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Cadet of Gratitude

Did a Saint Xavier University professor send a scathing, condemnatory message to an Air Force Academy cadet?

Published Nov 19, 2002

Claim:   A Saint Xavier University professor sent a scathing, condemnatory message to an Air Force Academy cadet who was seeking assistance in planning an assembly for college students.

Status:   True.

Origins:   This story pretty much tells itself, so we're simply reproducing the e-mail and paper trail here with a minimum of explanatory narrative.

Every year since 1959, the United States Air Force has held an Academy Assembly, an undergraduate student conference sponsored jointly by the Air Force Academy and Columbia University's American Assembly. The purpose of the conference is to provide 160 qualified undergraduates with an opportunity to discuss a topic of international significance with prominent academics, business leaders, government officials, and non-governmental organization members.

In preparation for an upcoming Academy Assembly, in October 2002 a U.S. Air Force Academy cadet named Robert Kurpiel sent a general e-mail to a number of academics, seeking their assistance in promoting the event at campuses around the country. One such message was addressed to Peter N. Kirstein, a professor of history at Saint Xavier University in Chicago:

Kirstein, Peter N.
Room: L347
Phone Ext: 3283
Email: kirstein@sxu.edu
Fax: 298-3314

Dear Sir or Ma’am

The Air Force Academy is going to be having our annual Academy Assembly. This is a forum for mainly but not only Political Science majors, discussing very important issues dealing with politics.

Right now we are in the planning stage for advertising and we would appreciate your help in the follow areas. Do you know of or have methods or ways for interschool advertising and or communications? What would be the best way for us to advertise at your school whether it is sending you the fliers and you making copies or by perhaps putting an advertisement in your local publication? We would appreciate your input and the cost of what your recommend. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Very Respectfully,

Cadet Robert Kurpiel

What Cadet Kurpiel received in response from Professor Kirstein was a scathing retort which branded military members as "baby-killers" who are "worse than the snipers" and "reign death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world," called the cadet "a disgrace to his country," and urged him to "resign your commission and serve your country with honour":

From: Peter Kirstein
Sent: Thursday, October 31, 2002 1:46 PM
To: Kurpiel Robert C4C CS26
Subject: Re: Academy Assembly

You are a disgrace to this country and I am furious you would even think I would support you and your aggressive baby-killing tactics of collateral damage. Help you recruit. Who, top guns to reign death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world? Are you serious sir? Resign your commission and serve your country with honour....

You are worse than the snipers. You are imperialists who are turning the whole damn world against us. September 11 can be blamed in part for what you and your cohorts have done to Palestinians, the VC, the Serbs, a retreating army at Basra.

You are unworthy of my support.

Peter N. Kirstein
Professor of History
Saint Xavier University

After Professor Kirstein's caustic response was forwarded to other Academy cadets (and, inevitably, loosed on the Internet), it triggered a flood of angry complaints via e-mail and telephone to Saint Xavier University from Air Force Academy cadets, servicemen in all branches of the armed forces, veterans, and the general public. Professor Kirstein soon issued apologies to Cadet Kurpiel and Captain Jim Borders, the director of the Air Force Academy Assembly:

Captain Jim Borders, USAFA
Director, Academy Assembly
Instructor, Political Science

Dear Captain Borders,

I have expressed to Cadet Kurpiel my regrets over what I communicated to him in my e-mail. I did not mean to impugn his character. I am sure he is of the highest character. I should have written him in a more thoughtful and contemplative manner. As one who believes in non-violence and the avoidance of conflict, I could have been more circumspect and creative in my communication with him.

Cadet Kurpiel has sent me several generous, thoughtful and impressive e-mails. He has also expressed "apologies" for the unwarranted national distribution of a private e-mail correspondence which has caused me and others to receive 100s of e-mail messages. I hope this update on my response and the cadet's kind communication will serve to inform the public that this issue has been resolved with dignity and honour between myself and Cadet Kurpiel.

I remain respectfully yours,

Peter N. Kirstein
Professor of History
Saint Xavier University

Professor Kirstein also placed a public statement of apology on his section of Saint Xavier University's web site:

Again I would like to apologize to all who are offended, burdened, distracted and hurt by my e-mail to an Air Force Academy cadet. My e-mail, while motivated from a pacifist perspective, was not professional in tone and totally at variance with my usual interaction with students and colleagues.

I am opposed to war and the use of violence in resolving international conflicts while understanding many believe it is appropriate as a last resort. I believe pacifism is a noble calling and should be part of the national dialogue concerning war, peace, and justice. I recognize individuals who serve in the military deserve respect both for their service and their viewpoints. It is wrong for me or anyone to blame an individual serving in the military when the debate is over national policy. I know as a member of the academic profession that one should be respectful and not disparage a person without careful examination of fact. I have paid a great price for my lapses and I have learned from my errors.

