anxiety in their daily lives. For the students impacted there is loss of sleep, loss of time and focus, and physical conditions similar to a woman who has been sexaully harassed or violated. 

Many students responded to the behaviors experienced in class. One female student explained, “After multiple times being blatantly ignored by Ajay, I was hesitant to speak in class which impacted my participation grade. However, when I did speak my comments were often disregarded in order to acknowledge another male perspective. On the other hand, when Ajay did recognize my participation in the class he would often gawk or laugh at my comments. I felt degraded and dehumanized by his comments, as well as humiliated in front of my classmates” (George). Another student similarly expressed, “The class was held by a professor who dismissed perspectives of women in the class, refused to accommodate those who had experienced traumatic events in the past, and required cameras during class when viewing violent and sexual clips. When students  spoke up about their discomfort and that the films were extremely challenging to watch, he dismissed students and refused to make changes that provided a safer space or to help students feel more comfortable” (Anonymous).

 One of the films required was titled, India’s Daughter. This film was banned in India for its graphic content about rape and violence. In fact the article, “Why was BBC’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ banned” explains that “the documentary was outlawed because there was a possibility of huge outrage in public. People with a criminal mindset may get influenced” (Ayush Verma). Some also criticized the purpose of the movie as being a “little hazy” and said, “The authority has outlawed it on the grounds of ‘objectionable content’. It (the article) said that it was an insult to the Apex Court of India to suggest publishing ‘a perverted view’ of the rapist would interrupt the system of justice.” (Verma) Objectionable content, hazy motives, and perverted views were exactly what students have experienced in Gehlawat’s classes when being subjected to his required content, including his choice to teach this banned film, India’s Daughter without context.  

One student describing this class stated, “In the seminar my opinions were disregarded and what I had to say was dismissed. If I said something the professor would immediately change the topic to talk about the rape scene or the women in the film and how they were being sexualized. As a male professor teaching primarily women, he proceeded to talk about rape as if it was normal, and that the women seemed to deserve it. We also had a participation grade that was difficult to obtain because we would be verbally put down when we spoke or tried to participate in the seminar. If we didn’t agree with the professor’s point of view- we were denigrated in front of the class” (Schaefer). Another student stated, 

“I specifically remember one day, when I decided to speak up and address the issue that I and other members of the class had with the content. I respectfully stated how important it was for a warning to be given when showing sexual abuse, rape, and misconduct in the classroom, as this may be a huge trigger for women in this class. The response was very disheartening, as he proceeded to avoid my concerns and change the subject all together. The stubbornness and unwillingness to aid his classroom proceeded to get worse, as he continued to assign more films with no warning and grim content. This felt like an abuse of power, not only from a teacher to a student, but from a man to a woman. I believe there needs to be a limit on teachers' academic freedom. To agree on a limit as a society, there needs to be more communication directed towards this subject, and actions must be taken against teachers like Ajay Gehwalt. I ask myself… What is the purpose of watching a woman being gang-raped on the back of a bus? What is the purpose of watching/listening to a descriptive scene of a woman having her intestines ripped out of her body with a screwdriver? Are teachers allowed to show pornography in the classroom? If I wanted to learn about rape and misconduct, I would have taken a class to do so, not a Bollywood Film class like this one.”(Anonymous) 

This student, along with others experienced an abuse of power in the teacher/student dynamic. It was clear in his gestures and speaking that he was biased against women and it was clear in the content he assigned as mandatory for students to watch, speak and write about. 

Professor Gehlawat was extremely biased throughout discussions in the sense that he only wanted to talk about what he thought was important, such as female bodies, what the female role was, why the rape was acceptable, etc. Along with the seminars, our essays were formatted in the same way, we were required to write papers about rape, killings, and female sexuality in the films. Gehlawat asserted his power as the professor to force students to write about these topics, or their grade would suffer. “As a woman in today’s society, I felt violated and that I could not properly do the assignments or activities that the class required because of the harassment” (Schaefer). 

Another student in the class wrote “...forcing students to speak about violent

and sexual abuse in films in class with cameras on created an uncomfortable environment. It was made clear the professor thinks since it’s his class he should be able to talk about whatever he wants, whereas we believe students are the ones who should have voices and express their comfort level and what they want to learn”(Anonymous).

