University of Denver Attacks Academic Freedom With Punishment of 50-Year Veteran Professor

By October 27, 2011

The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Peter Schmidt reports this week on a deeply troubling case involving a tenured professor at the University of Denver. DU Provost Gregg Kvistad has largely affirmed the punishment of Professor Arthur N. Gilbert over the objections of a faculty committee, which cited serious concerns about academic freedom and due process in DU’s suspension of the professor after receiving anonymous complaints alleging that he created a hostile sexual environment in his class. Having followed Gilbert’s grievance for several weeks now, we had hoped that DU would pay heed to the concerns of the faculty committee reviewing Gilbert’s case. That hope was, evidently, misplaced.

Arthur Gilbert is a tenured professor in DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. In his 50 years of teaching, he has taught such notable American figures as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Casey. In the spring 2011 quarter, Gilbert taught a graduate-level course on "The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War."

In April 2011, two graduate students anonymously submitted complaints about the course, alleging that Gilbert created a hostile environment for them in his conduct of the lectures. Schmidt writes in the Chronicle that "The university has not released their complaint, but Mr. Gilbert says he makes reference to changing public attitudes toward masturbation in discussing connections between efforts in the early 1900s to restrict drug use and that period’s taboos against various sexual behaviors widely regarded as sinful."

Schmidt continues:

In early April, [Korbel School Dean Christopher] Hill sent Mr. Gilbert a letter telling him the university had been informed that Mr. Gilbert had made statements during class "that are not related to course content" and that appeared to violate university policies, "including but not limited to the policy prohibiting sexual harassment."

At that point, he placed Mr. Gilbert on administrative leave.

Gilbert’s notes, in fact, suggest that Dean Hill had already decided to suspend Gilbert before even giving the professor a chance to defend himself. Gilbert’s notes state that he was called in to a meeting with Dean Hill on April 8, 2011, to discuss the allegations against him, then given a sealed letter he was ordered not to read until Sunday, April 10. When he opened it on April 10, he found Hill’s notice of his suspension, which was dated April 6—two days before their meeting.

DU’s Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity (ODEO) then undertook an investigation of the complaints against Gilbert to see if he was in violation of DU’s sexual harassment policy. ODEO director Susan Lee concluded in a letter to Gilbert on June 8, 2011:

The investigation found it more likely than not that, absent an academic justification, you created a hostile sexual environment in your class. Whether this is justified by the academic integrity of your teaching of the subject matter is beyond the scope of this investigation and will be determined by the appropriate academic decision makers. [Emphasis added.]

It should be noted that the syllabus (which went unchanged from 2010 to 2011) for Gilbert’s Drug War course included a clearly labeled unit on "Drugs and Sin in American Life: From Masturbation and prostitution to alcohol and drugs," which included readings with titles like "Masturbation and Insanity: Henry Maudsley and the Ideology of Sexual Repression"; "The Physician and Sexuality in America"; and "Purity Crusade: Sexual Morality and Social Control." Required film viewing for the class included Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film adaptation of Requiem for a Dream, a critically lauded but brutally difficult film on drug addiction, with scenes of graphic drug use and sexuality. Suffice it to say, students know what they’re signing up for when they enroll in this course. If they don’t read their syllabi to the end, that’s their own fault.

While ODEO was candid about its lack of qualification to judge the alleged speech at issue on its academic merits (in one way or another it makes this point five times in its two-page decision), Dean Hill apparently was unconcerned, stating in a July 14 letter that "the [ODEO] investigation has determined that you did violate the University’s sexual harassment policy by creating a sexual hostile environment in your class," without making a single mention of academic considerations. As part of his punishment (and while Gilbert was still suspended from campus and forbidden from contacting colleagues or students), Hill ordered Gilbert to attend "sensitivity training." Gilbert filed a grievance against Hill shortly after, which eventually was brought to DU’s Faculty Review Committee for evaluation.

This catches us up with Schmidt’s article, in which he writes that

In a report issued on October 4, and approved by its members by a 9-to-1 vote, the review committee concluded that administrators appeared to have violated Mr. Gilbert’s academic freedom by passing judgment on his teaching methods without consulting other faculty members or referring to standards of teaching developed outside the university.

The report, indeed, is damning. The Faculty Review Committee’s overwhelming consensus concluded, among other things:

1. The findings of the ODEO … are equivocal at best. [...] There is no reference in the report to either legal or accepted academic standards to support the conclusion that Professor Gilbert "created a hostile sexual environment" in his class.

[...]

4. "We believe there was a violation of academic freedom in this case. There is no evidence in the record that members of the faculty were consulted by Dean Hill, HR, or ODEO in determining professor Gilbert’s teaching methods constituted sexual harassment. [...]

5. To summarily remove a member of the faculty from the classroom and ban that person from campus and contacting colleagues and students because of something that was reported anonymously, without full consideration, is outrageous and in variance with time-honored tradition in academe. This violates academic freedom and overall concepts of fairness.

[Emphases added.]

The FRC’s final point, especially, could hardly be a harsher indictment of DU’s apparent disrespect for Gilbert’s academic freedom and due process rights. Based on its investigation, the FRC stated its belief that it was "not appropriate to mandate sensitivity training." One FRC member, Dean Saitta, who happens also to be the President of DU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, submitted a separate memo stating that by not fully exonerating Gilbert, DU’s commitment to academic freedom and its reputation would rightly be called into question. Saitta eloquently warns DU:

"If the cloud of suspicion abound Professor Gilbert is allowed to persist then the university’s commitment to academic freedom and due process is also suspect. DU’s reputation, and not just Professor Gilbert’s, is on the line."

It’s disheartening then, with such strong words coming from DU’s faculty, that Provost Kvistad would put so little stock in the FRC’s observations. To his credit at least, Kvistad has decided to do away with Hill’s requirement that Gilbert undergo "sensitivity training." Still, he is requiring Gilbert to meet with ODEO and "discuss what creating a sexual harassment hostile environment entails and how you must avoid that."

Beyond this minor concession, there’s nothing good to take from Kvistad’s final determination. He declares Gilbert’s summary removal from teaching and banishment from campus—a ban which did not end until September, after 101 days—as "entirely consistent with University practice." Further, Kvistad states that "The issue here is not academic freedom; it is the University taking seriously its commitment to ‘create and maintain a community in which people are treated with dignity, decency, and respect.’" He later offers the admonishment that "It is crucial that you understand your obligations to treat all students enrolled in your class with dignity, decency, and respect." (Emphasis in original.)

Dean Saitta’s take on Kvistad’s decision, as reported by Schmidt in the Chronicle, is pessimistic as well, and focuses on the ramifications for academic freedom at DU:

"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," Mr. Saitta wrote in an e-mail. "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."

If DU’s AAUP chapter president has so little faith in DU’s belief in academic freedom that he feels pressured to water down and withhold his scholarship, how many others will follow? For all its talk of "dignity, decency, and respect," DU seems to place very little value on them when dealing with its own faculty, not least one of its longest-serving members.

More is to come from FIRE on this blow to the rights of faculty at DU. 

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