At writ's end, lecturers may see students in court

May 8, 2008

If developments in US higher education today are an indicator of tomorrow's trends in the UK, students may want to think twice about the way they treat their lecturers.

Anecdotal evidence from across the Atlantic suggests that academics are increasingly willing to take legal action against their students, with two threatening to sue in recent weeks.

Priya Venkatesan, a former lecturer at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, e-mailed students and staff to inform them that she was considering legal action for alleged discrimination and harassment.

The lecturer, who is also an alumna of Dartmouth, said she had been driven to take action because of a pattern of "hostility, anti-intellectualism and very demeaning behaviour" both inside and outside the classroom.

Her threats are reported to have caused consternation among her former students. However, Dartmouth's general counsel said Dr Venkatesan was on shaky legal ground.

In a statement, Robert B. Donin said: "We have determined that there is no basis for such (legal) action, and we have advised the students and faculty members of this."

In a separate incident, Richard J. Peltz, a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is suing two students from the local chapter of the Black Law Students Association, as well as the association itself, accusing them of defamation.

He alleges that comments he made about affirmative action were used unfairly to accuse him of racism in a way that tarnished his reputation.

Jonathan Knight, of the American Association of University Professors, said such a lawsuit had "troubling implications" for academic freedom.

"When you ask a court to become involved in making judgments about the meat and bones of free expression on campus, it can be dangerous," he said.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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