FIRE Supports Appeal of Unjustly Punished Appalachian State Professor

By on March 25, 2013

Appalachian State University Campus
Appalachian State University Campus. Wikimedia Commons. 

Last week, FIRE sent a letter to Appalachian State University’s (App State’s) Board of Trustees supporting the grievance of tenured sociology professor Jammie Price, who in 2012 was wrongly suspended without due process and ordered to complete a "professional development plan" that violated her academic freedom. FIRE has followed Price’s case since it became public and first expressed our concerns over Price’s treatment to App State Chancellor Kenneth A. Peacock in May 2012.  

Media attention for Price’s case has been widespread. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered it repeatedly. So has Inside Higher Ed. Popular blogs Gawker and Jezebel have noted it as well. And regional publications like the News & Observer and the Watauga Democrat have paid much attention to the case too, focusing on how the App State faculty have responded

Here are the basic facts of the dispute, as we summarize in our letter to Board of Trustees Chair Michael Steinback:

While teaching section 104 of her Sociology 1000 ("Introduction to Sociology") course in late February and early March 2012, Price, who is tenured, reportedly criticized student athletes and referenced recent allegations of sexual assault at App State involving student athletes. Price also allegedly criticized App State and discussed matters relating to her personal life. Two student athletes in the class complained to App State; neither of these students put their complaints in writing. In a later class period, Price screened a documentary, titled The Price of Pleasure: Pornography, Sexuality, and Relationships, which critically examines pornography’s popularity and its effect on popular culture and interpersonal relationships. The screening prompted two additional students to file written complaints against her. 

On March 16, 2012, Price was notified by Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Anthony Gene Carey that she was being placed on "administrative leave with pay" pending an investigation of these complaints. Really, though, this was a euphemism for suspension; Price was removed from teaching, banned from entering certain parts of the App State campus, and prohibited from talking about the case with students or colleagues. Price requested at that time that she be given the opportunity of a hearing before the Faculty Due Process Committee (FDPC), considering her forced leave was disciplinary in nature and constituted a "serious sanction." (Price responded in further detail on April 3, offering an academic context for each complaint registered in the March 16 letter.) 

Price had a good point: App State’s Faculty Handbook describes serious sanctions as including "discharge from employment, suspension, demotion in rank, diminishment in pay, or deprivation of some other substantial interest." (Emphases added.) Faculty facing such sanctions are afforded a right under App State’s policies to have an FDPC hearing. I highly doubt any App State professor in Price’s shoes would interpret her forced leave and suspension from campus as non-disciplinary in nature.  

However, App State chose to characterize Price’s leave as non-disciplinary and rejected her request for an FDPC hearing, declaring that the FDPC had no jurisdiction to hear her case. It cited as its authority a section of App State’s 2011–12 Faculty Handbook that concerns "temporary adjustments of the regularly assigned duties of faculty members" by their departmental chairs and "granting extended leaves of absence." This portion of App State policy did not address involuntary leaves of the type Price was subjected to. 

On April 30, Provost Lori Stewart Gonzalez informed Price that, on the basis of an investigative report compiled by Director of Equity, Diversity and Compliance Linda Foulsham, she had been found to have created a "hostile learning environment" in her classroom. As a result, Gonzalez ordered Price to devise a "professional development plan," subject to approval by the university. Among the "corrective actions" required of the plan were "[s]ensitivity training," "[r]andom peer reviews," and training on "[d]ealing with sensitive topics in the classroom."  

Though the FDPC was not allowed to formally hear Price’s case, the FDPC nonetheless reported on it on May 25, 2012, determining that App State had "improperly circumvented due process requirements and, in doing so, improperly denied the faculty member’s due process rights." The FDPC agreed that her punishment constituted serious sanctions, and that App State should have provided her with an FDPC hearing upon request. More alarmingly, it found that App State had strayed so far from its stated policies in suspending Price that it created a "new authority" separate from App State policy.  

App State rejected the FDPC’s report, sticking to its line that Price’s suspension was non-disciplinary and that the FDPC had no jurisdiction to hear her case. The Faculty Grievance Hearing Committee (FGHC) did take up Price’s case, however. Its report, issued October 23, 2012, was even more damning. In addition to agreeing with the FDPC’s statement that Price’s suspension constituted a serious sanction, the FGHC also found that her suspension, without the benefit of any sort of hearing, was unjustified by App State policy. The FGHC concluded that the administration’s interpretation of App State’s Faculty Handbook was "not an interpretation of a section that already exists, but rather, such an extension of that section that it would constitute an addition to the Faculty Handbook."  

