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Professor’s case exposes bias

February 23, 2005

Tenure hasn’t been all it’s cracked up to be for University of Oklahoma professor David Deming. Sure, he still has a job, but it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the basement.

Deming’s situation is a perfect example of what’s wrong with today’s academic establishment. The modern academy is too often characterized by political and intellectual conformism and a willingness to silence people who don’t just go along to get along — people like Deming.

OU faces a federal lawsuit for removing Deming from its geology department, stripping him of classes, and, in a ridiculous attempt at punishment, actually moving him to a basement office — all while claiming to respect the principles of tenure and academic freedom.

Deming’s offense was his refusal to shut up about what he saw as bias and cronyism in the OU geology department. OU has attacked Deming’s freedoms since early 2000, when it punished him for writing a letter to the college newspaper that protested a column advocating gun control.

OU relented after coming under public attack from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and after Deming threatened a lawsuit, but it continued to unconstitutionally monitor his communication with newspapers. Appallingly, OU even considered Deming’s public opinions in his annual reviews. In 2003, OU President David Boren promised Deming he would put a stop to that Orwellian practice.

Yet OU’s campaign against Deming merely increased in intensity. In 2003, officials targeted Deming for accusing School of Geology officials of cronyism for hiring a new professor who had a close business relationship with the school director and other professors in the geology department. Public records requests have uncovered damning evidence that administrators and alumni schemed to marginalize and isolate Deming for his whistleblowing and political expression.

Unfortunately, OU’s shameful campaign against Deming is all too typical of today’s campuses. While OU has become noteworthy for the length, intensity and pettiness of its efforts, universities across the country have attacked professors who don’t follow the party line.

At North Carolina’s Shaw University, for example, professor Gale Isaacs was fired for authoring a letter encouraging the university’s president to step down at the end of 2002, as he had promised to do. And at Rhode Island College, professor Lisa Church was due to be punished for refusing to censor constitutionally protected speech — until FIRE stepped in.

OU administrators have distinguished themselves, however, with their willingness to express their scheming in writing. For instance, in one e-mail, Dean John Snow of OU’s College of Geosciences wrote, “Somehow I have to convince (School of Geology Director) Roger (Slatt) that he needs to basically ignore and then marginalize Deming. As long as we keep our I’s dotted and our T’s crossed, all Deming can really do is make noise and cause a bit more paperwork. I firmly believe Deming will finally annoy the president with his whining — it may take awhile but it will happen and I want to be here to watch.”

Tenure is intended to protect academic freedom by ensuring that professors are free to espouse opinions — political and otherwise — that might be unpopular with bosses like Snow. Without this protection, many professors would come under irresistible pressure to conform to a school’s political perspective.

Yet both tenure and academic freedom are meaningless if a university can strip a professor of his office and classes for his expression, as OU has done. Oklahoma’s taxpayers deserve a university where free and open debate is encouraged, not repressed.

If Deming’s lawsuit is successful, they just might get it.

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Schools: University of Oklahoma Cases: University of Oklahoma: Plot to Punish Professor for Political Beliefs, Whistleblowing University of Oklahoma: Use of Sexual Harassment Allegations to Suppress Protected Speech