Guest Post by Liz Nutt
When middle managers get fired in the corporate world, usually little more than an in-office scandal ensues. But when controversial college faculty members get the boot, it’s major news for students, alumni, and the university community. And although the decisions are not necessarily always right, they sure are interesting to hear about. Sexual harassment charges, blasphemous opinions, and even plagiarism are to blame for some of the most controversial faculty firings we’ve ever encountered. Read on to learn about these stories and more.
The dismissal hearing of Marc Ellis is currently underway at Baylor University, and things don’t look good. Ellis has been a leading critic of Israeli policies affecting the Palestinians, and has been named one of The Most Dangerous Academics in America. It seems that Baylor doesn’t like to have such danger on their staff, and they have charged Ellis with sexual misconduct following an EEOC complaint of sexual harassment. But it is not the charges that are controversial in this case, it’s the method of prosecution under the leadership of Baylor president Ken Starr, the very same Ken Starr that was special counsel in the prosecution against Bill Clinton. Starr has been criticized for delving deeply into Ellis’ personal life, “phoning just about everybody who’s ever known Ellis.” This dismissal has been fought fervently, with an objection filed by the American Academy of University Professors, as well as a petition on Change.org. Ellis believes that Starr has taken on this campaign against him to “remake Baylor in his own image;” a conservative evangelical Christian one.
Norman Finkelstein was fired from DePaul University in 2007, as the university found his teachings to be in conflict with “DePaul’s Vincentian Values.” Specifically, Finkelstein’s criticism of the way American-Jewish groups have handled the Holocaust as “Holocaust mongers” led to the cancellation of his only course and a denial of tenure. A strong supporter of Finkelstein’s, Mahrene Larudee, was also denied tenure. Finkelstein’s views are controversial, and his firing was as well. Critics point out that the “Vincentian Values” that Finkelstein violated also includes the respect of others’ opinions, and that the principle of firing a professor for his ideas is incorrect. Finkelstein’s denial was met with weeks of protests, including a sit-in and hunger strike. He eventually announced his resignation after reaching a settlement with the university.
A George Washington University human sexuality professor was fired over a single student evaluation. The popular teacher candidly discussed human reproductive anatomy, homosexuality, and masturbation in his course for more than 17 years, and even shared controversial material including a masturbation video and portions of student papers read aloud in class. Although Schaffer’s student evaluations often included comments like “this is the best course I’ve ever had,” one evaluation in particular did not have such a glowing review, and the student even threatened to file a sexual harassment suit. Two months after the review was submitted, Schaffer’s contract was not renewed, and he was told to “check your student evaluations” to find out why. It was later revealed by Schaffer that he was fired because his academic standards were not rigorous enough for GW.
Calvin College stems from the Calvinist branch of Christianity, and requires its faculty members to sign a pledge that they will “teach, speak, and write in harmony with the confessions” adopted by the Reformed Protestants. John Schneider, a former Calvin College theology professor, took that pledge, and seemingly violated it by sharing his view that there was no historical Adam and Eve. His “early retirement” was undertaken without much drama from Schneider or Calvin College, but the incident was called out by The Chronicle of Higher Education as “The Shame of Calvin College.” The piece criticizes Calvin College for insisting on exact subscription to beliefs and declares that the college’s reputation is stained as “dogmatic biblical literalism trumps modern science.” Schneider left Calvin College with his head held high, and went on to explore his beliefs with a fellowship at Notre Dame.
Economics professor Subramanian Swamy fought Harvard and won, only to lose again. After Swamy wrote an Indian newspaper column that some characterized as hate speech against Muslims, he was hit with a student-based petition calling for his termination. With the support of FIRE, Harvard defended Swamy’s right to free speech and kept him on the faculty roster. But he was effectively fired by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who voted to cancel all of his courses. Swamy fought back, calling the faculty members out as “leftists who have nothing to do with economics.” His firing has been criticized as setting a dangerous precedent.
Madonna Constantine’s troubles started in 2007, when she found a noose hanging from her office door, an incident that is believed to have been racially based. Things didn’t get any better in 2008, when Constantine faced sanctions from Columbia University Teachers College for plagiarism. She was found to have used the work of colleagues and students without attribution in journal papers. Constantine denied the charges and fired back, calling her dismissal an “academic lynching” and accusing the college of institutional racism for not completing a full investigation. She filed three suits against the college, including a $200 million defamation suit. Her firing was upheld.
On the heels of 9/11, Ward Churchill, a former University of Colorado professor, wrote a controversial essay in which he argued that American foreign policies were to blame for the attacks, even going so far as to refer to the dead as “little Eichmans,” a Nazi reference. This sparked an investigation into Churchill’s academic work, and the university found that he was guilty of plagiarism and research misconduct. Churchill fought back against the firing, and was backed up by FIRE, suing on the basis that his academic investigation was a direct result of his controversial essay. He was also supported by defenders who did not necessarily agree with his inflammatory speech, but nonetheless disagreed with the university’s attack on academic discourse. Churchill won the unlawful termination of employment lawsuit and was awarded just $1 in damages. The ruling was later vacated and it was determined that the university did not have to pay Churchill his dollar, or rehire him to work at the university.
As a Brooklyn College grad student, Kristofer Petersen-Overton was slated to teach a master’s-level course on Middle Eastern politics, only to have the offer pulled out from under him due to “underqualification.” It was revealed that there were several other similarly qualified students teaching graduate courses, and that in fact, his denial had more to do with “deep reservations” about his pro-Palestinian political beliefs. This set off a controversy questioning academic freedom, with widespread support for Petersen-Overton. Brooklyn College rehired him, but denies that the move was due to outside pressure. Peterson-Overton himself has called his rehiring “a victory for academic freedom.”
Professors often deal with distractions like noisy students who won’t stop talking during lectures. Peter Quint from the University of Oregon is no exception, and during a lecture in his American Sign Language Class, he threatened to shoot a student in the head so that he would understand what he was talking about. Meant to goad the student into respectfully quieting down, the sarcastic comment sparked an official complaint instead. University officials put Quint on paid leave for the remainder of the semester, and informed him that he would not be re-appointed to teach future courses. Quint is being defended by FIRE, and has even filed suit against the university, but so far, has not gotten his job back.
Jose Angel Santana:
It seems that messing with James Franco is playing with fire, a lesson that one former NYU professor has learned firsthand. After Franco received a D in his class, Santana was dismissed. Santana believes this is all a part of NYU’s campaign to “curry favor with James Franco.” The professor gave Franco a D due to excessive absences: an amazing 12 out of 14 classes missed. Although Franco didn’t do well in Santana’s class, he was deemed good enough to teach an NYU course on adapting poetry into short films. Santana has since filed suit against NYU to get his job back, and has pointed out that another NYU professor, graduate film department chairman John Tintori, who gave Franco high marks was later hired by the actor to work with him on film projects.
previously published here