University of Denver (DU) Professor Arthur N. Gilbert is daring to teach his "Drug War" course again after the university violated his academic freedom and suspended him earlier this year, deeming his teaching about sexual issues to be "sexual harassment." Today’s national press release from FIRE explains that over the objections of FIRE, a DU faculty committee, and the DU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, the university refuses to correct its error. Now, in a letter dated November 30, the national AAUP has expressed concern about the case.
"To remove a professor from the university without any hearing on the basis of anonymous complaints about his teaching threatens due process, academic freedom, and free speech on campus," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said in today’s press release. "The University of Denver must be held accountable for its actions."
Over his 50 years of teaching, Arthur Gilbert, a tenured professor in DU’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, has taught such notable American figures as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Casey. In spring 2011, Gilbert taught his graduate-level course on "The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War." According to the syllabus, one of the units in the course is "Drugs and Sin in American Life: From Masturbation and Prostitution to Alcohol and Drugs," which focuses in part on the negative effects of "purity crusades."
On April 1, 2011, two students anonymously raised subjective concerns about Professor Gilbert’s teaching with regard to this section of the course. On April 6, Dean Christopher Hill of the Korbel School (who is the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq) placed Gilbert on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, without offering Gilbert a hearing. DU’s Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity (ODEO) and Department of Human Resources investigated the allegations.
On June 8, ODEO notified Gilbert that none of the conduct-based allegations sustained a sexual harassment finding, and that the speech-related allegations did not constitute hostile environment sexual harassment if they had an "academic justification." Accordingly, ODEO deferred academic judgment regarding "the academic integrity of [Gilbert's] teaching of the subject matter." Nevertheless, on July 14, Hill unilaterally declared that Gilbert had committed sexual harassment. He required that Gilbert cease "this behavior" immediately and that Gilbert attend "sensitivity training."
Gilbert appealed to his academic peers on the Faculty Review Committee, which found on October 4 that DU had violated Gilbert’s academic freedom: "To summarily remove a member of the faculty from the classroom and ban that person from campus and from contacting colleagues and students because of something that was said in the classroom and reported anonymously, without full consideration, … violates academic freedom and overall concepts of fairness."
Despite the committee’s clear finding, DU Provost Gregg Kvistad denied Gilbert’s appeal on October 20. By Kvistad’s own admission, the relevance and appropriateness of Gilbert’s academic expression in the classroom has never been evaluated. DU administrators have completely ignored the critical differences between the classroom and the workplace, and have failed to evaluate Gilbert’s comments in the context of the entire classroom environment, as understood and required by harassment law (see FIRE Associate Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Azhar Majeed’s article on the subject). Kvistad did reduce the "sensitivity training" to a single conversation with ODEO Director Kathryne Grove.
FIRE wrote DU Chancellor Robert Coombe on November 4, asking that the sexual harassment findings be vacated or properly reconsidered in light of their full academic context. DU AAUP echoed this request in a November 12 letter. DU replied to FIRE on November 14, arguing without evidence or further discussion that the university had "carefully investigated the complaints."
On November 30, national AAUP Associate Secretary Anita Levy conveyed AAUP’s concerns to DU, writing: "[T]he actions taken against [Gilbert] and the manner in which they were imposed raise basic concerns for our Association under widely accepted standards of academic due process. The imposition of a severe sanction without a prior faculty hearing is seriously at variance with established Association-supported procedures with regard to sexual-harassment complaints, especially those related to academic expression in the classroom."
Gilbert plans to teach the course again this spring.
It is disappointing that the University of Denver is treating its adult students like children who are too fragile to hear academic talk about sex and drugs. The chilling effect on faculty is ruining DU’s academic environment rather than preserving it, but it is not too late for the university to correct its error.
You can let DU Chancellor Robert Coombe know what you think by contacting him at 303-871-2111, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through FIRE’s Take Action page: