Accusations of Racism: The Suspension of a UCLA Anderson Professor
Probably no recent news story has divided the management education community as sharply as the controversial case of Professor Gordon Klein. He’s an accounting lecturer with nearly four decades of university teaching experience who teaches federal income taxation and business law at UCLA’s elite Anderson School of Management. In 2020, U.S. News and World Report ranked the business school #16 in the United States and #5 in part-time MBA programs.
In May 2020, Professor Klein had received an email message from a student asking for special final exam accommodations on behalf of students from underrepresented groups. The professor had received the message in the wake of protests across the nation following the murder of Black citizen George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. On social media, some commentators claimed that the text of the request bore similarities to a template that was circulating among UCLA students.
Before we present his message, two features of Professor Klein’s class are relevant to this story—and extraordinarily unusual.
First, traditionally most business school courses assign grades based on at least two hour-long exams as well as a three-hour final, especially in quantitative disciplines like accounting. But with a course grade based 100 percent on a final exam like a law school class, the evaluation structure for his taxation class seems uncommon within a business school.
Second, like all university courses in California during spring 2020, Professor Klein’s class had been moved online because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It appears that most of his lectures in the course were pre-recorded, and he may not have engaged in interactions with all students.
The Professor’s Rejoinder
In his email reply, Professor Klein didn’t grant the request—and he didn’t exactly mince words, either. He shot back the following rejoinder:
Thanks for your suggestion in your email below that I give black students special treatment, given the tragedy in Minnesota.
Do you know the names of the classmates that are black? How can I identify them since we’ve been having online classes only?
Are there any students that may be of mixed parentage, such as half black-half Asian? What do you suggest I do with respect to them? A full concession or just half?
Also, do you have any idea if any students are from Minneapolis? I assume that they probably are especially devastated as well. I am thinking that a white student from there might be possibly even more devastated by this, especially because some might think that they’re racist even if they are not. My TA is from Minneapolis, so if you don’t know, I can probably ask her.
Can you guide me on how you think I should achieve a “no-harm” outcome since our sole course grade is from a final exam only?
One last thing strikes me: Remember that MLK famously said that people should not be evaluated based on the ‘color of their skin.’ Do you think that your request would run afoul of MLK’s admonition?
Thanks, G. Klein
Controversy Ensues: A Petition to Fire Professor Klein
Of course, the student leaked the email reply to others, and the reaction was swift and predictable. A Change.org petition soon surfaced calling for UCLA to fire Professor Klein. Signed by more than 21,000 people, that long-winded petition reads in part:
We ask for your support in having Professor Klein’s professorship terminated for his extremely insensitive, dismissive, and woefully racist response to his students’ request for empathy and compassion during a time of civil unrest.
Given his background in ethics and liability, one would expect Professor Klein to hold himself to a higher social standard, especially given his position as a steward within higher education. However, his response to students was inappropriate, tone-deaf, and highly insensitive. The killing of George Floyd displayed a brutality that was so casual and so cruel, it reflected an utter dehumanization of Black life. It is understandable, then, that students nationwide—especially Black students—are struggling to focus on their educations when there is massive sociopolitical unrest that concerns both them and the future of their plight in this country.
Professor Klein’s blatant lack of empathy and unwillingness to accommodate his students during a time of protests speaks to his apathetic stance on the matter. His suggestion that a student with one Black and one Asian parent should only be accommodated half as much as a Black student is a preposterously racist notion. Furthermore, his claim that a white student from Minneapolis “might possibly be even more devastated […] because some might think that they’re racist” puts into perspective his ignorance, his bias, and his gross inability to comprehend the gravity of the systematic violence, discrimination, and fear experienced by Black people in this country.
His behavior is not reflective of the equity, respect, and justice that UCLA stands for as an institution. As Professor Klein so emphatically states on his profile page on the Anderson School of Management website: “Learning accounting or any quantitative discipline, without a concomitant emphasis on ethical behavior, is not a true education”. We ask for your support now in holding Professor Klein to the same ethical standards he claims to be essential to a holistic and inclusive educational experience, which is what he owes to his students as an educational leader. We, the students, refuse to support Gordon Klein any further and demand to see his employment terminated as soon as possible.
Next, a statement provided to Inside Higher Ed by the Anderson School must have given Professor Klein pause. It reads:
Respect and equality for all are core principles at UCLA Anderson. It is deeply disturbing to learn of this email, which we are investigating. We apologize to the student who received it and to all those who have been as upset and offended by it as we are ourselves.
But that wasn’t the only recent instance where Professor Klein was alleged to have responded inappropriately in an email or text message reply to a student. A screenshot of a message the professor allegedly sent in March to a female student then surfaced on Reddit. That text reads:
When I submit grades, I will review yours and see what adjustment, if any, would be appropriate.
Yes, this quarter became really bizarre and I’m afraid the spring is going to even be more bizarre. The day will come when things return to normal and I would love to hang out with the five of you………Even though secretly, you know that I think you are my favorite.
