I reported last month that a law professor at Widener University in Delaware had been put on administrative leave and was barred from campus, 26 years into his teaching career at Widener, because of fake examples he used in his classes on criminal procedure. He even was facing dismissal. Now a campus committee has recommended that the charges be dropped.
"Instead of saying Plaintiff A or Defendant B, teachers use names that will grab the attention of students, wake them up from their distractions and make things memorable," his attorney, Thomas S. Neuberger, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last month.
According to Neuberger, professor Lawrence J. Connell was pressured to admit that he "was engaging in racist, sexist statements," mainly since his examples sometimes used the name of Widener Law School Dean Linda Ammons, who is a black woman. Connell refused to admit this, explaining later in an affidavit:
The hypotheticals often involve me, the students, and other law school actors familiar to the students. The law school actors have included, among others, Dean Ammons and her white male predecessors as well. The hypos engage the students, and the familiar characters enable them to remember the underlying rules and application.
In a letter dated March 7, 2011, the university’s Informal Committee of Inquiry recommended that the charges be dropped. The letter notes that charges might still be pursued under the university’s Discrimination and Harassment Code, but it seems to me impossible to wrangle any persuasive charge of discrimination or harassment out of hypothetical class examples, which law professors commonly use.
Connell’s affidavit similarly addresses the various other weird or vague allegations against his protected expression about actual cases discussed in class and outside of class (we haven’t seen the allegations in their original form, but for example, one allegation is that he used the term "black folks") as well as the allegations against things he claims to have never said (such as calling a female police officer "honey"). Again, I don’t see any way to wrangle any reasonable charges out of such discourse, whether it occurred or not, that might be found at a university and certainly at a law school. You can read the whole affidavit for yourself (and you might learn some things about the law if you do).
If you get to pages 35 and 36 of the affidavit, you’ll see this:
It dawned on me [when he was initially shown the allegations in December 2010] that this was not merely a question of what had happened in my spring 2010 Criminal Law class, but was an all-out attack – seemingly coordinated by [Vice Dean Patrick] Kelly or [Dean Linda] Ammons or both – on me.
It was apparent to me that Kelly was no neutral arbiter of some student’s claim against me. He was an active participant in the creation of an affirmative case against me. His use of anonymous student evaluation comments, as well as the 15-year-old, so-called "harassment" claim [based apparently on a single out-of-class incident misconstrued and where the so-called victim wasn’t even present], made clear that this was nothing the administration intended to settle amicably with me.
I am disappointed to say that it is hard to draw a different conclusion about Widener’s treatment of Professor Connell in trying to get him dismissed in violation of the academic freedom that any self-respecting (nonsectarian) law school would provide to its professors.
The right thing here is for Widener University to accept the committee’s recommendation, end the entire case, and move on.