A unanimous hearing panel at Widener University School of Law in Delaware has fully cleared Professor Lawrence Connell of charges of "harassment" and "discrimination" for his use of the term "black folks" in class and for using law school dean Linda L. Ammons, who is black, as a character in hypothetical scenarios during lectures. A faculty panel had recommended that Widener drop its attempts to dismiss the tenured professor, but administrators reportedly induced students to issue further complaints to keep the prosecution going. Represented by attorney Thomas S. Neuberger, Connell is suing Ammons and Widener for defamation.
Connell’s ordeal began on December 10, 2010, when Vice Dean J. Patrick Kelly presented him with a binder full of charges alleging violations of Widener’s Faculty Member Discrimination and Harassment Code. Widener charged Connell with a long list of supposed violations, many of which were redundant. One of the most frivolous charges was that he was wrong to use the term "black folks" to describe African-Americans, which Widener apparently saw as necessarily racist despite the fact that the term is widely used by people including President Barack Obama. Other allegations involved Connell’s use of hypothetical examples of violent crimes in his criminal law courses that involved law school faculty and staff, including Ammons—even though such hypotheticals are a longstanding tradition in law schools across the country. Other charges were taken out of context, while still others, such as an alleged statement that "all criminals are poor and all poor are black folk" are statements Professor Connell unequivocally denies ever making.
According to Connell, Kelly informed him on December 20, 2010, that Ammons had placed Connell on administrative leave. On February 24, 2011, Ammons wrote a letter recommending that Connell be dismissed from the university. Connell addressed the charges in a 39-page affidavit on March 8, 2011. In the affidavit, Connell details his presentations of a number of legal cases both in and out of class, and explains how his presentations were misrepresented by a small number of complaining students. He also denies calling a female police officer "honey," notes that there is nothing discriminatory or harassing about using the term "black folks," and notes that it is impossible to defend against such vague and ambiguous allegations as that a professor made "racist and sexist comments" in class. Connell also denies making any racist or sexist comments in any classroom.
Although Widener is a private university, it has publicly committed itself to protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression on its website and in official documents. Tellingly, on March 7, the Informal Committee of Inquiry handling Connell’s case at Widener recommended that the dismissal proceedings be dropped.
Yet Connell’s ordeal did not end there. According to Neuberger, on March 10, Ammons had two law students "refile their prior false charges." FIRE cannot independently investigate the students’ side of the story because Connell is prohibited from releasing all of the details out of fear of punishment for retaliation. Widener’s Faculty Member Discrimination and Harassment Code provides that "[d]issemination of information relating to the case should be limited in order that the privacy of all individuals involved is safeguarded as fully as possible [...] to protect the Complainant from retaliatory action by those named in the Complaint." Retaliation can be punished with dismissal from the university.
In fact, to further prosecute Connell, Widener added a retaliation charge against Connell simply because he sought to "take the depositions of the two charging parties" in his lawsuit. The hearing panel cleared him of that charge as well.
But that wasn’t the end of Widener’s extremely questionable retaliation charges against Connell. Other charges included, according to Neuberger, "emailing his students to explain why Ammons had banned him from the campus" and Neuberger’s having issued a press release "explaining his efforts to identify Connell’s accusers and to protect his client’s reputation."
For these two "offenses" in his effort to clear his name and explain his disappearance from campus to his own students, Connell was found responsible for "retaliation." I hope he appeals.
All of this prosecution for what from the very beginning looked like completely trumped-up charges is pretty despicable. The behavior of Widener and Ammons should be embarrassing to the faculty, students, administration, and trustees. The apparently bad-faith charges against Connell were found to be without merit. Yet, Connell was required to keep his prosecution so secret that he couldn’t even tell his students why he was kicked out of class, and his attorney couldn’t even try to protect his client’s reputation. When he did, Widener tacked on new charges, and Connell is now facing discipline for them, despite the fact that he was completely innocent of the original charges. When a professor can get in trouble for defending himself against false accusations, you know something is profoundly wrong at his university.
Just as unjustly, Widener’s policy prohibits Connell from releasing the hearing panel’s 52-page unanimous decision in his favor on all of the counts of harassment and discrimination, although Widener itself is perfectly free to do so. Does Widener have something to hide other than its bad conduct in this case? I urge Widener to release the document immediately, but I am not holding my breath.
Back in March, FIRE wrote Widener University President James T. Harris III, asking him to respect Connell’s academic freedom and bring this case to a quick end. A few days later, we received a response from Widener’s attorney, who—unsurprisingly—emphasized secrecy about the case. Widener is learning the hard way that universities can’t defend in public the rights violations they try to get away with in private.
Meanwhile, this case drags on as Widener drags itself through the mud. We will let you know what happens in the disciplinary process at Widener and Connell’s defamation lawsuit in Delaware.