Last week the AAUP released a supplementary report about the dismissal of tenured professor Teresa Buchanan from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, which has been on the AAUP’s list of censured administrations since 2012. The report raises questions about the extent to which LSU followed its own policies and AAUP-approved principles of due process in its dismissal of Buchanan, who was charged with sexual harassment for her acknowledged use of some profane language in her teaching methodologies.
A draft of the report was sent in advance to the LSU administration for comment, but the university declined to respond. Instead, LSU charged the AAUP with rushing to judgment and, in a media release, claimed that “The AAUP continues to diminish its relevance by violating its own Statement of Principles, which holds that: ‘University faculty, as scholars and educational officers … should remember that the public may judge their professional institution by their utterances. Hence, they [faculty] should at all times exercise appropriate restraint, [and] should show respect for the opinions of others.’”
With respect to a rush to judgment it needs to be emphasized that the AAUP report was not the product of a full investigation nor does it draw conclusions about the case that might lead to a censure vote. This for the simple reason that the LSU administration is already on the censure list for its treatment of full-time non-tenure-track appointments. The purpose of the supplementary report is simply to pose additional questions and issues that the university will need to address if censure is to be lifted.
As for the AAUP’s alleged violation of its own principles, John Wilson has responded appropriately to this in a comment to an earlier post on this blog: “The statement that faculty ‘should’ exercise restraint and ‘should’ show respect for other opinions is not a blank check to fire every professor deemed disrespectful.”
Then, on September 2, as the report was being released and the LSU Faculty Senate began debate on a resolution censuring the administration for its conduct in Buchanan’s dismissal, LSU President/Chancellor F. King Alexander issued a lengthy, if somewhat fact-free, comment on the case.
In the statement (apparently not available on the LSU website), which was read to the Senate, Alexander makes several allegations. First, he charges that Buchanan was found guilty of sexual harassment and that had the university not acted it could “be subject to loss of federal funds and/or may be liable for money damages under Title IX of The Civil Rights Act.” Use of Title IX allegations to suppress faculty or student expression has become a growing concern, as evidenced most prominently by the Laura Kipnis affair at Northwestern University. The AAUP has empowered a joint subcommittee of our Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and our Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession to study the question, so I will not go into the issue here. I will, however, second John Wilson’s point that in this case LSU’s “paternalism toward protecting women from bad language isn’t an enforcement of Title IX, it’s a violation of it. LSU is discriminating against a female professor because she talks the wrong way for a woman, and they want to prevent young women from hearing such language.”
But perhaps of even greater concern in Alexander’s Title IX claim is its contempt for the American system of law. For one of the most fundamental principles of American jurisprudence is that only the legal system and not private bodies or independent state agencies may determine if or when laws have been violated, and only that system, primarily the judiciary, may mete out punishment for such violations. While regulatory agencies are sometimes empowered to take disciplinary actions against those they regulate, LSU is not such an agency. Nor has LSU produced even a shred of evidence to suggest that any agency of government, prosecutorial or regulatory, has even charged Buchanan with a crime or violation, much less convicted her of one. Indeed, there is not the slightest shred of evidence to suggest that either Buchanan or LSU have been subjects of even a preliminary investigation of legal violations.
If LSU believed that Buchanan’s actions violated the law — Title IX or any other federal or state law or regulation — the university’s obligation was to report such violations to the appropriate authorities and not to take the law into its own hands and mete out punishment, especially a punishment as severe as denial of livelihood. To do otherwise is, to put it bluntly, to engage in a form of white-collar vigilantism.
According to Alexander, “over the course of several years,” Buchanan “berated, embarrassed, disparaged, maligned and denigrated young, primarily female students.” This is certainly a serious charge, but Alexander offers no evidence at all to substantiate it. More important, in a twelve-hour hearing the faculty committee empaneled to hear the Buchanan case reached no such conclusion based on extensive documentary evidence and oral testimony, including from LSU’s human resources department, which had “investigated” Buchanan. Instead the committee found unanimously that “removal with cause” should not be contemplated, though it also faulted Buchanan for having violated LSU’s policies on sexual harassment by “her use of profanity, poorly worded jokes, and sometimes sexually explicit ‘jokes’ in her methodologies.” The committee found no evidence, however, that this behavior was “systematically directed at any particular individual,” only that “some individuals observing the behaviors were disturbed.” This is a far cry from the charges alleged by Alexander.
Alexander also claims that Buchanan had been “warned by university administrators to desist in her behavior and use of tactics that created the hostile environment, yet she refused to take any measures to correct said conduct.” This is the height of hypocrisy, since Alexander must know full well that Buchanan was suspended from teaching at the very onset of the administrative “investigation” into her conduct and has never again been permitted to teach at LSU. How then could she even have attempted to “desist in her behavior,” whether or not that behavior constituted sexual harassment?
Several faculty members at LSU have commented that the language Buchanan has been accused of using is tame when compared to language heard on a regular basis in the offices of LSU administrators. And here I would add that Alexander is himself surely no stranger to such talk. Prior to coming to LSU he served as president of California State University (CSU), Long Beach, reporting directly to then-CSU Chancellor Charles Reed. A burly fireplug of a man, Reed was famously foul-mouthed and considered by many (this writer included) to be something of a bully. As more than a few campus presidents in the CSU system acknowledged, Reed’s “management style” often involved cursing at, berating, maligning, humiliating, and otherwise harassing his immediate subordinates.
But Reed’s use of four-letter expletives and his bullying behavior could extend frequently to faculty members too, especially those chosen by their colleagues as union or senate leaders. I can recall one incident in which a female nursing professor serving as CSU Senate Chair was button-holed at a reception by Reed, who while firmly gripping her arm began a harsh and vulgar tongue-lashing that ended only when several colleagues (myself included) rushed to her rescue. (I also had personal experience of Reed’s habit of grabbing people by the arm and yelling at them; his grip was strong — and far from affectionate.)
Alexander must surely have been aware of this sort of behavior by his then boss. But did anyone hear even a peep of public protest from him? Why should some profane language by a professor be deemed dismissal-worthy while systematic and vulgar harassment by a top administrator carries no consequence? Could it be that Reed had power over Alexander and Buchanan did not? Could it be that Reed is a man and Buchanan a woman? Could it be that one standard applies to administrators and another to faculty members? These are questions that I would add to those posed in the supplementary report, which as yet, Alexander’s flawed statement notwithstanding, remain unanswered.