University of Denver Student Speaks out Against Punishment of Professor

By November 21, 2011

The punishment of Professor Arthur Gilbert, a University of Denver (DU) faculty member with more than 50 years of teaching experience, has provoked much outrage from the community. The fact pattern of his case makes this reaction understandable. Gilbert was suspended from the DU campus and investigated on the basis of two anonymous complaints about the allegedly sexualized nature of his course on the history of America’s drug wars and the negative effects of "purity crusades" (this content was made clear in the course’s syllabus). The investigation, conducted by human resources administrators, found that in a regular workplace, his discussion of sex-related issues would have created a hostile sexual environment, but the investigators deferred to the academics on the question of whether the class material as presented was protected by his academic freedom and the relevance of the material to his course. Gilbert’s dean, Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, however, ignored all questions of academic relevance and academic freedom, declared Gilbert guilty, and ordered Gilbert to undergo "sensitivity training." (I wrote much more on the case earlier; I recommend reading about the full details.)

A faculty panel denounced this result, declaring DU’s violations of Gilbert’s academic freedom "outrageous." Nonetheless, DU’s provost rejected the faculty’s input and upheld the misguided finding of sexual harassment, leading to letters from FIRE and from the DU chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). We also have received many responses from those outraged by Gilbert’s treatment, including the following one from DU graduate student Alexis Kopakowski. Her statement is particularly poignant because she was a student in Gilbert’s course this spring. Her note shines a light both on the positive experience she had taking Gilbert’s course and on the DU administration’s failure to evaluate the course’s content on its academic merits. With Kopakowski’s permission, we have printed much of her note here.

I would like to express my relief that someone finally took concrete action to investigate the blatant violation of academic freedom that occurred at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies when the much respected Arthur Gilbert was so unceremoniously removed from his teaching post. I was a student in the Drug Wars class, and I cannot express the extent of my frustration with the administrative actions taken against professor Gilbert and his students. I say his students, because many of us chose to take the class specifically because he was teaching it. His unique teaching style, which is difficult to follow at first for students used to copying straightforward powerpoint presentations, truly inspires independent thought. It encourages students to think for themselves and challenge convention, to dig deeper into subjects and make enlightening discoveries.

What felt so frustrating to me was that very few people seemed interested in hearing what the other 22 students of the Drug Wars class had to say. We wrote letters and signed petitions, held meetings and reached out to administrators, all to no avail. I am well aware of the accusations expressed in the anonymous letters, as well as the various and sundry opinions of administrators regarding the issue, including Dean Hill. However, I sat in every class taught by professor Gilbert.  I read the syllabus, I did the assigned readings. I understand how the controversial topic related to class material and the overall objective, or thesis if you will, of the course. I also understand, as a former student of a different course of professor Gilbert, how it may be difficult at first to follow his ideas. Rather than the rote learning style of bullet point-ridden power points, his teaching style requires much more intellectual activity. During the first few weeks of class he introduces several threads of ideas that only come together towards the end of the course. Unfortunately, we were not given the opportunity to reach our "aha" moment. I believe the anonymous students were not yet able to make the connection of the controversial subject with the wider drug wars topic, and were therefore offended by the material.  

I am disappointed my opportunity to learn from such an esteemed professor was taken away from me. I am also dissatisfied with the way the rest of the course was conducted, rather piecemeal by three separate instructors: Dean Hill, Professor Lynn Holland, and PhD candidate Joel Pruce. I also believe my own right to academic freedom was restricted by Dean Hill himself during the first class he took over. We were talking about socially constructed ideas about drug use. I related it to what we had previously discussed in the course with professor Gilbert. Professor Gilbert, to illustrate a point, showed us a scientific study that suggested masturbation may reduce prostate cancer. While he did not in any way suggest the study was true or express his own beliefs about the subject, he did use the study to demonstrate that even though masturbation may have possible health benefits, it was considered an unforgivable sin in the 19th century.  Understanding this treatment of a controversial subject can help shed light on the modern debate of marijuana use. While it may have health benefits for some people, it is still stigmatized and illegal in most areas. 

When I proposed the connection of socially constructed ideas of modern drug use to those of masturbation in the 19th century, the Dean became visibly angry and simply told me "no."  He insisted no one ever talked about "it," nor does anyone talk about "it" now, and said we will not be talking about that subject in class. My intent was not to make anyone uncomfortable, harass anyone, or be sexual in class. I was simply exploring an idea which many scholars have in fact written about. I felt, in my own classroom, unwelcome to express my ideas and explore unconventional topics. I believe the Dean let his own beliefs and disapproval of the act of masturbation influence his decisions. He was never interested in the academic nature of the subject or how it may relate to the modern drug debate. He simply disapproved of the topic altogether and did everything in his power to remove the conversation from campus. We, the graduate students of Korbel, were effectively censored.

To Kopakowski, there was clearly no hostile environment in the course. Besides, simply talking about sex doesn’t create a sexually harassing environment as defined under the law. Among other things, harassing conduct must be targeted in a discriminatory way at specific victims.

The most recent development in Gilbert’s case is, unfortunately, disappointing: DU rejected FIRE’s call to either vacate the finding against Gilbert or reopen its investigation and finally give fair consideration to the academic freedom concerns brought forward by the faculty and by the investigators. FIRE will continue to fight for Professor Gilbert and academic freedom at DU. We’re glad to have the support of students like Kopakowski who can vouch for the environment of Gilbert’s course far better than just about anyone charged with investigating it.

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