The FGHC further found that Price’s statements, taken in the context of her course, were protected by Price’s academic freedom, and unanimously found that the screening of the documentary did not create a hostile classroom environment. On this basis, the FGHC asked that the professional development plan be rescinded. 

The FGHC raised numerous other concerns related to Price’s due process rights, among them the fact that the two student athletes in Price’s class did not at any time during App State’s investigation put their complaints in writing. This violated App State policy, which requires that "[a]ll complaints must be reduced to writing, either initially or as part of an investigation." The FGHC also pointed out, among other things, the disingenuousness of App State claiming that Price’s suspension was not disciplinary in nature while at the same time actively soliciting student input into what was clearly a disciplinary investigation. Foulsham, for example, emailed students in Price’s class, after Price had been removed from their instruction, stating that "the Provost has asked me to conduct an investigation of a complaint of inappropriate classroom behavior that has been filed by a few students against Dr. Jammie Price."  

Despite the two faculty committees’ criticism, App State was not moved. Though App State Chancellor Kenneth A. Peacock did somewhat alter the terms of the professional development plan, the university otherwise rejected the FGHC’s scathing report.  

Price appealed her case to the App State Board of Trustees on December 22; the appeal is being reviewed by a special committee headed by Trustee H. Martin Lancaster.

As our letters to App State and the FDPC and FGHC reports (both of which I highly encourage Torch readers to read) show, there is much wrong with the treatment Professor Price has received at App State’s hands. App State gravely violated her due process in suspending her without a hearing; it has threatened her academic freedom with its unique and burdensome requirements on how she may present any potentially sensitive or controversial material in her courses; and it undermined the role of the faculty in shared governance by effectively creating new policy without its input or approval. 

And as we pointed out in last week’s letter, it may have flouted federal regulations as well: 

In its Revised Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties ("2001 Guidance"), the [Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights] wrote: 

In cases of alleged harassment, the protections of the First Amendment must be considered if issues of speech or expression are involved. Free speech rights apply in the classroom (e.g., classroom lectures and discussions) and in all other education programs and activities of public schools (e.g., public meetings and speakers on campus; campus debates, school plays and other cultural events; and student newspapers, journals, and other publications). In addition, First Amendment rights apply to the speech of students and teachers.

Title IX is intended to protect students from sex discrimination, not to regulate the content of speech. OCR recognizes that the offensiveness of a particular expression as perceived by some students, standing alone, is not a legally sufficient basis to establish a sexually hostile environment under Title IX. In order to establish a violation of Title IX, the harassment must be sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the education program.

Moreover, in regulating the conduct of its students and its faculty to prevent or redress discrimination prohibited by Title IX (e.g., in responding to harassment that is sufficiently serious as to create a hostile environment), a school must formulate, interpret, and apply its rules so as to protect academic freedom and free speech rights. [Citations omitted; emphases added.] 

Price’s punishment has had one more pernicious effect: It has chilled faculty speech across the App State campus. The Carolina Public Press is but one of the publications to document this harmful development, and App State’s faculty put the case and the atmosphere it has created in stark terms. Associate Professor of History Sheila Phipps notes that she is more hesitant to dive into controversial topics: 

"That might make (students) think I’m uncomfortable with the subject," she said, "but I am uncomfortable with the fact that it might cause them to be uncomfortable and they might object. So, the delivery has changed, and that might be inhibiting their learning process." 

And here’s longtime professor Ruth Ann Strickland:

"I’m sure that there are much worse things going on in many other places, but (this) is the worst I’ve seen in my 25 years here at Appalachian," said Ruth Ann Strickland, a political science and public administration professor. "And it has impacted my teaching and my feelings about my work." 

The perspective Strickland brings seems to be borne out by a recent survey (PDF) of App State faculty by App State’s Faculty Senate, in which only 42 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "the climate at ASU supports and promotes academic freedom." And 67 percent of faculty "who have worked at ASU for more than 5 years stated that they felt ‘worse’ or ‘much worse’ about their morale compared to 5 years ago." 

Much more is at stake in Price’s appeal than her own academic freedom and due process rights. Indeed, the trustees have the power to determine the type of climate in which all App State faculty are to teach. Will it be one where their rights in the classroom and in the disciplinary process are respected? Or will it be one where their rights are tossed aside, and the authority and expertise of its various faculty committees ignored, whenever it is convenient for the university?

Hopefully the trustees will make the right call. It is up to them now to set aside Price’s professional development plan and work with its faculty to ensure that none of them find themselves down the rabbit hole of due process from which Jammie Price still has yet to emerge. Of course, FIRE will be watching. 

Schools: Appalachian State University Cases: Appalachian State University: Professor Suspended for Classroom Speech