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Thursday, March 12, 2015

John McCarthy: Professor of Math or Meth?

     In high school, I had a French teacher who came unglued in front of her students. She had been acting strangely for weeks, but nobody had reported her. School officials eventually had to haul the disturbed teacher out of the classroom. We never saw her again. I found this quite tragic because she had been an easy-grader. Her replacement was a monster who flunked half the class.

     During my college years I encountered a couple of oddball professors, but witnessed nothing that compares to what Michigan State University students experienced on October 1, 2012 when math professor John McCarthy went off the deep end.

     Professor McCarthy, described by his students as an eccentric who smoked meth, taught in MSU's Engineering Building. Just before one o'clock on the day his students will never forget, he started shouting in class. The professor pressed his hands and his face against a window, and stated to scream at the top of his lungs. (I was a college professor for thirty years, and while I occasionally lost my temper, I never had the urge to scream into window glass.) The out of control professor walked out of the classroom and continued to make a lot of noise as he paced up and down the hallway. At this point someone called 911.

     Professor McCarthy returned to the classroom, and with his terrified students looking on, took off his clothes except for his socks. (Not a good look under any circumstances.) He then ran naked about the room screaming, "There is no f-ing God," and ranting about computers, Steve Jobs, and that everything in life was just an act. (Except, of course, his breakdown.) Traumatized students were fleeing the classroom.

     Fifteen minutes after the 911 call, a period of time that seemed to the students like an eternity, police officers entered the classroom, placed the screaming, naked man into handcuffs, and hauled him off to a local hospital for observation. His students, for the remainder of the semester, were reassigned to other math classes.

     In an email to his former students, Professor McCarthy, after being discharged from the hospital, wrote: "The incident that occurred Monday was unfortunate." (What ever happened to: "I made a fool of myself, scared the hell out of you, and I'm sorry?") "Although I do not remember what happened, I have been told that I may have caused distress among my students in Monday's class. For that I am sorry." (May have caused distress?)

     Professor John McCarthy was not charged with a crime. While he was probably tenured, the professor must have had a hard time justifying his meth-indiced antics as an exercise in academic freedom. Still, in academia, bizarre behavior is tolerated that anywhere else would be frowned upon and cause for dismissal. If the professor lost his job over this incident, there is no mention of it on the Internet. Assuming he kept his position at MSU, how did he muster the nerve to show his face on campus after that? 

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