Of course, I already have told that to [four names redacted]…And I even told that to the guy who washes dishes at your house. 😉
Reports soon appeared that Professor Klein had received death threats, and he was placed under 24-hour protection by law enforcement.
The Professor on Fox News
UCLA Anderson didn’t fire Professor Klein. But the school promptly suspended him for at least three weeks. Given these circumstances, some professors might have issued a contrite apology in a written statement, but not Professor Klein, who instead came out swinging on national television. On Fox News, he went on the Laura Ingraham program, the “Ingraham Angle,” to defend himself:
One day before the allegedly infamous email that I sent out, I got a directive as did my colleagues that we should absolutely continue the traditional policy of the university and give the exam as scheduled, with only the normal excuses such as you’re in a car accident, or you had a death in the family. I followed the specific direction my boss gave me, and the school knows it…
It is absolutely a sad day for free inquiry. I cited in my email my belief in Martin Luther King’s principles. I called Minnesota a tragedy and this student himself who contacted me thanked me for getting them through troubling times, thanked me for sending them anti-racist materials. The school simply doesn’t care. They want to placate the angry mob and it’s a tragedy for the future of education. Because historically and in the faculty code of conduct. . .you don’t have a choice. You must grade people based on merit and the school is disregarding its own policies in favor of the squeaky wheel, those who threaten to riot.
Professor Klein’s Reputation
Before June 2020, Professor Klein’s career appears to have benefited from an outstanding reputation.
He holds a law degree from the University of Michigan, one of the best law schools in the United States. He also holds a CPA licensure. And although he didn’t hold tenure, he had taught for 39 years at UCLA Anderson and says he’s approaching retirement. On social media, several of his former students and teaching assistants have praised his work. His bio emphasizes his work as a court-appointed special master and expert witness, saying that he is:
. . .a well-known court-appointed referee, arbitrator of commercial disputes, State Bar consultant and television commentator. He has also served as an expert in numerous well-publicized cases involving Doctor Dre, Apple, the wrongful death of Michael Jackson, and renowned investor Peter Thiel.
His bio continues, saying that Professor Klein is:
. . .a nationally recognized investment and accounting expert who has appeared on CNBC and CNN Radio. He has been featured and quoted in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Fortune, Business Week, Los Angeles Times, People, Bloomberg News, CNN, NPR, MTV, and ABC Nightly News. He is the author of Ethics in Accounting: A Decision-Making Approach,a widely-used textbook on accountants’ professional responsibilities.
This stellar reputation makes his actions seem all the more perplexing. In this context, a perspective from an insider’s view within a business school’s administration might promote better understanding of this controversy than the views offered by other commentators who lack such experience.
An Academic Procedure Perspective
Like Professor Klein, some commentators frame this controversy in terms of civil liberties, such as academic freedom and freedom of speech. However, analyzing how the controversy relates to academic procedure might seem more insightful.
Professor Klein had a choice. He could have chosen to manage a student request like this one the way professors handled them in the old days, before electronic mail over the Internet achieved critical mass on campuses in the 1990s. For example, during office hours Professor Klein could have scheduled a 20-minute meeting with the student. Although UCLA temporarily prohibited in-person student conferences because of the pandemic, the professor could nonetheless have offered to meet privately with the student over video.
That way, Professor Klein might have come across in a more friendly and engaging way during such a conversation. And the student might have received a fair opportunity to argue in favor of their request and to ask the professor follow-up questions in the event of a denial. Moreover, the precise language used by both the professor and the student would more likely have remained confidential.
However, Professor Klein chose not to meet with the student. Instead, by firing off what appears to be a hastily-written reply to the student’s email message, this professor curiously opted for a strategy that for two reasons seems much riskier.
First, in a digital world, email messages like Professor Klein’s rarely remain confidential for long. Once shared all over social media, a digital message like this one can often serve as the vehicle that swiftly moves a traditionally private conversation into public forums that attract attention from millions of people. That’s an outcome that the university’s administration—including Professor Klein’s supervisors—would typically prefer to avoid.
Second, once leaked, numerous media outlets published verbatim the actual language in the professor’s email reply denying the request. That public disclosure of his language serves to attract scrutiny to the style and the tone of the professor’s writing as key components of his overall message. And notwithstanding other aspects of his reply, the style and tone of his message were disasters.
It’s difficult to find any language in this message that seems empathic or understanding. Although some of the questions the professor asked might seem appropriate in some contexts—like in adversarial law school classrooms or courtrooms—the tone of his writing struck many as excessively and inappropriately confrontational, sarcastic, and disrespectful. Several of his lines seemed particularly disturbing to commentators, such as the last line where some believed that he appeared to mock a famous and beloved quote by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Moreover, the kinds of solutions typically offered to students by faculty and deans are completely absent from this message. A common strategy is that professors first offer partial accommodations to students. For example, a reasonable accommodation in a case like this might have been to offer to delay the examination for a few days to give everyone in the class more of a fair opportunity to prepare. That delay would have given students who were attending protests and candlelight vigils commemorating the life of George Floyd an opportunity to exercise their free speech rights without suffering any academic prejudice.
