- Tenured Professor of English at Michigan State University (MSU)
- Founding member of the Native American Writer’s Circle
- Suspended from MSU after telling students that Republicans have “raped this country”
Born in Los Angeles in March 1949, William S. Penn graduated with both an A.B. and a Master’s Degree from the University of California at Davis in 1971. Eight years later, he earned a doctorate from Syracuse University. After completing his formal studies, Penn taught at such places as the State University of New York at Oswego, Pace University, and Hostos Community College. Today he is a tenured professor of English at Michigan State University.
Penn’s ethnic heritage derives partly from the Nez Perce and Osage Native American tribes as well as from other nationalities. He uses the term “mixblood” to describe himself and others of similar backgrounds, and maintains that one’s self-identification as Native American is far more significant than the specifics of his or her bloodline. “The authenticity of a Native American” identity, says Penn, “depends on imagination and fantasy, on upbringing, culture, language and the continued process of being. I don't think that anyone can say: 'You are [Native American] and you aren't.'” Penn contrasts this perspective with that of so-called “essentialists” who “com[e] along and mak[e] a bigger blood claim than you and sa[y]: 'I'm more Indian than you are.' Essentialism is a game and one that is not worthwhile.”
Penn’s identity as a Native American has influenced his many writings and several books which include The Absence of Angels (1994), All My Sins Are Relatives (1996), This Is the World (2000), Killing Time with Strangers (2005), and As We Are Now: Mixblood Essays on Race and Identity (1998), which Penn contributed to and edited. His works have been recognized with several honors including the Stephen Crane Prize for Fiction (which he won twice), an American Book Award, and a North American Indian Prose Award. MSU also recognized Penn with a Distinguished Faculty Award in 2003.
Students who take Penn's courses commonly complain that he uses class time to proselytize his leftist politics, holds conservatives in deep contempt, and is highly intolerant of opposing viewpoints. On August 29, 2013, a student in Penn's “Literatures, Cultures, Identities” course captured one of the professor's angry tirades on video, the contents of which sparked considerable controversy and caused Michigan State to suspend Penn for the rest of that Fall semester.
Specifically, Penn shouted that “this country still is full of closet racists,” and he accused Republicans of orchestrating “voter suppression” campaigns in states like South Carolina and North Carolina, for the purpose of “getting black people not to vote”—“because black people tend to vote Democratic.” “Republicans are not a majority in this country anymore,” Penn gloated. “They are a bunch of dead white people. Or dying white people.”
Penn further denounced Republicans as “cheap,” “greedy bastards” who are “rich like Mitt Romney and hide all [their] income offshore in the Cayman Islands.” They “don't want to pay taxes,” Penn added, “because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could.” “I'm a college professor,” he warned the students. “If I find out you're a closet racist, I'm coming after you.”
Notwithstanding his suspension for this outburst, Penn remains a tenured faculty member at MSU, where he earns a salary in excess of $146,000 per year.