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Fired for Trying to Teach Sociology, Former Professor Takes Rowan College at Gloucester County to Court

By August 12, 2015

For much of the year, FIRE has been following a deeply troubling case out of Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC), in New Jersey—one that might give longtime Torch readers a strange sense of deja vu: Didn’t we read about something like this at the University of Denver? And Appalachian State University? And the University of Colorado at Boulder?

In all of those cases, professors found themselves under scrutiny for broaching sometimes-squeamish issues of sex and sexuality in ways that made students uncomfortable. The professors in these cases found themselves unilaterally removed from teaching, banished from campus without a hearing, victimized by anonymous—sometimes unwritten—complaints they couldn’t defend themselves against, and placed at the mercy of administrators who either weren’t qualified to weigh the professors’’ academic freedom rights or else didn’t care to even try.

Unfortunately, the case of Dawn Tawwater at RCGC fits neatly into this trend. If anything, her situation is even worse. Like Professor Jammie Price at Appalachian State and Professor Patricia Adler at CU Boulder, Tawwater’s discipline is sociology. Unlike Price and Adler, however, Tawwater was terminated by RCGC barely a month into her employment. With the help of FIRE Legal Network attorneys Donald F. Burke and Donald F. Burke, Jr., she is now suing her former employer for violating her free speech, academic freedom, and due process.

Prior to relocating from Texas (and signing a two-year apartment lease) to begin her new tenure-track position at RCGC, Tawwater had spent roughly 20 years teaching sociology at a number of Texas colleges. The tenure-track position, Tawwater no doubt reasonably expected, held out the promise of greater job security and greater protections for academic freedom.

But Tawwater, teaching five sections of sociology in the fall 2014 semester, encountered problems with RCGC almost right away, as FIRE detailed extensively in an October 29, 2014, letter to RCGC president Frederick Keating. In a matter of days, Tawwater was informed of multiple different complaints about her teaching, the first of which involved, notably, the screening of a feminist parody music video satirizing the racy video for Robin Thicke’s blockbuster hit song “Blurred Lines.” As we summarized in last October’s letter:

On September 29, after teaching one of her Sociology 101 sections, Tawwater returned to her campus office, where she received a note from Dean of Liberal Arts Paul Rufino requesting that she meet with him at 10:00 that morning. In this meeting, which Tawwater states lasted for roughly 15 minutes, she was informed of two student complaints regarding her teaching. Tawwater was given information about only one of these complaints, which concerned her use of profanity during class sessions. (Rufino briefly mentioned that the second complaint had been filed with Linda Martin, Vice President of Academic Services, but provided no further details.) The complaint also criticized her screening of a feminist music-video parody of Robin Thicke’s popular song “Blurred Lines,” which Tawwater had screened for two of her Sociology 101 sections. The music video for the parody—called “Defined Lines”—is similar in style and execution to the video for “Blurred Lines,” but with the gender roles reversed; the “Defined Lines” video features men in their underwear, whereas the “Blurred Lines” video featured topless women. The parody itself is a critique of the original’s controversial messages regarding sexual consent and female objectification. Tawwater reports having shown this video dozens of times to classes in her previous teaching positions, without incident or complaint, and explained to Rufino that she had shown the video as part of an introductory lesson on postmodern theory.

Particularly objectionable to the never-identified student submitting the complaint was the video’s underwear-clad men—who of course are central to the video’s point. Rufino also objected to Tawwater’s occasional use of the expletive “fuck” in her classroom. (Tawwater argued that such language was protected by her academic freedom, but said she would be mindful of its use moving forward.) Rufino only briefly let her view a copy of the written complaint and did not allow her to keep a copy.

Just three days later, on October 1, Tawwater was notified of the filing of yet another complaint, and was required to attend yet another meeting regarding her conduct. Despite the seriousness of the situation, RCGC was maddeningly short on the specifics of the complaints, and even on its own policies—or lack thereof. Referring again to our October 29 letter:

On October 3, Tawwater emailed Danielle Morganti, Executive Director of Human Resources, requesting “a copy of whatever process we are now institutionally traversing,” noting that she could find no written guidance from RCGC’s published policies. Tawwater also requested “a copy of any policy governing student complaints and faculty right during the complaint process,” which she also had been unable to locate. Finally, Tawwater requested copies of the student complaints that had been filed against her.

[…] Morganti did not provide copies of the complaints to Tawwater or give any specific details about them. Morganti only noted that “several formal written complaints” had been filed and that her case had “risen to the level that a formal investigation must occur.” Morganti did not provide any details on what constitutes a formal investigation other than to say that “[w]hen a complaint is brought . . . we are obligated to address it and in a formal manner.”

The details of the hearing that was to follow on October 6 were thus left to Tawwater’s imagination. And they were worse than she could have imagined. Numerous administrators—Tawwater estimated there were between eight and ten—were in attendance. The issue of her use of profanity in the classroom was raised once again, but no context for alleged profanities was ever provided. She was not provided with any copies of the complaints against her, even so that she could read them for herself. Tawwater was only allowed to speak in her own defense for roughly 10–15 minutes of the 45-minute hearing, and when she finished she was provided with a ready-made “Last Chance Agreement.” This “agreement” was exactly as chilling and illiberal as it sounds. It required Tawwater to “refrain from using indecent language in the classroom”; “publicly apologize to the affected classes”; and “participate in a training program approved by the College, which includes effective teaching methodologies, sensitivity training, and effective communication,” among other sanctions. The agreement stipulated that “any future student complaint of violation of the agreements listed above will result in immediate termination.”

Recognizing the bad deal she was being given, Tawwater refused to sign the agreement. At that point, she was ordered to leave, clean out her office, and return. When she did, she was presented with a termination letter, citing among the reasons for her termination the receipt of four student complaints “for using indecent language and inappropriate behavior in the classroom.” And it was only at the moment of her termination that she was presented with a listing of her alleged policy violations. Tawwater was given a copy of RCGC’s Administrative Procedure 7065, which marked off alleged violations including “[i]ndecent or abusive language or gestures” and “[r]ude or discourteous behavior to a student.”

Having barely unpacked her belongings after moving from Texas, Tawwater had little choice but to break her newly-signed lease in New Jersey and move back to Texas at great personal expense. She’s resumed teaching there, though without the prospect, at least for now, of a tenure-track position.

Tawwater and her attorneys filed suit in the Superior Court of New Jersey in January 2015, and the case has been moving forward since then. RCGC for its part has argued, among other things, that since Tawwater was in the first 90 days of her employment with RCGC she was no different that any other probationary employee, and the college was free to fire her at will free of consequence. In other words, RCGC’s argument is that as a new faculty member, your academic freedom rights don’t take effect for 90 days, during which time it’s perfectly kosher for the college to terminate someone because it doesn’t care for the content of his or her teaching.

This argument, RCGC is hoping, should be enough to overcome the fact that it investigated Tawwater on the basis of in-class comments pursuant to her teaching, lacked any meaningful written procedures for faculty to defend themselves, and summarily terminated her when she refused to sign a contract agreeing to the college’s demands for self-censorship.

So far, fortunately, the Superior Court hasn’t shown much willingness to take RCGC’s arguments at face value. On July 16, the court denied RCGC’s motion to dismiss Tawwater’s case, making it likelier that Tawwater will see her day in court against her former employer, and that RCGC will be forced to answer some hard questions about its employment practices and its respect for academic freedom. But until that day, and until meaningful reform at RCGC comes about, whether by court order or of the college’s own volition, I have one word of advice for any academic considering taking a position with the college: Don’t.

Schools: Rowan College at Gloucester County