Univ. of Denver Fails to Scare Prof Away from Teaching Drug War Course

By on January 11, 2012

Cory Lamz, Editor-in-Chief of the University of Denver (DU) student newspaper The Clarion, writes this week, as FIRE reported recently, that international studies professor Arthur Gilbert will again teach his course on "The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War."

This is no small thing, given that when Gilbert—whose service to DU spans roughly 50 years—taught the graduate-level course last year, two students submitted anonymous complaints of sexual harassment over the allegedly sexualized nature of the course topics and teaching, despite the ample warning given on the course’s syllabus. Gilbert was never allowed to see the complaints for himself. His crime? Discussing masturbation in the context of historical "purity crusades." One would think adult graduate students could handle such a discussion.

Those familiar with the case know what happened after that. Gilbert was suspended for more than 100 days from the DU campus without a hearing. DU ultimately declared Gilbert to have created a hostile sexual environment in his classroom, ignoring multiple warnings that it must properly weigh Gilbert’s academic freedom in the case. FIRE and both the DU chapter and the national office of the American Association of University Professors have protested his treatment. 

For all DU’s dubious claims that Gilbert had created a hostile learning environment for his students, it has certainly created a remarkably hostile teaching environment for Gilbert—or any other DU professor who wants to cover controversial topics. This helps explain the extra caution with which Gilbert is approaching the course. As Lamz writes:

Gilbert intends to have all students enrolled in the course sign a formal acknowledgement stating that they have read and understand the contents of the course, the topics and the readings. He also will encourage an open-door policy, in which students may contact or meet with him with concerns about the course and its contents without fear of consequence reflected in their course grade.

It has come to this: a professor (rightly) feels that in order to protect himself, he needs to get signed  statements from graduate students—our nation’s future professors!—that they have read and understood a syllabus. As I told The Clarion via email for the article:

So long as DU continues to ignore the input of its faculty and refuses to properly weigh the academic freedom considerations of his case, as FIRE has asked it to do, we will continue to highlight DU as a university that does not take the rights of its faculty seriously…. If a 50-year tenured member of the faculty can find himself the subject of such treatment, students could easily suffer a similar fate.

DU dramatically failed the test of its commitment to academic freedom that Gilbert’s case provided. We will be watching DU this spring to see if it fails again, and I’m sure The Clarion will be watching, too.

Schools: University of Denver Cases: University of Denver: Sexual Harassment Finding Violates Professor’s Academic Freedom in the Classroom