By Colleen Flaherty at Inside Higher Ed
After 18 years of service, 24 peer-reviewed articles and the creation of a new-teacher education program, Teresa Buchanan was sailing toward promotion to full professor of education at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Did a few swear words and sex jokes really derail her career? That’s what the American Association of University Professors alleges in a report out today. The report makes it unlikely that the university, which earlier this year was close to moving off AAUP’s censure list for past concerns about its commitment to academic freedom, will do so anytime soon. But the university accuses AAUP of misinterpreting the principles at play in Buchanan’s case, ignoring the way she allegedly treated some students, and of betraying its own values.
“Obviously there are institutions where one person says a dirty word and everybody faints, but those places don’t really exist anymore,” said Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the AAUP. “The everyday language in the average administration building is far worse than Buchanan at her worst.”
Buchanan’s story goes something like this, according to AAUP: she was hired as an assistant professor in 1995 and awarded tenure in 2001, centering her research on early childhood education. She earned strong reviews as a teacher and researcher and helped establish a new-teacher education program encompassing prekindergarten through third grade. Several graduates earned honors such as teacher of the year during their first years on the job. Buchanan’s service also was rated excellent.
By the spring of 2013, Buchanan was applying for promotion to full professor, which would have been effective this academic year. As Buchanan worked on a statement for promotion, the director of the School of Education, Earl H. Cheek, solicited outside reviews — all of which were favorable. The school’s Promotion and Tenure Committee voted in the fall of 2013 to promote Buchanan, as did the college dean’s advisory committee. The dean, Damon P. S. Andrew, in his recommendation noted that Buchanan had brought in $1.2 million in research funding and received several teaching awards. The graduate school dean also approved Buchanan’s bid.
But in December of 2013, Buchanan received an email from Andrew that changed everything. Titled “Unacceptable performance,” the email said that “multiple serious concerns” regarding Buchanan’s performance in the classroom and in the field had been brought to light: she’d been accused of making “inappropriate statements” to students, teachers and administrators.
Andrew said Buchanan had been banned by a local school superintendent from locations in his district, and as a result of these concerns, she wouldn’t be able to teach during the spring 2014 semester. The university would pursue an investigation into whether she’d violated any of its policies, including that against sexual harassment.
Buchanan, according to AAUP, was known for having “occasionally used profanities in her speech,” but no complaint had ever found its way into her performance file — until Andrew’s letter.
The charges against Buchanan are somewhat vague, butThe Advocate reported that she occasionally said “Fuck, no” to students, once used a slang term for female genitalia to imply cowardice and joked that the quality of sex with one’s partner wanes over time. All of these incidents involved college students, not young children.
In an interview with The Advocate, Buchanan said she used sharp language on occasion to get students’ attention, and that her recent divorce might have affected her tone and sense of humor. But, essentially, she said, the allegations against her amount to a “witch hunt.”
“The occasional use of profanity is not sexual harassment,” Buchanan said. “Nor is the occasional frank discussion of issues related to sexuality, particularly when done in the context of teaching specific issues related to sexuality.”
No one from the university’s human resources office was able to meet with Buchanan until early the next semester, according to AAUP, and no one from her college spoke to her until the end of the semester, in June 2014. But over the course of the spring she was informed that Provost Stuart Bell was not recommending her for promotion, even though a university faculty committee had approved her bid.
She received a memo saying that the university’s investigation had found her guilty of sexual harassment and of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act — the first she’d heard of the latter charge.
After a meeting with Andrew, the education dean, he informed Buchanan that he was considering pursuing her dismissal because she’d admitted to using profanity — which he could not condone, especially as she was an educator of teachers of young children.
Buchanan remained out of the classroom, with pay and focusing on research, until a dismissal hearing before a faculty body in March of this year — over a year after she was first placed on leave.
After a nearly 12-hour hearing, the five-member faculty committee unanimously decided that Buchanan should not be dismissed for her alleged offenses. Although Buchanan did violate the university’s sexual harassment policy “with her use of profanity, poorly worded jokes and sometimes sexually explicit ‘jokes’ in her teaching methodologies,” the committee wrote in its report, the language wasn’t “systematically directed at any particular individual.”
The committee found the claim that Buchanan had violated the ADA was “not substantiated by testimony.” It recommended a written reprimand and statement from Buchanan that she wouldn’t repeat the behavior in question. The stress of the “hearing process itself is seen as an adequate punishment given the nature and apparent infrequency of the noted behaviors,” the committee concluded.
But Chancellor F. King Alexander ignored the committee’s recommendation and notified the university’s Board of Supervisors that Buchanan should be dismissed for cause, since she’d committed sexual harassment and therefore violated a federal law.
Buchanan appealed in writing, to no avail. She was offered a retirement deal in exchange for promising not to litigate, which she rejected, according to AAUP, and was later dismissed for cause.
AAUP quickly advocated on behalf of Buchanan earlier this summer, saying in a letter to Alexander that the professor had a long, sterling record until “vague” complaints from a local superintendent and a student teacher brought about a year-and-a-half-long suspension.