Gehlawat has since responded claiming he has rights to academic freedom in the classroom. He is claiming these rights in accordance with The Academic Freedom Policy, issued in 2018, which states “Scholars and educational officers shall attempt at all times and in good faith to be accurate, exercise appropriate restraint, show respect for the opinions of others.” Taking this claim into consideration, there should AT LEAST have been trigger warnings for the explicit content in order to show respect for the students. Along with the need for trigger warnings, there was no “appropriate restraint” used when choosing content to show the class. There was also little to no consideration/respect for the students, or their boundaries. While we believe that professors must hold academic freedom in order to broaden the minds of their students, this should not sacrifice their mental health, emotional wellbeing, or equality in the classroom. 

 The Sonoma Star later responded with an article encouraging students experiencing PTSD to seek counseling resources, and encouraged professors to emphasize these resources as well, instead of taking action against Professor Gehlawat. Sonoma State University administrators, including Title IX, are aware of the issues but have failed to take further action. Action must be taken now in order to create a safe learning environment for current and future students at the University. 

When viewing Professor Gehlawat’s behavior from a legal perspective we can see that he violated multiple aspects of the Federal Legislation Title IX guidelines. Title IX states, “It is illegal for a school, university, or school district to discriminate against you based on your sex, race, color, religion, or national origin. Under this legal definition, “sex” includes a person’s actual or perceived gender assigned at birth, gender identity, and sexual orientation. (The outdated word “sex” is still used even though the definition has expanded.) Title IX protects students’ access to education, and makes it illegal for any student to be denied that access on the basis of sex”. These guidelines apply to all schools and educational programs that receive federal funding, like Sonoma State University. Therefore, all SSU professors, including Ajay Gehlawat, must abide by the guidelines set by Title IX. 

And given the fact that SSU is largely funded by the State of California the students believe the institution should follow the language of state legislation- EDC200, “All pupils have the right to participate fully in the educational process, free from discrimination and harassment. California public schools have an affirmative obligation to combat racism, sexism, and other forms of bias, and a responsibility to provide equal educational opportunity. Harassment on school grounds directed at an individual on the basis of personal characteristics or status creates a hostile environment and jeopardizes equal educational opportunity as guaranteed by the California Constitution and the United States Constitution.”

Similarly, in reading through the most current version of the Sonoma State University Student Handbook, we discovered that SSU defines sexual harassment as, “being forced to engage in unwanted sexual contact as a condition of membership in a student organization; being subjected to video exploitation or a campaign of sexually explicit graffiti, or frequently being exposed to unwanted images of a sexual nature in a classroom that are unrelated to the coursework. Sexual Harassment also includes acts of verbal, non-verbal or physical aggression, intimidation or hostility based on Gender or sex-stereotyping, even if those acts do not involve conduct of a sexual nature” (431). Based on the statements about Gehlawats class and the forced sexual content being shown, we can evidently claim that the students in the class were being sexually harassed by the said professor. 

Likewise, the 2017-2018 SSU Handbook clearly states, “The California State University does not discriminate on the basis of gender (or sex), gender identity, (including transgender), gender expression or sexual orientation in its programs and activities, including admission and access. Federal and state laws, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibit such discrimination” (430). Unfortunately, in Gehlawat’s class, ironically titled “Feminism in Film”, along with many of his other courses, he discriminated against women on the basis of gender and sexuality. A student expressed “As a teacher who was supposed to be teaching about feminism and culture, we believed that his classes were more about pornography and violence.  The explicit content he showed to students as a course requirement has scared many women, and ultimately caused many to have PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This professor  has made them/us feel very violated- no one should ever feel like this, especially when in a classroom.” In a classroom full of women with only a handful of men, a more feminist perspective was rarely recognized and often discouraged. The professor often blamed the victims of the sexual violence demonstrated in the films, or minimized the serious nature of sexual violence. He chose instead to propagate harmful stereotypes about women, the way they dress to invite unwanted sexual activity, what their bodies looked like, and how women in films were merely sexual objects to please the male viewer. One student said, 

“I have received PTSD from this teacher and his class.” According to the Mayo Clinic,  PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event. As a result of PTSD, people may witness nightmares, flashbacks or severe anxiety. She continued, 

