When Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., comes to campus to teach a course on “dystopian visions” next fall, he won’t have the support of some of his colleagues, who are questioning his qualifications for the position.
Officials touted the course as a rare opportunity for students to interact with and learn from a sitting senator and a chance to bring a prominent political player to campus. But some faculty dismissed the course as a marketing ploy and said it could hurt students because they wouldn’t be learning from a professor with professional experience in the topic.
Ben Vinson, the dean of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said the course will focus on the history of dystopian attitudes and how they relate to current events and political debates.
“When Sen. Paul approached us about coming to campus to teach this course, we agreed that his unique voice as a sitting senator would provide an engaging backdrop for our students,” Vinson said in an email.
Vinson declined, through a University spokesman, to comment on faculty concerns about Paul’s qualifications to teach the class.
A spokesman for Paul sent a statement identical to the one given to GW officials before the class was officially announced. The statement declined to address faculty complaints about the course.
The course was originally entitled “the dystopian novel,” but it was changed to “dystopian visions” before registration opened to students. University spokesman Brett Zongker said the change prevented Paul’s course from overlapping with similar classes already taught on campus.
Faculty said they were unsure how Paul – a senator and former eye surgeon – was prepared to teach a class about dystopian history and attitudes, especially at the collegiate level.
Robert McRuer, a professor of English, said the University did not notify the English department about the course’s creation and after seeing its title, he was concerned it was misleading and would be mistaken for an English course.
McRuer and one of his colleagues sent an email to Vinson after the course was listed in the schedule of classes, voicing concerns about the title.
He said CCAS was responsive to faculty’s concerns and a week later had changed the course title.
The English department released a statement on their blog Saturday clarifying that Paul’s course is not a part of their department.
McRuer said a professor must have either a master’s in fine arts or a doctorate degree to teach in the English department at GW.
“We’re trained to do this,” he said. “So the fact that a celebrity could potentially teach a course that was listed as a novel course is a bit troubling.”
Some faculty questioned Paul’s academic qualifications to teach the upper-level course. Paul earned a medical degree from Duke University, but he does not have an undergraduate degree, despite publicly claiming that he earned a degree in “biology and English,” according to the Washington Post.
McRuer said the move to bring Paul to campus is part of a growing trend of universities hiring celebrities to teach courses.
In 2011, GW hired Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to co-teach a constitutional law seminar.
This fall, Maryland governor and former 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley will teach a political leadership course at the University of Maryland and in 2013, The City University of New York hired former CIA Director General David Petraeus to teach an honors seminar despite protests from faculty.
Elisabeth Anker, an associate professor of American studies and political science, said bringing celebrities to teach courses could hurt the University’s educational reputation and the academic experience of students.
“The investment in having Rand Paul to brand the University really comes at the expense of the reputation of the school, in terms of the intellectual offerings and the type of education we provide to our students,” she said.
Faculty said they were concerned about the subject of the class because Paul has been vocal in the past about his views of dystopian themes. Paul told Vice in 2013 that he wanted to teach a course on the dystopian novel.
“I think dystopian novels are a discussion of politics and sort of what happens if you let a government accumulate too much power,” he told the news website.
Anker said Paul’s political ideology could carry over into the classroom. Paul has become a prominent libertarian-leaning voice in the U.S. Senate, pushing for policies to reduce the size of government.
“I think teaching something on dystopian history or dystopian vision and dystopian novels seems to be a thinly disguised political ideology course, masquerading as intellectual inquiry,” she said.
Holly Dugan, an associate professor of English who has taught courses on utopian and dystopian fiction, said dystopian literature is a difficult topic to tackle without proper training.
“The works themselves are complex,” she said. “You need a scholar or a teacher who is trained in that aesthetic tradition and can present them as what they are, which is complex works of art, not necessarily political ideologies.”
Paul’s course is now closed with 33 students registered in total, according to the schedule of classes.
Some students said they were looking forward to hearing Paul’s perspective in a college course.
Freshman Thomas Crean, a member of the GW College Republicans, said he tried to register for the course but it filled up too quickly.
He said Paul’s political background will benefit a class with a topic like dystopian history, but he wasn’t surprised to see criticism of the course.
“I think by and large the criticisms are going to be coming from the political left and not from an intellectually honest inspection of what he’s actually teaching,” Crean said.