In mid-January, Pennsylvania State University came under fire after a professor asked his students to “explain why the Taliban is not a terrorist organization.”
Now, a university spokesperson has told The College Fix that the assignment was misunderstood.
“Penn State does not align with such violent groups whose values are so disparate from ours,” Bill Hessert, director of strategic communications at Penn State, told the Fix.
“This class, which is part of the political science major and can be used for the homeland security minor, was developed to understand and analyze world views,” he added.
Hessert told the outlet that the “Politics of Terrorism” class professor, Christopher Cook, believes the Taliban is a “a horrible and vicious group that has committed atrocities” while noting that the group has not been officially classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. Currently, Pakistan’s Tehrik-e Taliban is designated by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization, but other Taliban groups are not.
Hessert told the Fix that the purpose of the Cook’s assignment was for students to use the State Department’s definition of terrorism to explain why the Taliban were not on its list and that the assignment was not a political statement from the professor.
The full assignment asked students to “In one page, explain why the Taliban is have not [sic] and are still not a terrorist organization.”
“You are not allowed to answer this question in any other way,” the assignment also said. “Any attempt to avoid the [sic] answering this prompt as written; or trying to argue otherwise will result in a failing grade. If you have any questions on the pedagogy behind this assignment — please contact me.”
“Remember to try and use the readings and definitions from this lesson to support your paper, not your feelings on the issue,” the professor added.
As the Fix noted, the assignment was shared by a student on Twitter, who said during a Fox News interview that she found the assignment “completely unacceptable.”
“I’ve had assignments in which they ask me to argue both sides, I love doing that kind of stuff. I think it’s beneficial to every student — but that’s not what this assignment was,” she told Fox.
The student transferred out of the class.
Professor Cook acknowledged the assignment in a tweet earlier in January.
“I am going to guess there is a Venn Diagram between the people who struggled understanding why the Taliban were not terrorists for the [last] 20 years and those who think there can be justified violence against the American government,” he tweeted.
The situation is reminiscent of an assignment from Iowa State University – but in that case, the assignment wasn’t misunderstood, but seen as offensive.
“Write a paper that gives a historical account of 911 from the perspective of the terrorist network. In other words, how might Al-Qaeda or a non-Western historian describe what happened,” was the assignment given to students in March 2017, the Fix reported.