A charge of sexual harassment that resulted in the suspension of a University of Denver professor last spring has spiraled into an argument over academic freedom that has attracted national attention.
The school found that Arthur Gilbert, a tenured professor at DU’s Korbel School of International Studies, "created a sexual harassment hostile environment" in a class he taught for more than 20 years called "The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War."
Responding to complaints from two graduate students, the university investigated nine allegations against Gilbert and his teaching methods that it said were possible violations of federal Title IX legislation. Four were found to have insufficient or no evidence to support them.
Five others, which revolved around the "highly sexualized" nature of Gilbert’s class, were found likely to be true — though the investigation noted that it didn’t consider whether they were relevant to academic content.
"We respect faculty rights to academic freedom, but that doesn’t preclude investigating matters that may violate anti-discrimination law," DU spokesman Chase Squires said.
He added that the university wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the investigation other than to say the matter is considered closed.
Gilbert, 75, was suspended, with pay, from April until the last week in July and required to attend sensitivity training — though the latter sanction was reduced to having a "conversation" about how to avoid repeating the behavior.
But the professor said the issue is one of academic freedom and that his reasons for including sexual material in the class weren’t properly considered. His approach to the drug war first examined America’s 19th century attitudes toward sexuality, which he said run parallel toward its eventual attitudes toward drugs.
"This was shocking to me, because I’ve been teaching for 50 years, and this was a stunning event with no attempt to talk about what I was doing and why I was doing it," Gilbert said.
He filed a grievance with DU’s Faculty Review Committee, which noted "serious concerns" about academic freedom in the case but also said Gilbert would benefit from reflection on the concerns about sexualized content.
Earlier this month, 17 members of the DU chapter of the American Association of University Professors came to Gilbert’s defense with a letter asking the university to vacate its sexual harassment finding.
It followed the lead of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which also contacted the DU administration.
"The response we got from the provost’s office showed that the University of Denver was not interested in the academic freedom issues of his case," said Peter Bonilla, assistant director of FIRE’s individual rights defense program. "They judged it purely by whether they believed subjectively that certain topics of his lectures, and the content of course materials, was in itself offensive."
Gilbert said he will teach the course again in the spring, though "with fear and trembling. But I’m not going to change the course over what I consider outrageous behavior by DU administrators."