My teaching encourages open inquiry, vigorous debate, and ideological diversity. Straight lecture is not my style of teaching. Student participation, oral reports, and oral exams are essential components of my teaching. I encourage all students to participate in class and to express their opinions and viewpoints. I do not seek intellectual compliance but open, critical inquiry. My revisionist approach to historiography and the teaching of history is intended to foster reassessment of historical events in the light of new scholarship and evolving societal standards of justice and ethics. That entails obviously comparisons to earlier scholarship as well. Teaching is a passion and I strive for excellence every time I walk into a classroom. I have won both institutional and external honors for the quality of my teaching.

I deeply regret the hurtful way I communicated to the cadet and it will never happen again.

Peter N. Kirstein, Ph.D.

Captain Borders then issued a memorandum to his cadet wing in order to close the matter:

November 4, 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There has been considerable attention given to an e-mail received by a Fourth Class Cadet here at the United States Air Force Academy from Professor Peter N. Kirstein of Saint Xavier University. Dr Kirstein's e-mail was a response to an e-mail he had received concerning the Academy Assembly. The Academy Assembly is a forum to promote academic discussion of important issues of our day and to allow the student delegates from all over the North America to draft a report that is widely disseminated. This year our theme is America's Challenges in an Unstable World: Balancing Security with Liberty. I am pleased to say that a "cyber-episode" that started poorly has evolved into a more professional and academic discussion. Please find [above] a letter of apology from Dr Kirstein which I received this morning, accompanied by a phone call. I have drafted this message in response to his correspondence and with an advance copy to Dr. Kirstein.

On behalf of the Academy Assembly I accept this apology in the same sincere manner in which it was given. Furthermore, I would like to offer my own apology to Dr Kirstein for the way his original message, which was intended as private communication, was spread throughout the Air Force Academy and beyond. Since that e-mail was forwarded with such great vigor to many individuals both within and outside the Air Force Academy, I would ask that you, the reader of this letter, please forward this e-mail to anyone to whom you sent the original message.

Two results of this are obvious and I want to share them with you. The first is that through well considered words and messages a situation that was initally highly inflammatory has become one in which diverse ideas can be compared and discussed; this is the essence of the Academy Assembly.

Second, though emotions have run understandably high throughout the USAFA Cadet Wing in response to this e-mail, replies to this e-mail from our cadets have been, almost without exception, marked by great maturity and professionalism. I was presented nearly forty proposed responses to the original e-mail from cadets, but the one that best encapsulates the opinion of the cadet wing is a quote from their book, Contrails, which serves as not only a statement for others, but an admonition for themselves.

"It is the soldier, not the reporter who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag." — Father Dennis Edward O'Brien, Sergeant, USMC

I would dare to add one thought to the above quote; that we in the military, as servants of the public, must carefully guard and cherish our relationship with the civilian community. We must always remain open and responsive to legitimate criticism that is presented in a spirit of willingness to improve the forces that guard our country and make them an institution that all Americans can take pride in. I am pleased to say that this discussion, of which many of you only saw the first portion, has moved towards that high plain.

Respectfully yours,

Captain Jim Borders, USAFA
Director, Academy Assembly
Instructor, Political Science

However, many people found Professor Kirstein's apology less than satisfactory, as evidenced by the auto-reply established for the mailbox of Saint Xavier University president Dr. Richard Yanikoski:

Saint Xavier University

You have reached the Office of the President, Saint Xavier University.

I very much regret having to resort to an automated response, but I must do so for two reasons. First, messages of concern from military men and women around the world now far exceed my ability to respond to them individually. I have sent hundreds of personal replies during the past 5 days but, unfortunately, I no longer have the ability to keep up. Second, I will be away from the university for several days on important university business. I will keep on top of this matter, but will have limited time in front of a computer.


Here is a brief summary of what I have heard so far, and my responses.


— "Prof. Peter Kirstein's initial email to a cadet at the Air Force Academy was tasteless, unprovoked, rude, unprofessional, and indefensible." I agree completely.

— "Prof. Kirstein's apologies seem less than genuine to some who have read his remarks." It always is difficult to look into a man's soul, but I believe Dr. Kirstein's apologies to be genuine. However, apologies are insufficient by themselves. Fortunately, the cadet has graciously accepted Prof. Kirstein's apology, as have others at the Academy, and conversation now is proceeding in a courteous, professional manner.

— "The forthcoming Academic Assembly at the Academy is an event worth supporting. It's a shame that Saint Xavier's response was so negative." Prof. Kirstein did not speak for the University in his first response. Saint Xavier University intends to identify and support one or more students who will attend the Assembly.

— "Prof. Kirstein has spoiled the reputation of the University, particularly if his views or the manner in which he expressed them are reflective of the University's attitude." Prof. Kirstein's views are solely his own and do not reflect the University in substance or tone. Saint Xavier University stands for reasoned discourse and educational practices based on "respect, caring, and justice." Prof. Kirstein's email to the cadet reflected none of these attributes. Crude language is not and will not be tolerated.

— "Prof. Kirstein should be summarily fired." As president, I am exploring all options for ensuring that such behavior never again occurs. While I understand why many request his immediate dismissal, I have to weigh very carefully matters of due process, academic protocol, legal precedent, and the greater good. I assure you that I will do what is right in this matter. I also will follow the University's policy of not discussing personnel matters with third parties.

