A tale of two pretexts: Sham investigations silence professors at Central Florida and Princeton

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A tale of two pretexts: Sham investigations silence professors at Central Florida and Princeton 

University of Central Florida campus in Orlando

On May 16, an arbitrator ordered the University of Central Florida to reinstate psychology professor Charles Negy, who was fired in January 2021 over tweets that were used as a justification to open an investigation into his teaching history. The absence of due process was a key element of the arbitrator’s decision. (Matthew Kaiser / Shutterstock.com)

As universities go, Princeton and the University of Central Florida may not have much in common, but they do share a mechanism for getting rid of inconvenient professors: finding a reason to investigate and fire them over something unrelated, after they’ve said something controversial. 

So far, it’s working better for Princeton than for UCF. On May 23, Princeton fired tenured classics professor Joshua Katz following an investigation into a relationship with a student for which he had already been investigated, punished, and returned to campus. Katz’s second prosecution for the same alleged wrongdoing began in 2020 after an op-ed critical of campus activists led to calls for his termination. 

Meanwhile, on May 16, an arbitrator ordered UCF to reinstate psychology professor Charles Negy, who was fired in January 2021 after two of his tweets were used as a justification to open a seven-month fishing expedition into his 22-year teaching history. The absence of due process was a key element of the arbitrator’s decision. 

UCF’s case against Negy was never likely to survive first-contact with a neutral decision-maker. When an investigation of tweets includes incidents from 2005 — the year before Twitter was founded — either the investigator is lying about their purpose or confused about the linear nature of time. 

While the Katz case at Princeton isn’t identical, it shares enough similarities to what happened at UCF that Princeton administrators should view UCF as a cautionary tale. Not the least of those is that Katz is represented by Negy’s attorney (and former FIRE staffer) Samantha Harris.

Princeton picks a reason to fire a dissenter

On July 4, 2020, campus organizers published a “faculty letter” signed by several hundred Princeton professors. In an effort to respond to racial injustice on campus, the letter made dozens of demands — some of which were inadvisable, illegal, or both. Four days later, Katz responded to the faculty letter with an opinion piece in Quillette.

Overall, Katz agreed with some of the suggestions his colleagues made and disagreed with others. But it was his characterization of a campus group, the Black Justice League, as “a small local terrorist organization” that led to calls for his termination.

On July 12, 2020, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber told The Daily Princetonian that Katz had “failed” to use his speech rights “responsibly.” In a separate article, a Princeton spokesperson announced the administration would be “looking into the matter.” 

You can’t defend civil rights for all by curtailing them for some.

The Daily Princetonian would release its own investigation of Katz months later, revealing that, in the mid-2000s, Katz had a consensual sexual relationship with an undergraduate advisee. That was not a surprise to the administration, which had investigated this and suspended Katz for one year without pay in 2018. The student in question had declined to cooperate with the earlier investigation; after the report she reached out to the administration.

Last week, Princeton announced that Katz was fired, purportedly not for the 2020 speech controversy or the relationship itself, but for actions he took to conceal the relationship. 

It’s hard not to see Princeton’s explanation as a pretense. Princeton announced they would investigate Katz’s speech and The Daily Princetonian’s investigation was prompted by the controversy over Katz’s speech. Surely it was not beyond the imaginations of the administrators who punished Katz in 2018 for a decade-old offense that he’d attempted to avoid their attention. Why would that suddenly merit termination? 

It smacks of the quote often attributed to Stalin’s head of secret police, Lavrentiy Beria: “Show me the man and I’ll show you the crime.” Katz’s attorney Harris quoted that recently, but to describe another institution, the University of Central Florida, and another client: Charles Negy. 

#UCFFireHim

Negy, an associate professor of psychology who has taught at UCF since 1998, has a Twitter account which he regularly uses to comment on social issues and politics. In the summer of 2020, a pair of Negy’s tweets particularly upset students and administrators. 

“Black privilege is real,” Negy tweeted on June 3, 2020. “Besides affirm. action, special scholarships and other set asides, being shielded from legitimate criticism is a privilege.” 

“Sincere question,” Negy continued, “If Afr. Americans as a group, had the same behavioral profile as Asian Americans (on average, performing the best academically, having the highest income, committing the lowest crime, etc.), would we still be proclaiming ‘systematic racism’ exists?”

Once, we thought we had to defend American freedom by punishing communist sympathizers. Eventually, the people we punished or investigated included folk singers, schoolchildren, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

On Twitter, offended students and others called for Negy’s termination with the hashtag #UCFFireHim. The next day, a UCF press release called his tweets “not only wrong, but particularly painful,” announced an investigation into Negy, and directed students with complaints to a website and phone number. 

On June 5, 2020, when an incoming freshman (who presumably hadn’t ever met Negy) asked then-Interim Chief Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Officer S. Kent Butler what would happen to the associate professor, Butler responded: “The wheels are in motion . . . [B]elieve that by the time you get on the campus as a freshman, it will have been dealt with.” 

