Widener Law School, Dean Ammons Continue to Embarrass Themselves in Professor Connell Case

August 8, 2011

In late July, we provided an update to the case of Professor Lawrence Connell at Widener University School of Law in Delaware, reporting that Professor Connell had been cleared by a unanimous university hearing panel on charges of "harassment" and "discrimination." Connell’s case, which you’ll want to read up on if you’re not familiar with the basic facts, involved his use of the term "black folks" in class as well as his use of law school dean Linda L. Ammons as a character in hypothetical case scenarios in class discussion (a common law school practice).

As we reported at the time, the hearing panel largely cleared Connell of Widener’s weak charges against him and critically vindicated his free speech and academic freedom rights in the classroom. However, Widener did find him guilty of "retaliation," a charge originating out of two apparent offenses: "emailing his students to explain why Ammons had banned him from the campus," as well as the decision of his attorney, Thomas S. Neuberger, to issue a press release "explaining his efforts to identify Connell’s accusers and to protect his client’s reputation." Somehow, unbelievably, the school was fine with allowing the charge of retaliation to stick for Connell’s attempt to clear his name and to explain his disappearance from campus to his students.

But now comes news, via The Volokh Conspiracy, that Dean Ammons has recommended (and Widener has agreed to) a host of sanctions against Professor Connell for the retaliation charge. The blog Legal Insurrection carries the news as well, reporting that Dean Ammons recommended that Professor Connell be suspended without pay for one year, and that his ban from campus extend "at least through the graduation of one of the complaining students in 2012." Dean Ammons also recommended that Professor Connell be reinstated only once he has met the following conditions, which are so onerous that I had to quote them directly from her letter:

1. Professor Connell will acknowledge, in writing, his violation of the Discrimination and Harassment Code and will agree to comply fully with his contractual obligations and all policies of Widener University and Widener University School of Law in the future. Professor Connell’s acknowledgement shall be placed in his personnel file.

2. Professor Connell will undergo a psychological evaluation by a psychiatrist or psychologist of his choice selected from a list of four individuals provided to him by the University. The purpose of this evaluation will be to determine his fitness for his teaching position, particularly in view of his retaliatory response to the student complaints lodged against him. The psychiatrist/psychologist will be advised of the reasons why the evaluation is to be conducted. Once the psychiatrist/psychologist is selected by Professor Connell, Professor Connell will instruct that individual to contact Vice Dean Kelly directly so that he/she may be advised of the reasons for the conduct of the evaluation. Professor Connell will comply with all conditions and recommendations issued by the psychiatrist/psychologist, including, without limitation, appropriate counseling and anger management, prior to the lifting of the suspension and his return to teaching duties. Not earlier than sixty (60) days prior to the end of the term of Professor Connell’s one year suspension, his psychiatrist/psychologist must send to the Dean and Vice Dean an evaluation assessing Professor Connell’s fitness to return to duties, completion of courses or training, if applicable, and a follow-up treatment plan, if any.

3. Professor Connell must issue a written apology to the students against whom he has been found to have retaliated. The form and content of that apology must be provided to the Dean of the Law School for approval and will be distributed to the affected students by the Dean’s office.

Got all that? So, for a finding of guilt on this incredibly weak charge, out of a hearing in which he was largely vindicated on other, more serious charges, Professor Connell must acknowledge (in writing that will be placed in his personnel file) violations for offenses on which he was cleared; submit to a psychological evaluation by one of four individuals provided to him by Widener, which is to include a determination of his fitness for teaching as well as the possibility of anger management counseling; and write a school-approved apology to the student against whom he allegedly retaliated.

I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: that Dean Ammons thought to recommend all of these requirements as a condition of reinstatement from a year-long unpaid suspension, or that Widener has accepted her recommendations. Indeed, read President James T. Harris III’s letter deciding to "accept the Dean’s recommendation in its entirety," if you have the stomach.

As we have mentioned previously, Connell is suing Dean Ammons and Widener in Delaware state court for defamation. Given the school’s latest outrageous acts in handling this matter, Connell’s lawsuit becomes that much more critical. We will be closely following Connell’s efforts to vindicate his rights and reporting what happens here on The Torch.

As an addendum, I wish to note Volokh Conspiracy blogger and respected law professor David Bernstein’s admonishment of Widener. Professor Bernstein first issues a warning to the readers of the popular legal blog, some of whom are presumably contemplating attending law school: "…if any of our readers are considering attending Widener, I recommend looking elsewhere—anywhere else. If Connell can be abused in this way, so can you." And that’s not all:

UPDATE: I had agreed to participate in a Widener-sponsored project after the committee report was released, which I thought would be the end of the matter. I’ve now sent an email to my contact at Widener, withdrawing. I can’t in good conscience have my reputation associated in any way with Widener Law School.

Ouch. It just makes the point clear: the longer Widener carries out this injustice against Professor Connell, the worse of a hit its name and reputation takes in the academic and legal community. I hope Widener comes to its senses soon, before it adds a loss in court to its litany of embarrassments.

Schools:  Widener University School of Law

Cases:  Widener University: Law School Threatens Professor’s Academic Freedom