Shouldn’t a fellow who’s been on the job for 50 years — and who’s been touted occasionally by his university employer in public promotions — be allowed to tell his story before anonymous complaints drive him from the classroom?
Shouldn’t he be questioned first even if the complaints allege, according to the dean of his school, that he’d created "a sexual harassment hostile environment" in his classroom?
In fact, shouldn’t his version of events be especially relevant under the circumstances, given the damage such allegations could inflict on his reputation?
University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert, 75, is still stunned by the ordeal of the past nine months, which concluded on Oct. 20 when Provost Gregg Kvistad upheld the dean’s conclusion that Gilbert violated the school’s sexual harassment policy. Gilbert insists DU abused his academic freedom when it yanked him from the classroom last April and barred him from campus and from contact with undergraduates (he’s back this fall teaching a graduate class). At the very least, the university trampled on elementary principles of fairness in adhering to a rigid bureaucratic model for dealing with student complaints.
On Friday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based outfit that fights against restrictive speech codes and other attempts to suppress academic freedom of speech and conscience, sent a letter to DU Chancellor Robert Coombe, asking him to "vacate this finding or, at worst, direct the appropriate reconsideration of the allegations in light of their academic context and the entire classroom environment."
If a university receives complaints that a professor’s lectures are offensively sexual, it naturally needs to respond. The process that engulfed Gilbert, however, was Kafkaesque, even though he is, as we shall see, not altogether blameless. He can be profane and polemical, not to mention deliberately provocative. He told me he has never forgotten Nietzsche’s dictum that you must philosophize with a hammer — and he believes the same holds true for teaching. If you don’t challenge students’ convictions, he contends, you’re not doing your job.
It’s clear Gilbert crossed the line in terms of good taste and appropriate speech — and apparently has been doing so for years. But the university’s reaction was grotesquely heavy-handed and it has yet to prove he is guilty of sexual harassment.
Last spring, Gilbert had taught two sessions of a class titled "The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War" when two female students lodged complaints about, among other things, references he’d made to masturbation. (The university will not release redacted copies.) A few days later, in a letter dated April 6, the dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, Christopher Hill, informed Gilbert that he was being put on administrative leave pending an investigation.
Gilbert says no one discussed the complaints with him before summarily yanking him from class. No less disturbing, the university’s Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity (ODEO), which proceeded to conduct a broad probe of his classes going back several years, admitted in its findings that it never looked into whether Gilbert’s controversial statements were "justified by the academic integrity of your teaching of the subject matter."
Those ODEO findings sound ugly on their face: Over the years, Gilbert allegedly "commented often" that males "should masturbate" for their prostate health; "frequently" used the F-word; showed "sexually graphic" film clips; and more than once brought in a vibrator (but not to last spring’s class).
If Gilbert truly has been urging male students to masturbate for prostate health, he’s out of line. If, on the other hand, he’s teaching a unit titled "Drugs and Sin in American Life: from masturbation and prostitution to alcohol and drugs," as was the case last spring, and refers to medical findings regarding masturbation and the prostate, as he maintains, then that is something else again.
I don’t know which is true, but it’s not clear the university does, either — or that it is particularly interested in the distinction.
And the vibrator? More evidence of Gilbert’s proclivity for provocation. He says that in a class in which he discussed "the creation of gender differences in the late 19th century and its relationship to the development of ideas about masculinity and femininity before World War I," he brought in an old art deco vibrator — and had done so for 25 years.
Crude and gratuitous? Sure. Indeed, a 10-member faculty review committee that looked into Gilbert’s case this fall after he filed a grievance concluded that he should be "more sensitive to the impact of his teaching methods and classroom presentation on some of his students." But that same panel described the university’s treatment of Gilbert — with its sentence before trial and its failure even to consider academic context — "outrageous."
As the civil liberties group FIRE observes, "the relevance and appropriateness of Gilbert’s academic expression in the classroom has never been evaluated." Nor, in its view, has the proper legal standard for a hostile classroom environment been employed.
Meanwhile, Gilbert’s reputation, in the twilight of a long and otherwise unblemished career, has been stained with the ugly blot of sexual harassment. What a dreadful reward for 50 years of service.