“I never thought I could receive PTSD from learning in a classroom. I was in two of his classes, one a feminist class and one an Indian culture class. I was very excited to be in a feminist class and couldn’t wait to express all my opinions and ideas. His class was three hours long and every week we had to watch a film that ranged from 90 minutes to two and half hours. Since I was in two of his classes I spent 6 hours on zoom, 3-5 hours watching both films, and spent another 2 hours writing responses. In total I spent about 12 hours of my week for both of his classes. Many of the films he assigned  were violent and sexual in nature. The content made me extremely uncomfortable and that fact that I had to write papers on these made me so stressed. I never thought things would get worse until he made us watch a feminst film called, “Born in Flames.” As a college student, I felt like I should be able to handle very graphic images, but that one certain image has caused me PTSD.  I remember watching that movie and when that graphic image showed up I was scarred. That graphic image has triggered memories that I wish I never experienced.... I never knew that a certain image could trigger such a traumatizing event. After seeing that movie I told myself that I’ll never watch that scene again. However, when I went into my feminst “zoom” class, he replayed the scenes from this movie and of course he had to show the scene that triggered my PTSD. He gave no warning at all, and what made it worse was that he made us keep our cameras on. I could see my face on my camera and I was completely devastated. I’ll never forget the comment he made when he played the film- after the scene was shown he said, “Did you guys see that?!” From the look and expression on his face, I knew he was talking about that disturbing image that has caused me so much stress. To this day, whenever I hear the word feminism, or the professor’s name I see that graphic image and I remember those events that I wish had never happened. No class should ever cause someone this much trauma….”(Anonymous).


In addition, the Violence Free Campus Policy, issued in 1998, clearly states that “Civility, understanding, and mutual respect toward all members of the university community are intrinsic to excellence in teaching and learning, to safety in the workplace, and to the maintenance of a culture and environment that serves the needs of all campus constituents… any threat, behavior or action which is interpreted by a reasonable person to carry the potential: to harm or endanger the safety of others; to result in an act of aggression; or, to destroy or damage property.” When in Gehlawats class, a reasonable person could say that he is creating an environment that could result in the endangerment and safety of others. He does this by using rape and suicide content as well as many other triggering film scenes. One student expressed, “For six weeks in a row, I was subjected to films that showed explicit murders, rapes, and abuse of women. I was forced to watch my worst nightmares in front of this man who had no compassion for us while he called them ‘great cinema.’ That class started with 12 young women, and as you know, statistically 1 in 6 women is a victim of sexual violence, meaning he probably forced at least two victims to relive their experiences” (Anonomous). This to say, the way students were treated by the said professor shows a threat of violence in the classroom environment.

When looking over the policies that Sonoma State University has in place to protect its students and staff as well as create a safe learning environment, we discovered many of these policies support our claims against Professor Gehlawat. In short, he has not followed the university policies, or federal and state standards that protect students against harm. We believe he has violated policies as well as state and federal legislations - we are asking the University to take immediate action.

In addition, SSU policies and guidelines are vague and easily misinterpreted. In our research we also noticed that many of these policies have not been updated and date back to the 1990’s, which may connect to the open endedness in the policies. The Sonoma State Policies Website states “Our University policies are meant to guide and enable our community members to uphold Sonoma State University's values and expectations.” It is our opinion that if the policies are not kept up to date and actually referenced, reinforced or enforced by administration then the standards are not upheld. Since the 1990’s Sonoma State University has surely grown and our policies should reflect that growth.

As future educators, we understand the importance of academic freedom in the classroom, however, this should not come at the expense of the students well being and in the case of the scenarios reported here - be the cause of sexual discrimination and harassment. 

“We were forced to watch inappropriate and graphic scenes without warning. A student does not need to be diagnosed with PTSD to have this negatively affect them. We do not need to be open to “experiencing new ideas” when those ideas are that we will be exposed to violence and brutality because we are women. Young women are acutely aware of the prospect that we will be victimized by rape, domestic violence, ect., we do not need to be forced to watch that happen to other women to understand the threat of living in a patriarchal society. That “discomfort” that was brought about due to this coursework was entirely unnecessary and harmful to students. We are not just faces in a classroom, we are real people, some of whom have already had to experience these kinds of atrocities for themselves in real life. This is not a theoretical experience for women, it is our worst fear that we are constantly looking over our shoulders trying to thwart” (Anonymous).

Moving forward we request that the Sonoma State policies are updated and specified in order to reflect the changing campus climate and needs. Some of these policies include, but are not limited to: Academic Freedom Policy, Violence Free Campus Policy, Discrimination Policy, and Sonoma State Student Handbook.We also request that Professor Ajay Gehlawat is removed from teaching in order to prevent further damage to students, and that this action happens immediately. We ask that he is held accountable for the damage he has created for students in the past and present and that he is prevented from causing further damage.

Clara George

Olyvia Schaefer

The students and families, LIBS 320 C - Section 005, Course 4450

And previous Hutchins students

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