An emotionally charged group of hundreds of students, faculty and community members met Thursday night to address a University of Wisconsin professor's statements about the Hmong community. Law professor Leonard Kaplan made several statements during his Feb. 15 class that offended a group of students, who were coined the "Magnificent Seven" by those in attendance at the forum. According to an e-mail sent to several law and Hmong students, Kaplan spoke for 10 minutes using "racist and inappropriate" remarks, allegedly saying, "Hmong men have no talent other than to kill," and "all second-generation Hmong end up in gangs and other criminal activity," among other comments. Jane Hamilton-Merritt, an author and Nobel Peace Prize nominee known for her writings on Hmong culture, flew in from Connecticut for the forum. Originally aimed at addressing cultural acceptance of Hmong people, the discussion shifted focus almost entirely to Kaplan's controversial comments. "No matter what we all think is offensive, we're not going to leave here with anyone 'winning,'" said UW law student Kashia Moua, who was in Kaplan's lecture. "I think the reality is the remarks, … if you agree or not, have been very damaging to the particular students and an entire population." Kaplan did not attend the forum himself, although UW law professor Jane Larson read a statement in his absence. With the initial goal of the meeting to be generally about Hmong cultural ignorance, Larson said Kaplan felt being in the room himself would change the nature of the discussion. "He fears that his presence would shift the focus of the discussion to what happened in his class, which would seriously detract from the broader educational function that this can serve," Larson said on Kaplan's behalf. Several students expressed their displeasure with Kaplan at the meeting and the fact that he chose not to attend. UW undergraduate James Chang said he regretted Kaplan did not take the opportunity to explain his comments. "We fully support all research with the marketplace of ideas, but we believe [what Kaplan said] extends far beyond the bounds of academic freedom," Chang said. "We respectfully request a public repeal and apology, and a (diversity) committee dedicated to faculty and staff." Chang then turned to Law School Dean Ken Davis personally, breaking the meeting's procedural rules, before being cut off by the forum's moderator. Davis told the large crowd he hopes to continue the education of his faculty and staff. "Sometimes we stumble, but we try to learn and try to move forward," Davis said. "Within the Law School community, this will not be the end to learn about the wonderful community within our state." Law student Nishith Patel said he was hoping for more of an open forum where both sides were represented, adding several students may plan a "counter-forum." He said he thinks Kaplan's comments were conveyed as "bold and obviously untrue" and should be a part of the law education process. "Every law professor offends their students — that's their style," Patel said. "The last thing I'd want is to have professors treading on thin ice because they're afraid of offending people." Several students from Kaplan's class gave their accounts of the incident in question. Kanha Vuong, who was in class when Kaplan made his comments about the Hmong community, said she was outraged and upset she didn't immediately respond to the comments in class. "When I heard these comments, I was disturbed, shocked and angry at Kaplan and at myself for not speaking up, and at my classmates," Vuong said. Moua, who was in Kaplan's class and first circulated mass e-mails to gather support, said she has been inundated with e-mails from both hate and support mail from around the country. Mai Der Yang, who is in the class but did not attend lecture Feb. 15, met with Kaplan regarding the comments. "We all genuinely believe that he is sorry we are hurt," Yang said. "What came as a shock, an injury and an insult was the fact he believed his statements to be true. He was not willing to repeal his statements."
JEFF SCHORFHEIDE/Herald photo