U. of Denver’s Shame in ‘Inside Higher Ed’

By on December 14, 2011

Following FIRE’s Monday press release, Inside Higher Ed has published an article on the poor climate for academic freedom in light of the University of Denver’s (DU’s) action against a professor. Following two anonymous complaints over his teaching of a graduate-level course on "The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War," DU charged tenured professor Arthur Gilbert with sexual harassment and suspended him from campus pending an investigation. DU ultimately declared Gilbert, a tenured professor with decades of service to DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, guilty of sexual harassment. It did so despite the reservations of its Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity and the strong objection of a faculty panel (these and other key documents on Gilbert’s case are available here). 

As we’ve documented thoroughly here at FIRE, DU has at multiple junctures disregarded its obligation to properly weigh Gilbert’s academic freedom in carrying out its case against him, with potentially dire consequences for the rights of all faculty at DU. As Inside Higher Ed notes: 

Gilbert, a tenured professor who has been teaching for 50 years, said that the references in his course come in discussion of the failure of campaigns to impose moral standards on Americans. He compares fear of masturbation in the 19th century to the fear of drugs in recent times. "I have taught this drug war course for over 20 years," he said.

"My discussions of the links between drugs, alcohol, fear of homosexuality and minorities and yes, self-abuse is what resulted in my abrupt dismissal from my graduate course and three and a half hours of questioning by human resources in order to determine if I was guilty of sexual harassment," Gilbert said in a blog posting

In addition to drawing the ire of the DU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and FIRE, DU’s misdeeds have now attracted the concern of the AAUPs national office

Anita Levy, associate secretary of the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at AAUP said her organization was concerned because Gilbert had been suspended without a faculty hearing. "We have written them a letter of concern. We are hoping to open a dialogue and get a response to these concerns," Levy said. "We hope to improve the policies that seem to be lacking in some of the basics." 

Despite DU’s demonstrated violation of Gilbert’s academic freedom as well as due process, Gilbert plans to teach the same material next semester, telling Inside Higher Ed, "I will not change the course because of this fearful event because I believe in academic freedom." 

Curiously, a DU spokesman comments for the article that "The University of Denver does not tell its professors what to say or not to say in a classroom." I think many would disagree with this statement, including DU AAUP president Dean Saitta, who told the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding Gilbert’s punishment: 

The final decision sends a rather chilling message that if your classroom speech offends even a single student and that student complains, you are subject to removal from the classroom, suspension from campus, and an investigation that knows no limits …. Given how Professor Gilbert was treated, I’m not inclined to teach my course on human evolved psychology and sexuality-a course whose subject matter significantly overlaps with that taught by Gilbert and whose academic content inevitably creates student discomfort-until the institution establishes better policies respecting academic freedom and due process. The risk to professional career and reputation, in my opinion, is too great. 

FIRE again calls on DU to respect academic freedom on campus. Concerned Torch readers are encouraged to write to DU Chancellor Robert Coombe and urge DU to stand up for Gilberts rights

Schools: University of Denver