Instead, Professor Klein appears to offer a rigid “just following orders” defense for not offering any such flexibility. He claimed in his Fox News interview that he had received a memo the previous day that prohibited final examination exemptions for students except in cases of traffic accidents or family deaths. Indeed, he may have received such a memo from his direct supervisor. But at a major research university like UCLA, such a memo never tells the whole story—it never provides a complete perspective on academic policy.
A Better Approach
Professor Klein, with 39 years of university teaching experience, knew (or should have known) that AACSB-accredited business schools like UCLA Anderson always provide grievance procedures to students who wish to appeal denials just like the one he delivered to the students in this case. In circumstances like this one, students almost always appeal the adverse decisions handed down by professors, which essentially turns deans’ offices into informal “trial courts” where the students seek relief.
In other words, Professor Klein could have reasonably foreseen that one way or another, UCLA’s administration would most likely get involved in this situation—and quickly. Given that eventuality, a more reasonable procedure might have been for Professor Klein—notwithstanding his claimed “memo”—to have simply referred the student’s request to the appropriate assistant or associate dean.
That strategy would have offered several benefits. It would have obviated any need for Professor Klein to write an email reply in the first place. It would have also allowed the dispute to be heard by academic professionals with much more training and experience in managing student grievances. Typical teaching faculty at research universities like UCLA actually spend most of their time on research and publications, and some lecturers lack even basic skills in managing student relationships. But assistant and associate deans are better trained to perform these functions and have much more experience resolving a broader range of student issues.
For two years, I worked as an academic advisor in the dean’s office at the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a business school comparable in many respects to UCLA Anderson. During each term’s last two weeks, our office’s waiting room filled to capacity with students filling out petition forms and waiting to speak with our advising staff and two deans. (And incidentally, since university students often fall ill because of the stress of final exams, we had plenty of Kleenex and cough lozenges handy.)
Petitions to defer final exams prompted most of those meetings. The other requests were from students who were asking weeks after the deadlines had passed to switch to credit/no credit grading—or to drop a class entirely at the last minute rather than take a final exam they couldn’t pass.
Now, perhaps we had students from underrepresented groups who filed special end-of-semester requests that were denied. But during two years working in that dean’s office, I didn’t observe any such cases. And although UCLA Anderson’s Dean Antonio Bernardo has not yet specified the technical reasons for his suspension of Professor Klein, it makes complete sense to me that Dean Bernardo had so swiftly suspended the professor. That’s because the interests of teaching faculty aren’t always aligned with the interests of administrators.
Administrators, such as deans, are paid to care about the perceptions of various stakeholders, like accrediting boards and rankings authorities. That’s why the administration often cares a great deal that the faculty acts in ways consistent with the mission and values of the business school, and those of the university.
If those values include respect, diversity and inclusion, the deans will almost without exception strive to uphold those values. And they will do so even if their actions put them at odds with faculty like Professor Klein who does not appear, at least from the tone of his email message, all that concerned that students from underrepresented groups feel welcome and included as members of the UCLA Anderson community.
Dean Bernardo’s Challenge: Upholding UCLA Anderson’s Commitment to Diversity & Inclusion
Business schools frequently talk a good game about how they enroll large numbers of minority students. However, many people feel shocked when they first learn how rare Black students actually are at elite business schools like UCLA Anderson.
Black people account for about 13 percent of the population of the United States. And they’ve achieved parity within graduate degree programs, with just under a 13 percent average representation across the nation. However, at elite business schools, they’re a tiny fraction of students.
Using data from U.S. News, an analysis compiled by Poets and Quants of twenty of the top 25 MBA programs that report Black enrollment disclosed a surprising fact. In 2019, Black students accounted for, on average, only 4.6 percent of all students. That is only about 35 percent of their representation within the general population.
At the schools with the largest Black enrollment, those percentages never climb above eight percent. At Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, the school with the largest percentage, Black students only account for 7.7 percent.
And at many schools, Black students account for much less. At Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, Black MBA students account for only 3 percent of the student body. At the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, they’re only 2 percent.
So where does UCLA Anderson fall in these rankings? At that business school, Black students account for only 3.3 percent of all MBA students. And compared with the large enrollments at business schools like the Harvard Business School, UCLA Anderson only admits relatively small class sizes. In 2019 the school only enrolled 360 students in each class.
That means each year, only about 12 Black students enroll in each UCLA Anderson class.
When UCLA Anderson’s Dean Bernardo read Professor Klein’s email message, he realized that his school’s recruiting of Black and other minority students had probably been compromised when the news about Professor Klein broke in the national media.
And now, Dean Bernardo faces a challenge. UCLA Anderson states its objective clearly: it wants to increase student diversity in its MBA program. Now, persuading students of color to forego other business schools and enroll at UCLA will become that much more difficult.
The dean works for a board of regents and a chancellor who care very much that those values of respect, diversity, and inclusion are upheld within UCLA’s community. And unfortunately for Professor Klein, the broader interests of a university’s administration usually take precedence over those of individual professors—including faculty who complain on Fox News about their bosses.