BY AARON BARLOW
On January 20, the University of California Board of Regents took the incredibly rare step of dismissing a tenured professor for cause, a sanction that has occurred only a handful of times in the University’s history. Rob Latham, Professor of English at UC Riverside, was dismissed, over the recommendation of the UCR Faculty Senate, after a disciplinary process that appears to have been significantly flawed. I will be following this case more closely in future, especially considering the issues it raises of disrespect for the institution of tenure and the principle of shared governance, but for the present Dr. Latham has permitted me to publish his statement delivered to the UC Regents at their recent meeting in San Francisco.
Address to UC Regents by Professor Rob Latham
I want to thank the Regents for permitting me to address you today, although obviously I wish the circumstances were different than they are. In fact, I can’t believe that this case, which began with false charges of sexual harassment brought by a disgruntled graduate student and his girlfriend, has been allowed to reach the Board of Regents. It should have been settled through informal mediation long ago.
However, not only was no such good faith effort ever attempted by the UCR administration, but I was never even invited to respond to the charges or to submit exculpatory evidence. Instead, the administration adopted an adversarial posture from the outset, as if the original allegations—the vast majority of which we now know to be untrue—had already been proven. As Vice Provost Daniel Ozer testified at the disciplinary hearing, the administration never sought to change course even when it became clear that the two complainants had submitted doctored evidence and leveled charges that were proven false by a police investigation. Professor Ozer also testified that the administration was aware of the existence of numerous witnesses who could rebut the complainants’ allegations of harassment, including some of their closest friends, yet they made no effort to contact or interview these witnesses.
The administration has asserted that the Faculty Senate Hearing Committee did not find the complainants’ allegations to be untrue but merely not proven to a clear and convincing standard. I’m sure you have all read the Senate’s findings report. Here is the kind of language the Committee uses to describe the students’ allegations: “not credible,” “inconsistent with contemporaneous evidence,” the full record “argues strongly against a finding of sexual harassment”; contrary to Complainant #1’s assertions that he found my communications unwelcome, “the evidence is that he enthusiastically participated in these exchanges”; and so on. In short, the two students were lying, and we provided substantial evidence during the hearing that their lies were malicious—evidence the Committee decided to ignore, but which a civil court will most certainly attend to. The administration could have—and should have—admitted the mendacity of their two protagonists early in this process, if they had been remotely concerned with justice or the truth. But that is not the path they chose to take.
As a result, the situation in which we find ourselves is a new one for all of us. I believe that none of you were sitting regents when Dr. Sergio Stone addressed this body in Spring of 2000, the last tenured professor to appeal a recommendation of dismissal for cause. That is how rare this process is, and how much the University of California has historically respected the institution of tenure. Professor Stone’s case reached this board after years of litigation that involved multiple felony indictments, whereas UCR Chancellor Kim Wilcox is asking you to dismiss me for a month-long relapse into a substance abuse problem, following a spotless twenty-year career. So, if nothing else, the administration at my campus is breaking new ground in UC disciplinary policy.
Let me say upfront that I am not here to beg for my job, because I don’t believe I should ever have been put in the position of having to do so. I am here as the result of a misbegotten prosecution, driven by political pressures, homophobic bias, and administrative hostility. That said, I do not claim to be innocent of fault. I made a serious error of judgment in relation to substance abuse, for which I sought treatment one full year before any charges were filed against me. The Senate, for whatever reason, gave me no credit for that effort at self-correction, and now Chancellor Wilcox is asking you to dismiss me for the recurrence of a psychological illness, rather than for the original charges of flagrant, serial sexual harassment—charges that were considered and dismissed by the Hearing Committee, whose findings the Chancellor has accepted in their entirety. Yet these false charges were vigorously and recklessly pursued by the administration, in ways that amount to gross malfeasance by UCR Provost Paul D’Anieri’s office. This is the tainted context in which you are being asked to make your decision.
I have outlined, in my ten-page written statement, the political pressures and rank homophobia that deformed the disciplinary process, including acts of official misconduct that are currently being investigated by the Faculty Senate. All I will repeat here is that the intervention of the graduate student union, at an early juncture of this case, and their threats to “go public” if the administration did not acquiesce to their demand for my “removal as Professor of English,” was crucial in setting the administration on the course they pursued. This course included manipulating and corrupting an ostensibly fair and impartial Title IX investigation, coaching student witnesses supportive of their case while attempting to intimidate those supportive of me, and suppressing evidence crucial to my defense before the Faculty Senate.
As for the administration’s homophobia, I will simply remind you that the Provost’s Office submitted, as evidence of my alleged verbal harassment of the male complainant, the following communication: “You’re an intellectual thoroughbred, kiddo, and I’ve mentored very few of those in my career. I have to resist the impulse to ride you too hard too soon. If you’ll forgive the equine metaphor.” Suffice to say it is transparently obvious that, if a heterosexual man had made the exact same statement, no lewd implication would ever have been inferred. The rhetoric of UCR’s charging documents and administration counsel’s briefs was rife with homophobic language and assumptions, including the myth that gay men are always “on the make,” unable to relate to other males in any way except sexually. While I was not permitted to address this matter during the disciplinary hearing because the Committee arbitrarily ruled out consideration of homophobic bias in the formulation of the charges or the administration’s prosecution of them, this issue will, of course, be highly relevant to a civil court adjudicating the grounds for my dismissal.