One subtle clue that an investigation probably isn’t going to be fair and unbiased is when, less than 24 hours into a seven-month process, one of the people charged with leading the investigation promises that the subject will be “dealt with.” 

And so it went. Seven months later, investigators released a 244-page report with allegations against Negy spanning 15 years. 

The two tweets that started the incident — the ones that supposedly justified an investigation that stretched back to before Twitter existed — were protected speech. So instead of targeting the tweets, the report vaguely pointed to some in-classroom speech as the basis for firing Negy, although it wasn’t clear why some of his statements were unprotected. As I noted when writing about this case last year: 

According to the UCF investigation, it is protected speech to say that girl scouts preserve their virginity (p. 25), but not that women are attracted to men with money (p. 26). It is protected speech to say that Jesus was schizophrenic (p. 36), but unprotected to say that Jesus did not come into the world to die for everyone’s sins (p. 36). It’s protected to say that Islam is cruel and not a religion of peace (p. 107) but not that it is a toxic mythology (p. 35).

Among the other deficiencies in the investigation was an astonishing lack of due process. Negy wasn’t given notice of the specific allegations against him before he was subjected to nine hours of interrogation. When Negy was unable to recite — verbatim — what he had written in years-old emails, school officials held that against him.

Not that it mattered, because the report denied him the presumption of innocence anyway: Page 82 of the report says Negy’s recollections cannot be trusted because he has a “motivation to lie” to protect his job. By that standard, all accused professors should be viewed as liars, because presumably they’d all like to keep their jobs. Especially the innocent ones! 

UCF fired Negy in January of 2021. He appealed through the grievance process. 

Negy reinstated at Central Florida

On May 16, arbitrator Ben Falcigno ordered UCF to reinstate Negy “with tenure, and with all compensation and benefits fully restored,” effectively rejecting UCF’s death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy. 

In fact, the arbitrator noted that UCF had given Negy nothing but positive feedback for years:

As for Dr. Negy’s evaluations by UCF, the record shows no detrimental evaluations at all. On the contrary, he was awarded the prestigious UCF TIP [Teaching Incentive Program] award three times: 2003, 2008, and 2015. A review of Dr. Negy’s last 5 annual evaluations reveals that from 2015 through 2019, he was rated as overall outstanding. In 2019 that included every category rated, as well. 

And thus, UCF could not turn around and call the performance it rewarded and encouraged misconduct with nothing in-between. The order says: 

UCF made the basic mistake of acting as if management bore no responsibility. Nor did it give consideration to the messages in the form of evaluations and rewards sent year after year to validate Dr. Negy’s teaching, and how it now wants to blame him — with capital punishment — for what it retroactively sees as serious misconduct. 

Management cannot escape its obligation to clearly communicate its requirements. It must also be clear in what it communicates about performance. It does no justice to claim it made enormous evaluations errors for 20-plus years and then castigate the employee with termination.

Just Cause requires more consideration of Dr. Negy than what UCF offered. It is not a matter of sufficiency of evidence to prove misconduct years after the fact after you have heaped accolades for the performance period now being reviled.

Falcigno did not “make any determination that any specific charge or complaint was proven as a matter of evidence, inasmuch as there was a basic absence of due process by UCF.” 

Let these mistakes end here

Right now, UCF has a controversial professor and an object lesson in the importance of fairness. UCF should demonstrate its commitment to civil rights by respecting Negy’s and moving on. It should never have fired him; it should never have investigated him for protected speech.

Princeton should recognize it’s walking the same path that led UCF to stumble: Punishing a professor when their speech, in an incendiary cultural moment, went from being perceived as uncomfortable to intolerable.

Ideas that had been considered by some to be merely offensive were suddenly labeled intolerable.

That moment was not isolated to campuses. The collective agony that crystallized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder led to spikes in attempts to sanction professors — which led to spikes in requests for FIRE’s help. Ideas that had been considered by some to be merely offensive were suddenly labeled intolerable — or worse, threads in a tapestry of oppression that institutions were now obligated to unravel. Through this lens, what Negy and Katz said weren’t protected as edgy opinions, but had to be investigated as symptoms of bias. 

But expressing views is a civil right. You can’t defend civil rights for all by curtailing them for some. Once, we thought we had to defend American freedom by punishing communist sympathizers. Eventually, the people we punished or investigated included folk singers, schoolchildren, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Our fears were real, but we deployed them against people who were not our enemies. 

Administrators at Princeton and UCF need to worry less about how controversial professors make them look and more about what their willingness to fire professors for pretextual reasons does to the landscape of higher education. And professors at those institutions who cheerlead for these pretextual terminations need to consider how they’ll fare when the culture evolves again and their own careers are subjected to the infinite creativity of administrative inquiry.

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