AAUP said it would resist making further remarks “on how distant the [university] administration has placed itself from the mainstream of our secular research universities by dismissing a professor for misconduct simply for having used language that is not only run-of-the-mill these days for much of the academic community but is also protected conduct under principles of academic freedom.”
But after a summer of silence from Louisiana State, AAUP is releasing its supplemental report on the university’s pre-existing censure.
The report is a marked change in tone for AAUP regarding Louisiana State, since as recently as June, at its annual meeting, the organization was hopeful that the university’s three-year censure would soon be lifted. That’s because the university had expressed interest in addressing AAUP’s remaining concerns about its commitment to academic freedom stemming from two protracted cases — including one in which a professor who was critical of Louisiana’s flood prevention systems in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina said he suffered professional retaliation.
Kurland, of AAUP, said Louisiana State performed a good “housecleaning” of administrators involved in those two older cases, but that the Buchanan case signaled more administrative turnover may be needed. Specifically, he questioned how the accusations of a local superintendent “managed to take a big flagship and turn it on its head.”
AAUP says that Buchanan’s statements are protected by academic freedom, and that the university should stand by her, regardless of political pressure. It also asserts that Buchanan should not have been removed from her classroom pending investigation, which by AAUP and Louisiana State policy is a serious punishment to be reserved only for those who immediately threaten the well-being of their students.
The report notes a preliminary response from Louisiana State alleging unspecified factual errors and general imprudence on the part of the AAUP for releasing a report on a matter about which few details have yet been made public and which is likely to be litigated. AAUP says it reviewed the transcript of the 12-hour hearing, so there’s little left to be discovered.
Louisiana State said in a previously released statement that Buchanan “created a consistently hostile and abusive environment in the classroom. Additionally, she was asked not to return to more than one elementary school in the Baton Rouge area within the last three years because of her inappropriate behavior. Based upon this consistent pattern of hostile and abusive behavior that negatively impacted [our] students, we believed it was necessary to terminate her employment.”
The statement continues: “This case is not about the rights of tenured professors or academic freedom, as some of the press have reported. [The university] had an obligation to take action on this matter. We take our responsibility to protect students from abusive behavior very seriously, and we will vigorously defend our students’ rights to a harassment-free educational environment.”
In a statement released Tuesday addressing AAUP’s report specifically, the university said it had four major complaints: that the facts are wrong, that it ignores and misinterprets federal and state law, that it fails to follow AAUP’s own statement of principles, and that it ignores the interest and well-being of students.
“Possessing only limited information pertaining to this issue, the AAUP should not advocate for the continuance of teaching practices that potentially violate university policy, state and federal law,” the university said. “The AAUP continues to diminish its relevance by violating its own Statement of Principles, which holds that: ‘University faculty, as scholars and educational officers … should remember that the public may judge their professional institution by their utterances. Hence, they [faculty] should at all times exercise appropriate restraint, [and] should show respect for the opinions of others.’”
On Tuesday evening, the university released an additional statement saying that evidence suggests that Buchanan over several years “had berated, embarrassed, disparaged, maligned and denigrated young, primarily female students who aspired to become elementary school teachers. The investigation further revealed that at least one K-12 school principal forbade this faculty member from being in contact on school grounds with that school’s teachers and children, which significantly damaged her ability as a supervisor of student teachers to perform her duties.”
Louisiana State added that the number of student complaints about Buchanan’s “abuse likely would have been even higher had there not been fear by students that reporting the faculty member would lead to retribution,” since student teachers are especially vulnerable.
Buchanan’s lawyer, Floyd Falcon, said he hadn’t seen AAUP’s report and therefore couldn’t comment. He said he believed Buchanan still wanted her job, and that she might sue the university over her termination, but declined to answer additional questions.
Peter Bonilla, associate director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said earlier this summer that specifics aside, Buchanan’s is part of a string of similar cases he’s seen in recent years.
“FIRE has seen multiple faculty members in recent years investigated, suspended from teaching, removed from campus and even fired from their positions over similar complaints,” he said. “Their universities have regularly shown remarkable indifference to their academic freedom rights even when their speech at issue was demonstrably germane to their teaching or were themselves direct applications of the assigned course materials.”
Even though Louisiana State has framed the Buchanan issue as one of student welfare, not academic freedom, faculty members on campus are nevertheless concerned. The Faculty Senate is scheduled to vote today on a resolution that Alexander, Bell and Andrew, the chancellor, provost and college dean, respectively, 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.”
Kevin L. Cope, a professor of English and president of the senate, said he thought the AAUP report “pretty much captures faculty concerns,” and that the resolution had a relatively strong chance of passing.
While there’s a wide variety of sides to Buchanan’s story, Cope said, the report pins down “the faculty feeling that procedures were somehow interrupted in this case and that the story culminates a long history of faculty-adverse behavior” at Louisiana State.