After a Cal Poly teacher allegedly told him last year that gay marriage is a “grave moral mistake” and that gay people suffer in the afterlife, a university student who identifies as queer has filed a Title IX discrimination complaint, claiming the university didn’t handle his initial grievance properly.
Student Mckinley “Mick” Bruckner alleged that communication studies teacher Michael Winn told him during a one-on-one meeting in his office that the persecution of gays and lesbians during the Holocaust was controversial and voiced skeptism that homosexuals were targets of the Holocaust.
Winn added that he’d “have a hard time finding a wide range of sources” on the subject for a class speech Bruckner planned to give, according to the student, who was a freshman at the time.
Bruckner also said Winn told him gay marriage is a “grave moral mistake” and gay people will suffer in the afterlife; that his speech on gays and lesbians would be biased because he is gay; and that Winn told him “he has never heard a gay man give a ‘good’ Christian viewpoint on homosexuality.”
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The university has retained the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate the charges under federal Title IX anti-discrimination policy, but declined to comment on the specifics of the case, citing personnel privacy laws.
Winn declined to comment for this story, saying, “I will not respond prematurely but let the university process take its rightful course.”
The speech assignment was part of Winn’s winter 2015 public speaking course. Bruckner said he never told Winn he was gay, but that Winn assumed it.
He made it so I didn’t want to go to class ever.
Mick Bruckner, queer Cal Poly student on teacher Mike Winn’s homophobic comments
“He said he believed homosexuals were immoral, that they were going to hell, that he was a scholar on homosexuality and went to national conferences and debates to defend the moral high ground,” Bruckner told The Tribune. “He said, ‘I’ve had gay students in my class before, and I’ve never had a problem.’ The things he was saying are totally inappropriate.”
Winn, a full-time Cal Poly lecturer, is a former president of the Nipomo Community Services District’s Board of Directors. He also applied for the vacant seat on the county Board of Supervisors after the sudden death of former supervisor Paul Teixeira in 2013 that was ultimately filled by Caren Ray. Winn has taught at Cal Poly for more than two decades.
Winn described himself as a Christian and a social conservative.
Cal Poly spokesman Matt Lazier said the details have “yet to be proven either true or false, as the investigation into this matter is ongoing.”
“The university takes all gender and sexual orientation discrimination and harassment complaints very seriously, responds to all such complaints fully, and imposes appropriate sanctions where violations are found to have occurred,” Lazier said.
The university has 60 working days from the date it received the complaint to complete an investigation and another 10 working days to issue the investigation outcome to Bruckner, which would be Aug. 5, Lazier said.
Bruckner said he first complained in February 2015 — a day after his meeting in Winn’s office — to administrators in the College of Liberal Arts. Administrators recommended that they deal with the situation informally rather than through the university’s Title IX process, which handles complaints of discrimination following a policy spelled out by the California State University system in compliance with federal law.
I will not respond prematurely but let the university process take its rightful course.
Mike Winn, Cal Poly Communications Studies lecturer
Earlier this month, Bruckner decided to file a formal complaint because of his dissatisfaction with the college’s informal process, which included conversations with administrators over the course of several months.
During that informal process, Bruckner received an email on Feb. 12, 2015, from communications studies chair Bernard Duffy that read, “I spoke with Mr. Winn about the concerns you expressed. He was sincerely sorry to have made you uncomfortable and vowed to correct problems that you identified.”
Then on Nov. 19, 2015, Penny Bennett, Cal Poly’s associate dean for student success in the College of Liberal Arts, sent Bruckner an email that read: “In case you had not heard, I wanted to let you know that Professor Winn has retired from Cal Poly. I believe this was a good thing for our university and our students and I’m so glad that you brought your concerns to my attention.”
However, this spring, Bruckner said he ran into Winn walking across campus and learned that he was still teaching at Cal Poly.
“It was so anxiety-producing because the administrators have put me in such a weird, sticky position,” Bruckner said. “Essentially what happened is the dean’s office told me that the professor was forcibly made to retire. I found out in March that they had lied.”
Bruckner said that when he took Winn’s class, the instructor assigned students to come up with ideas for their speeches, which Winn then would approve before the speeches were delivered in class. Winn ultimately allowed Bruckner to do the speech related to treatment of gay people during the Holocaust. But the atmosphere still felt unwelcoming to Bruckner.
“He made it so I didn’t want to go to class ever,” Bruckner said. “It was very uncomfortable.”
In addition, Bruckner told The Tribune that on the first day of class, Winn told students that men didn’t have to worry about their dress, but women needed to cover up because “they would distract the men in the class.”
Bruckner said Winn also told the class, “I have to be politically correct in here because of all the liberals.”
Before Winn ultimately approved Bruckner’s speech on the Holocaust, he sent Bruckner an email, which Bruckner provided to The Tribune, dated Feb. 8, 2015, that read, “Your last two speeches were sexual-orientation related, so your next two need to be about other things. (A violin needs more than one string.) Do choose something else.”
Bruckner replied to Winn, saying his first speech “was sexual orientation related, however my last speech had nothing to do with sexual orientation other than a comedic remark my interviewee made about her experiences with lesbians.”
On Feb. 9, 2015, Winn sent an email stating, “Just a quick note, Mick, to reassure you (via email) that your proposed topic is approved.”
Bruckner has been an active participant and co-coordinator of protests on campus this year organized by the SLO Solidarity movement.
The group has pushed for widespread changes on campus to create a more tolerant and welcoming atmosphere for minority students. They say microaggressions, including the comments Bruckner attributed to Winn, isolate them and make them feel unwelcome at Cal Poly.
Winn has a website link titled “Cal Poly’s Quirky Professors” on his Cal Poly biography with a blog article about him, listing his background and accomplishments. The write-up includes mention of 15 occupations during his life, including orthodontist, farmer, railroad worker and ordained pastor, and says he is fluent in five languages.
The write-up adds that his “main purpose as professor is to encourage self-discovery.”
“I try to give (students) stimulus to help them figure out who they are,” the website quotes him saying. “Are they going to be good people or are they going to be Democrats?”
In general, sanctions for violation of a university policy can range from a written reprimand to suspension or dismissal, with additional possible requirements such as relevant training and education.
Professors have a right to free speech, the protections of which are broad and can’t be limited simply because an audience may find it offensive, Lazier said.
“However, speech that promotes an unlawful end is excluded from First Amendment protection,” Lazier said. “This might include promoting violence or making threats, harassment, defamation or false advertising.”