American University has decided to cancel newspaper columnist Colman McCarthy's course next fall on "The Politics of Non-Violence," sparking a protest by students who demanded reinstatement of the course.
University officials said that McCarthy, a liberal columnist who teaches two courses on peace and nonviolence that include readings from Mohandas K. Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was an easy grader whose course requirements were "vague and confusing."
Some of his supporters, however, questioned whether the university had decided to drop one of McCarthy's classes because his unconventional teaching methods and his philosophy of nonviolence -- which includes being a vegetarian -- had irritated the faculty's more conservative members.
In a letter to McCarthy dated Jan. 30, Dorothy B. James, dean of the School of Government and Public Administration, said officials decided to cancel his part-time contract because "your classes fall consistently below the quality expected at a good university."
James, along with Bruce Norton, director of the political science program, complained in the letter that McCarthy had given students too many "A" grades and that easy grading was one reason the students had given him favorable evaluations for the seven courses he has taught at the university in the last few years.
"A faculty member from whom an 'A' is a nearly assured grade for a comparatively undemanding course is normally appreciated in the first blush of course evaluations," the letter said.
McCarthy said he had received five letters from James during the previous year, none of which raised concerns about his courses or teaching methods. Two of the letters, obtained by The Washington Post, commended him for the quality of his teaching. McCarthy, a former editorial writer at The Post whose columns are syndicated, said he always has consulted university officials on requirements for his courses and the officials never had objected to his teaching methods.
McCarthy also teaches a course called "Peace and World Order" in the university's School of International Service. The fate of that course is unclear.
Earlier this month, students delivered a petition with 1,400 signatures to officials at the university, asking that "The Politics of Non-Violence" be reinstated. Students who formed a "Committee to Keep Colman" also held a rally at the student book store during hours when university President Richard Berendzen was there autographing copies of his book, "Is My Armor Straight?".
Berendzen has said the controversy must be resolved by the deans at the university. James was out of town until Monday and could not be reached for comment.
"Given the importance of the subject matter . . . one must ask oneself [if the cancellation of the course was] really because of Colman McCarthy himself," senior Paula Gutkin and graduate student Mark Lotwis wrote in an op-ed piece in the college newspaper, The Eagle.
McCarthy described the demonstrations by students as a "Gandhian protest -- just the kind of exciting lab work you'd want during a dull February."
McCarthy said he used to let students grade themselves and required them only to attend class and perform a public service to receive a high grade. Last year he imposed stiffer requirements, including class attendance, a final examination and several papers written during the term. About 85 percent of the students completed the work and received "A" grades for the course.
Canceling McCarthy's course has led to a stream of letters and telephone calls to Berendzen from McCarthy's supporters around the country, including human rights activist Joan Baez and Washington attorney and former Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver.