This past June, Louisiana State University (LSU) President F. King Alexander fired tenured associate professor Teresa Buchanan for sexual harassment, ignoring a faculty panel that unanimously recommended that she keep her job.
As has been reported here on The Torch and elsewhere, Professor Buchanan’s transgression (if one can call it that) was to occasionally use vulgar language in class. She gave unvarnished feedback to students, which prompted a few complaints about her tone in student evaluations. And one student took personally remarks Professor Buchanan made in class that students’ significant others become increasingly less willing to make allowances for the rigors of the program as time goes on. But the idea that these isolated, blunt remarks created a “hostile learning environment” is ridiculous.
On October 6, 2015, LSU’s Faculty Senate took the extraordinary step of censuring President Alexander, Provost Stuart Bell, and Dean Damon Andrew of the College of Human Sciences and Education for terminating Professor Buchanan’s employment. The resolution states:
Be it therefore resolved: That LSU Chancellor-President F. King Alexander, Provost Stuart Bell, and Dean Damon Andrew of the College of Human Sciences and Education be censured for their failure to adhere to due process standards in faculty review proceedings and for their pursuit of confusing, dangerous, and untenable standards for dismissal of a tenured faculty member at Louisiana State University. And
Be it further resolved: That the Faculty Senate requests of LSU’s administration that the decision in the case of Associate Professor Teresa Buchanan shall be reversed and all necessary and continuing matters related to her case be considered in a proper PM-35/PS-109 review process.
In the preamble to the resolution, the LSU faculty aptly calls the “standard” for firing Professor Buchanan “as chilling in its breadth and ambiguity as it is absurd in its apparent connection to sexual harassment.”
As I explained last month when the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) took the rare step of issuing a supplemental report on the already-censured LSU, intermittent use of profane language is not sexual harassment. And since Buchanan made the offending remarks in 2011–2012 and the LSU administration didn’t object until late 2013, it seems unlikely that anyone at the university really thought it was sexual harassment, either. Yes, that’s right; the administration fired Professor Buchanan for sexual harassment, despite the fact that no student, professor, or staff member ever accused her of sexual harassment. Some individuals complained because they found her remarks offensive or her language inappropriate. But that’s a far cry from an allegation of sexual harassment. In other words, President Alexander saw fit to fire her for something that no one ever accused her of doing. It is no wonder, then, that the Faculty Senate ended the preamble to its resolution with the following:
Concluding that the violation of tenure, the creation and implementation of vague and chilling standards of discourse that violate all precepts of free inquiry and speech, the failure to follow faculty counsel in these matters, and the outright abrogation of proper due process by LSU’s administration have placed the LSU community in a state of confusion and outrage about the lack of commitment of LSU’s administration to an environment of freedom of inquiry and speech.
Incredibly, however, the LSU administration reacted to the faculty censure by doubling down in a statement issued Tuesday defending its actions:
While we respect the Faculty Senate’s right to disagree with the administration, they simply don’t have all the facts in this case. Unfortunately, due to potential litigation, we are not at liberty to share all of the facts. We stand behind the decision made by our dean, former provost, president and Board of Supervisors and what it represents – that our students have the right to learn in an environment free of sexual harassment, bullying and verbal abuse. Being deliberately indifferent to hostile learning environments is not only damaging to our students but undermines the educational values and principles that higher education represents. We firmly support tenure and academic freedom as integral parts of academia, but they do not supersede the civil rights of our students. Our faculty understand this, but when the rare exception occurs, action must be taken to prevent the continuation of such damaging and counterproductive environments.
Secret facts? Come on.
One of the brightest red flags out there is the “trust us, we have information that we can’t share that shows we’re right” line that universities trot out from time to time. That reasoning may work in totalitarian regimes, but it doesn’t in any open society. If LSU has information that justifies its actions, it should release it. If it doesn’t, it should stop pretending that it does. Using innuendo to smear Professor Buchanan underscores the Faculty Senate’s concern about a chilling effect and makes it look like the LSU administration is vindictively determined to add to her distress.
LSU needs to understand that words have meaning, as defined by dictionaries or legal precedent. If the anonymous, corporate “we” of LSU “stand[s] behind the decision made by our dean, former provost, president and Board of Supervisors and what it represents,” then it would be good to know what the “we” is talking about. “Sexual harassment,” “bullying,” and “verbal abuse” are not the same thing. The students complained because they were offended by what Professor Buchanan said. And now LSU is posing as the defender of students’ “civil rights.” That’s absurd.
Humpty Dumpty may be allowed to declare, “When I use a word, it means what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less,” but the leadership of a major public university is not. The Faculty Senate at LSU should be commended for its courage in speaking out on behalf of Professor Buchanan. After all, its members are as vulnerable as she was to the whims of LSU administrators who don’t follow their own policies and who don’t seem to understand the meaning of academic freedom.