US universities try barring problematic professors from classroom

Blocked from firing hostile professors, institutions restrict their teaching rights

December 6, 2019
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Source: Reuters

US universities forced by free speech policies to retain faculty with racist, sexist and hostile outlooks are finding a new and uncertain tactic: barring them from classrooms and giving their students alternative choices.

Recent cases include those of Eric Rasmusen, a professor of business at Indiana University Bloomington; Amy Wax, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania; and Akbar Sayeed, a professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

All three are facing restrictions on their teaching, but keeping their jobs, even as administrators vent frustration. In one of the most explicit rebukes, Indiana’s provost, Lauren Robel, openly blasted Professor Rasmusen’s public criticisms of female, black and gay teachers and students as “stunningly ignorant”.

Less clear was whether the classroom limits will prove sufficient with angry students or, if it is asked, the US legal system.

Faculty at public institutions do have a clear First Amendment right to express their opinions outside their classrooms, said William Creeley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which works to protect free speech in academia.

Students of such faculty can expect legal protection, said Mr Creeley, the senior vice-president of legal and public advocacy at Fire, only if they can show a court that a professor’s stated bias translated into actual harm in the classroom.

The apparent new middle ground – university administrators limiting the teaching rights of such faculty – looks workable, Mr Creeley said. But, he warned, there was at least some precedent suggesting otherwise: a federal court ruled in 1992 that the City University of New York was unfairly punitive when it gave students an alternative to a class taught by a professor who published what the court described as “denigrating comments concerning the intelligence and social characteristics of blacks”.

Professor Rasmusen has for years offered his opinion that women do not belong in the workplace, especially academia; that gay men are unfit for teaching because they are prone to abusing students; and that black students are generally inferior academically to white students and unqualified for elite institutions.

In response, Professor Robel, a professor of law, promised last month that no student would be put in a position of needing to take a course from Professor Rasmusen, and that his grading would be subject to oversight that includes double-blind assessments or review by another faculty member.

Professor Wax has made comments that include suggesting the US would be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites, and saying she’s never seen a black Penn law student graduate in the top quarter of their class. Penn’s law dean, Theodore Ruger, publicly condemned such comments, and removed Professor Wax from teaching a mandatory first-year course.

At Wisconsin, Professor Sayeed was given a mandatory two-year leave of absence, due to expire next month, after one of his graduate students committed suicide and an investigation revealed a pattern of him subjecting his assistants to derogatory and threatening verbal abuse.

He was hired by the National Science Foundation during that two-year leave, after Wisconsin failed to notify the NSF of the circumstances that led to his temporary removal. Terms for Professor Sayeed’s return to Madison include the creation of an outside committee to monitor his treatment of students in his research group. He won’t be teaching, administrators said, until the university is satisfied that conditions are in place “to prevent potential harm to students”.

In all three cases, hundreds have signed petitions protesting their university’s refusal to take tougher action against the faculty members.

Noting the Rasmusen and Wax cases in particular, Mr Creeley said Fire had taken pride in helping faculty fight broad calls within college communities to punish them simply for expressing objectionable ideas outside their classrooms.

Such cases include those of Mike Adams, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington with a history of misogynistic, homophobic and racist rhetoric who successfully sued over the denial of his bid for full professor status; and Randa Jarrar, a tenured professor of English who avoided a threatened investigation by California State University, Fresno for responding on Twitter to the death of former US first lady Barbara Bush by calling her “an amazing racist”.

The act of reducing or restricting a faculty member’s teaching authority, however, struck legal experts as entering more complicated and unsettled territory.

Josh Blackman, an associate professor of law at the South Texas College of Law Houston, wrote an assessment of the Rasmusen and Wax cases that noted the 1992 federal court ruling in New York but questioned its broader applicability, given that professors were not generally guaranteed particular teaching loads.

Mr Creeley said he also was intrigued by the legal uncertainty raised by cases such as that of Professor Rasmusen, in which black, female or gay students may fear his ideologies harming their grades but they can’t directly prove it.

“It’s an age-old question – where do your rights begin and mine end, absent any kind of disruption in the classroom,” Mr Creeley said. “There’s a lot to a lot to commend in the provost’s statement. It will be interesting to see where it goes from there.”


Print headline: Problematic professors barred from classrooms in US universities

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Reader's comments (2)

Not a word in this article about the fear and silencing such decisions create.
Rasmussen replied to the original charges here (