— "Academic freedom is not a legitimate defense for the kind of language used by Prof. Kirstein." I agree. Academic freedom is about the right to search for truth, the right to hold views at odds with the majority, and the right to teach unencumbered by rigid orthodoxies. It does not justify hate speech, vile language, etc. Professors here and elsewhere are expected to be respectful at all times, to engage in genuine, reasoned discourse about controversial matters, and to distinguish personal views from institutional positions when necessary for the sake of clarity. Thus, Prof. Kirstein is free to hold views critical of the military if he wishes to do so, but he is not free to issue demeaning, degrading statements AS A PROFESSOR in or outside of the classroom. In other respects, he enjoys the same freedoms of speech extended to all citizens.

I deeply regret the hurt that has affected so many. As both president and former USAF, I offer my most sincere apologies to all in the military and beyond whose sacrifices and intentions have been denigrated by Prof. Kirstein's words. I ask for your understanding as we attempt to rectify this unexpected situation. Please know that the University is taking this matter very seriously and will do its best to bring the matter to a proper close. You have been heard! My goal is to seek a just solution, a practical response, and a lasting form of resolution that will uphold the integrity of both the university and the military.

To those who are current or former members of the military, I offer my heart-felt gratitude for your service to the nation and I extend my personal best wishes on the occasion of Veterans Day.

Sincerely and respectfully yours,

Dr. Richard Yanikoski, President Saint Xavier University

On 15 November 2002, President Yanikoski issued a statement on the Saint Xavier University web site announcing, among other things, that Professor Kirstein had been relieved of teaching responsibilities for rest of the semester and had received an official administrative reprimand:

Statement regarding Professor Peter N. Kirstein, Ph.D.

Richard A. Yanikoski, Ph.D.
President, Saint Xavier University
November 15, 2002

During recent weeks Saint Xavier University has attracted national attention because a tenured professor of history sent a young Air Force Academy cadet some e-mail containing inflammatory, anti-military comments. Professor Peter N. Kirstein, an avowed pacifist, quickly apologized to the cadet and to the Air Force Academy for his e-mail message, but in the meantime thousands of other interested parties have taken offense.

From the beginning of this incident, Saint Xavier University has worked to achieve four objectives: (1) to make things right with the cadet and the Air Force Academy; (2) to respond compassionately to the anger and anguish aroused in so many quarters; (3) to counsel and discipline Professor Kirstein in appropriate ways; and (4) to ensure that teaching and learning at the University will continue unimpeded.

The following actions have been or will be taken to make things right with the cadet and the Air Force Academy: (1) Professor Kirstein sent a personal apology to the cadet and to the Air Force Academy. Subsequent correspondence between them has been open and respectful. (2) The University extended an official apology to the Academy’s Superintendent, and as president of the University, I have agreed to accept an invitation to visit the Academy within the coming year. (3) Saint Xavier University will send a delegation to the Air Force Academy’s upcoming Academic Assembly. (4) Campus officials have attempted to respond to all cadets, parents, and members of the Academy staff who telephoned or wrote to the University. Any omissions in this regard have been unintentional.

To respond compassionately to the large number of men and women who somehow received copies of Professor Kirstein’s e-mail and thereby came to feel demeaned by his intemperate criticisms of the military, the University has done the following: (1) Faculty, staff and administrators throughout the University have fielded telephone calls during the past two weeks, in each case listening sensitively to complaints and advice. (2) We answered hundreds of e-mail messages personally, until the rising volume of correspondence made individual responses impossible. (3) We cooperated with the press in an ongoing effort to ensure accurate and responsible coverage. (4) We used web-page updates to summarize the University’s response to this emerging situation. (5) We consistently admitted that Professor Kirstein’s e-mail message was unwarranted and unbecoming a scholar.

By far the topic of greatest interest to most people has been the University’s response to Professor Kirstein. After careful deliberation, I have decided to take the following actions on behalf of the University:

  1. Effective on the afternoon of November 11, 2002, Professor Kirstein was relieved of his teaching responsibilities for the current semester and reassigned to other duties.
  2. An administrative reprimand will be delivered to Professor Kirstein and placed in his personnel file.
  3. While on sabbatical leave during the spring semester of 2003, Professor Kirstein will submit his teaching, scholarship, professional development, and service record to peer evaluation within the norms of the University’s procedures for periodic review of tenured faculty. Professor Kirstein volunteered to have this review conducted earlier than it otherwise would have been.
  4. Any future faculty contract(s) extended to Professor Kirstein will include a binding addendum specifically requiring him to adhere both to institutional policies and to the norms of the American Association of University Professors in matters relating to the proper exercise of academic freedom and extramural activities.

No additional information will be released by the University with respect to the above actions or other personnel matters concerning Professor Peter Kirstein. This is in accord with University practice.

Professor Kirstein and the University community deeply regret the incident that began this chain of events. Saint Xavier University remains committed to the pursuit of teaching and learning in a campus community where all are treated with respect, caring and justice and where academic freedom is enjoyed for purpose of promoting quality teaching, careful research, critical analysis, thoughtful discussion, and programs of direct service to metropolitan Chicago and beyond.

Last updated:   28 November 2007


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David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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