Inside Higher Ed: The professor’s night job

By Dan Berrett, for Inside Higher Ed

March 15, 2011

A former assistant professor of psychology at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, California, has sued the institution for sex discrimination, alleging that she was fired for performing in an off-campus burlesque act.

On its own, the federal complaint, filed by Sheila M. Addison last week in US District Court for the Northern District of California, raises questions about sex, gender stereotypes and free speech for faculty members. In the context of the recent uproar at Northwestern University, where a professor of human sexuality arranged to have a live sex demonstration take place in his lecture hall after class, some say that Addison’s case also raises concerns about double standards of sexually related conduct as they apply to men and women in academe.

Addison was hired in September 2007 to teach graduate students under a one-year contract as an assistant professor of psychology. The following July, she was awarded a two-year contract that stated that she could be fired only for just cause, according to the complaint. The contract also held that she would be deemed to have her contract extended unless it was formally cancelled. It was not cancelled as she never received negative performance evaluations, the complaint says.

At about the same time that she started working at JFK, she began performing under a pseudonym, Professor Shimmy, at the Hubba Hubba Revue, a burlesque show in San Francisco. Addison performed intermittently with the revue, which typically plays to 400 to 600 people every month, said producer and co-founder Jim Sweeney. Hubba Hubba, like traditional burlesque, intertwines partial striptease (down to pasties and G-strings), dance and comedy with parody and references to popular culture.

Addison also belonged to a group of performers who sought to bring social commentary to their acts. Some of her performances tell stories, including one in which she performs with a classically trained male ballet dancer. He is dressed as a snow fairy and she as the abominable snowman (as can be seen in a YouTube video). As they remove nearly all of their clothes, their gender identities are revealed to be the opposite of what they first seemed.

Addison’s group incorporated social commentary in other ways as well. The body types of the performers – Sweeney said that a 74-year-old often performs with Hubba Hubba – play into the revue’s ethos of challenging social norms. “There’s not a distinction about the forms or the shapes of the people who do burlesque nowadays. You can be any age and any size,” he said. “[Addison]’s absolutely someone who believes in those things and typifies those things.”

But officials at JFK deemed her participation in the burlesque act to be inappropriate, the complaint says, though she never publicised it on campus, discussed it with students or identified her affiliation with JFK when she performed. A letter, dated June 21, informed her that she was fired, effective nine days later.

Her participation in the burlesque performances was the only reason cited in her termination letter, the complaint says. Steven Stargardter, president of the university, explained in the letter to her that her actions brought “public disrespect, contempt and ridicule to the university”, the complaint says. Her contract as a Core Faculty Member specified that she could not participate in any activity that “may be adverse to the interests of the university”.

But her firing, Addison alleges in her suit, “evidences the university’s disgust for a woman performing in politically, socially and sexually based performance art”. One basis for her claims of sex discrimination, as she alleges in the complaint, is that a male colleague in another department was performing at the same time in a one-man show in which he was partially nude. Although he publicised his show on campus and invited students and colleagues, he was not disciplined, the complaint alleges.

The university said it could not comment on the case beyond a blanket refutation of the claims because the matter is in litigation. “The university believes at this time that the allegations are without merit,” said Theresa Rodgers, director of human resources at JFK.

According to letters from the administration that are cited in the complaint, Addison needed to be fired because a mere warning and change of behaviour would not suffice. “The damage had already occurred,” she was told. Administrators also cited concerns that word of her performances had spread among students, who had lost respect for her and were “shocked and dismayed”.

Addison appealed to California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, both of which issued right-to-sue notices; then she filed the federal lawsuit. In her suit, Addison seeks lost wages and damages and cites 15 causes of action, including breach of contract, unfair business practices, termination for political activity, sex discrimination, harassment for failure to conform to gender stereotype and tortious termination.

“From our perspective,” said her lawyer, Greg Groeneveld, “this is about the right of college and graduate school faculty to engage in artistic and political activity on their own time.”

Addison’s case, while different in several respects, is also notable given the attention generated by a recent controversy at Northwestern University. John Michael Bailey, a professor in the department of psychology, held an optional presentation after his human sexuality class in which a naked woman was stimulated to orgasm with a sex toy. Northwestern’s president, Morton Schapiro, said he was “troubled and disappointed by what occurred” and ordered an investigation, which is still under way. Bailey issued an apology and some of his students have defended him, but there have been – as of yet – no formal consequences.

The disparity between the two cases reflects a double standard in how men and women are treated, both in higher education and in the workplace more generally, said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy for the American Association of University Women. Although she said tenure also likely played a role – Bailey at Northwestern has tenure, Addison does not – Maatz wondered what would have happened if a woman had commissioned a sexual demonstration like he did. “Had this been a woman, this wouldn’t have just been a scandal – it would have been written about in much more lurid ways.”

As for Addison’s situation, Maatz said it exemplified how narrow the margin for error is for women in academe. “The gray area for women is much smaller,” she said. “‘Good girls’ get rewards and rebels or people who speak truth to power aren’t necessarily appreciated.” At the same time, she acknowledged – while specifying that she was not necessarily referring to either case – that poor judgment spans genders. “Unfortunately,” she added, “decision-making and consequences often do come from a gender lens.”

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