Mere hours after FIRE letter, Providence College drops termination proceedings against biology professor for having a box of Plan B | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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Mere hours after FIRE letter, Providence College drops termination proceedings against biology professor for having a box of Plan B

 Plan B medication

Andriy R / Shutterstock.com

Around lunchtime on Nov. 16, FIRE sent Providence College a letter criticizing its impending dismissal of biology professor James Waters, whose transgression amounted to keeping a box of Plan B in their office to answer student questions related to their lectures. (Waters uses they/them pronouns.) By dinnertime, Waters’ job was saved, and the college informed Waters via email that the investigation had ceased.

Waters is an accomplished comparative physiologist specializing in comparative and human physiology, who is teaching general biology this semester to over 140 students. During a lecture on the mechanisms of hormonal contraception, Waters held up a box of Plan B and told students they were welcome to come to office hours with further questions. This sparked rumors — ultimately determined to be unfounded — that Waters was actively distributing contraceptives to students on campus at the private Catholic institution. 

Shortly thereafter, Providence Provost and Vice President Sean Reid approached Waters and asked if the box of the contraceptives was kept in their office. Waters confirmed the box was in the office, and immediately complied when asked to dispose of it. Unfortunately, that was just the beginning of Waters’ troubles.

The next day, the dean emailed Waters requesting an “informal” meeting that would include Reid. In the meeting, university leadership accused Waters of  violating two provisions of the faculty handbook — contract provisions that require Waters to uphold Providence’s Catholic mission and unprofessional conduct — and that these alleged violations would serve as “cause” for dismissal. 

Rights violations like these ​​put all Providence faculty at risk, sending a message that controversial teaching — even by tenured faculty — can lead to summary dismissal by administrators.

Though the accusations of distributing Plan B rested on unsubstantiated rumors, Reid told Waters that simply having the box in their office on campus was egregious enough behavior to warrant termination. Nevermind that they used the box solely for pedagogical purposes and there was no indication Waters was dispensing Plan B. And nevermind that Providence College boasts strong promises of academic freedom. 

Providence leadership across the board – from the university president to the board of trustees – supported Waters’s termination, according to administrators.

That’s when Waters contacted FIRE. 

We quickly wrote Providence, reminding the private institution that, while not bound by the First Amendment, its own endorsement of the 1940 Statement of Academic Freedom and Tenure establishes the rights its faculty can expect to enjoy — including that to possess materials for pedagogically-relevant purposes. 

While Waters agreed with the administration that distributing Plan B would be inappropriate, possessing a singular box can aid in showing students how things work, like when an archeology professor holds up a skull. Academic freedom clearly protects the ability to show students something that is legal to possess and relevant to the course at hand.

Providence has addressed how it squares its Catholic identity with the principles of academic freedom. As our letter pointed out:

The college has also directly addressed how its Dominican Catholic identity and academic freedom are compatible, and how the college “bridges the common divides between ... faith and reason,” by encouraging students and faculty to take “the evidence at hand” in a given situation and arrive at a “thoughtful and reasonable response.” The college specifically cites biology as a field where this level of academic exploration is not only permitted, but mandated.

While these assurances are laudable, colleges and universities can’t just talk the talk: They must also walk the walk. Threatening to terminate a tenured professor, encouraging them to resign, offering no evidence of the accusations being leveled, and subjecting a distinguished educator to multiple “informal” meetings outside the bounds of due process is not walking the walk. Rather, it if anything raises concerns, not only for the college’s respect for academic freedom, but also for due process rights that help shield against violations of expressive freedom. 

Rights violations like these ​​put all Providence faculty at risk, sending a message that controversial teaching — even by tenured faculty — can lead to summary dismissal by administrators.

FIRE commends Providence College for ending its effort to terminate Waters and for upholding its commitment to academic freedom.

“The things on my mind the most right now are the need for classroom speech to be protected for everyone (regardless of tenure) and the way even the pursuit of investigations outside of normal procedure can create an absolutely chilling atmosphere, sending ripples if not outright waves across campus.” Waters told FIRE last week. “When administrations pick and choose which complaints to investigate, and threaten some faculty with ultimatums while shielding others, it’s definitely not a space in which we can feel free.” 

FIRE commends Providence College for ending its effort to terminate Waters and for upholding its commitment to academic freedom. We hope that others on the Providence campus are not chilled from educating their students in the best way that each instructor sees fit.


FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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