Harassment vs. academic freedom, round two

January 24, 2008

By Andy Guess at Inside Higher Ed

It started as a student accusation of harassment against a long-tenured professor. Now, with the faculty’s backing, the dispute has turned into a showdown over autonomy, academic freedom and governance procedures.

Donald Hindley first learned through twin October 30 letters that he was deemed in violation of Brandeis University’s nondiscrimination policy for allegedly uttering “inappropriate and racially derogatory statements.” The provost, Marty Krauss, informed the professor of politics that a “monitor” would observe his classroom and that he would be required to attend “anti-discrimination training.” The administration’s sanctions were deemed unusual by veteran observers of academic freedom, such as the American Association of University Professors, and the allegations set off a furor among faculty members at the institution, named for the free-expression defender and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.

“Brandeis still refuses to let me or my lawyers know what I am supposed to have said or done that allegedly constituted racial harassment and/or discrimination,” Hindley said in an e-mail.

Last month, the provost rejected an appeal by the university’s Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, leading Hindley to seek counsel and outside backing to pressure the university directly. At issue is a fundamental dispute about which is more important: protecting academic freedom, or ensuring students’ willingness to come forward with allegations of harassment?

The monitoring of his class has stopped this semester, and Hindley has so far refused to participate in the mandated training sessions. According to statements he and others have made to campus newspapers, the allegations revolve around students’ interpretation of comments he made using the term “wetback,” a derogatory reference to Mexican immigrants. Hindley, who has taught at Brandeis for almost 50 years, said he was using the term in his Latin American politics course in the context of explaining how it had been used historically. The department chair, Steven L. Burg, has previously said that at least two students approached him separately about Hindley’s remarks.

A campus publication, The Brandeis Hoot, pseudonymously interviewed one of the students, who said Hindley had used phrases like “mi petite negrita” and “wetbacks.”

“It seems to me that the administration is almost happy this came about, so they can nail him,” the student told the paper. “He’s been around forever and I’ve heard comments of dislike from the past decades-there have been other complaints [about] that. I think they’re attempting to give him his due process now since he has been here so long-at least that’s the impression that I’ve heard.”

Officials from the university declined to comment last week, but pressure mounted on Wednesday when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education publicized Hindley’s case on its Web site.

The dispute first escalated when the Faculty Senate took up the issue in a November 8 emergency session, unanimously expressing that it was “seriously concerned about procedures…. The Human Resources policies stress the importance of resolving such issues in an ‘informal manner’ with ‘flexible’ solutions. Furthermore, the Provost’s letter to the professor includes reference to ‘termination’ as a possibility if the professor does not accept the suggested remedies. This violates section VIIC2a of the Faculty Handbook: ‘When considering suspension or dismissal, the Provost will first consult with the Faculty Senate Council.’ No such consultation occurred before this letter was delivered.”

Accepting Hindley’s appeal, the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities wrote to the provost on November 29, asking her to fully reverse her decision, citing threats to academic freedom, procedural irregularities and excessive punishments. For example, the committee said that the sanctions against Hindley should have been lifted under the appeals process; instead, a monitor was immediately sent to his classes after the decision.

The committee argues that the administration didn’t follow basic procedures as outlined in the Faculty Handbook and the nondiscrimination policy, such as allowing Hindley to choose a witness to be present throughout the process. Responding to the committee’s letter on December 10, the provost rejected its findings and referred to “errors, both factual and legal,” in the analysis. “I am committed to academic freedom for our faculty and students, but I am equally committed to the principle that we will not tolerate racially harassing speech,” Krauss wrote.

She continued that when interviewed by the investigator, Hindley admitted to making the remarks but was “dismissive of their impact.” (Hindley, for his part, has referred to the proceedings as “the Stalin purges.”)

Krauss cited portions of the university’s nondiscrimination procedures stating that those rules, not the Faculty Handbook, govern the process of handling such allegations. The faculty committee, in asserting its power to appeal the ruling, maintains that the handbook grants it jurisdiction in the case. Neither side is backing down, as a response the committee sent to the Faculty Senate chairman on the same day, December 10, made clear:

“We must face the possibility that our faculty dispute resolution process is breaking down. The latest conflict with the Provost over jurisdiction, legal interpretations, and complex facts may have entered the stage where further exchanges are futile, or at least too complicated for most faculty colleagues to follow in detail. There is something very serious that is now broken, and the Senate may be the only route for restoring some sense of order.”

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Schools: Brandeis University Cases: Brandeis University: Professor Found Guilty of Harassment for Protected Speech