My written statement, along with the November 8 rebuttal I submitted to Chancellor Wilcox, also details the multitudinous errors of fact, failures to apply the appropriate standard of evidence, and abuses of discretion in the Senate’s report, including their finding that I allegedly distributed drugs to graduate students on an evening when I was demonstrably not present and their sustaining of a single incident of an unwelcome advance towards a third party despite substantial exculpatory evidence, including that student’s own contemporaneous statements. I do not blame the Hearing Committee for these mistakes given the mountain of lies and innuendo shoveled at them by the administration, which included over 1000 pages of documentary evidence and over 1000 pages of witness testimony. Despite their flawed findings, the Committee did not recommend my dismissal, but they were overruled by Chancellor Wilcox in a significant flouting of the principle of shared governance. The administration’s contempt for this principle was clear throughout the disciplinary proceedings, as they persistently misled the Senate and (as noted) withheld evidence critical to my case, despite the Hearing Committee’s ruling that I was entitled to receive it.
In any event, the sanction recommended by the Committee—demotion in rank and two years of unpaid leave—was already disproportional to punishments imposed on other UC professors for similar acts of misconduct. I know personally of a case involving a professor at another campus who became addicted to crack cocaine, and bought and sold the drug; he was given a year’s paid leave and mandatory rehab. And I’m sure you are all aware of the recent case of the astrophysics professor at UC Berkeley, who sexually assaulted numerous students over at least a decade and received a light sanction simply warning him not to misbehave again. I do not understand the disproportion between the sanction imposed on this heterosexual man—a genuine predator rather than a fantasy one—and the sanction proposed for me, a gay man with no previous record of misconduct. Now while we can all agree that the Berkeley professor deserved a more significant sanction than the one imposed on him, to vote to dismiss me for considerably less egregious misconduct, especially after the vast bulk of the original charges were shown to be untrue, would merely be another miscarriage of justice. It would certainly be a violation of equal protection under UC policy and under the law.
I will not delve more deeply into these various matters here, except to say that the self-serving representations in the administration’s response to my written statement are woefully inadequate to insulate the University from legal fault if I am dismissed. But that is an issue to be adjudicated in a different venue. Instead, I would like to tell you a bit about myself, and some of the more significant accomplishments of my twenty-year career—a career you are now being asked to terminate for cause. The fantasy portrait of me evoked in the administration’s charging documents—of some sinister monster of vice, a predatory homosexual who lures vulnerable students into his depraved and reckless lifestyle—is so far from the facts that I believe I have to give you a sense of the kind of person and professor I actually am. If you are going to vote to fire me, I would prefer to be fired based on an honest assessment of my character and career, and not on inflammatory rhetoric, homophobic innuendo, or political expediency.
I got my Ph.D. in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford in 1995. My first job was at the University of Iowa, where for thirteen years I was a Professor of English and American Studies, and where I ran a Program in Sexuality Studies. In that role, I got to know the major scholars in the field of LGBT and Queer Studies, a number of whom have volunteered to testify as expert witnesses if I am compelled to sue the university for sexual orientation discrimination. During my career, I have written or edited nine books, including the Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, which was just selected as an “essential academic title” by Choice magazine. Since 1997, I have been a senior editor of the premier journal in my field and also serve on the editorial boards of four other journals and three major book series. In 2012, I received the Clareson Award for Distinguished Service from the SF Research Association, the premier award in my field.
I would have been content to finish my career at Iowa, were it not for the unique opportunity to build a program in Science Fiction Studies to complement UCR’s world-class archive, the Eaton Science Fiction Collection. My hiring was the result of an international search for a senior scholar, mounted by former Dean Steve Cullenberg and former Chancellor Tim White, two very good men and superb administrators with whom I had an excellent working relationship. However, following the hire of Chancellor Wilcox in 2013—and especially of Provost D’Anieri in 2014—the atmosphere at UCR changed from one of cooperation and consultation with faculty to one of confrontation and hostility. I say this merely to indicate that I gave seven years of exemplary service to the campus but, following the lodging of false charges by a student with a grudge, have been hounded by a vengeful administration intent on railroading me out of my job.
During my tenure at UCR, I have done what I was hired to do: following my recruitment of a distinguished creative writer and a senior media studies scholar, UCR now has the top program in Science Fiction Studies in the world. In 2011, my colleagues voted unanimously to promote me to full professor, their report stating that I am “a scholar of international importance who has outdistanced all our expectations, and in a relatively short time has helped to raise the international profile of our department and of UCR.” The high status of the program I helped build was recognized by a Mellon Foundation grant supporting a yearlong Sawyer Seminar on the topic of “Alternative Futurisms.” This is one of the most prestigious grants in the Humanities, and this was the first time UCR had ever been invited to apply. Only ten grants were given in 2014, and other schools currently hosting seminars include Princeton, Brown, and Vanderbilt. I was also instrumental in building a research collection that attracted a donor who bequeathed $3.5 million to UCR in 2013, and I was in the process of further fundraising from major science-fiction writers and fans. I should have spent the past year celebrating these accomplishments—instead of languishing in the Kafkaesque limbo where I have been relegated by the UCR administration.
The program I helped to create is one of the few units at the campus that is globally renowned. The English Department has begun to attract applicants from Ivy League schools—students who expressly want to come to UCR to study with me. I am a highly successful graduate mentor, having advised four-dozen PhD students during my career. Former advisees are tenured or hold tenure-track appointments at the University of Illinois, the University of Connecticut, the University of South Alabama, the University of Indiana, and the New York City College of Technology, among other schools.
Many of my PhD students—as well as several current and former colleagues—offered testimony on my behalf during the disciplinary proceeding. By contrast, the administration presented no faculty witnesses and offered the testimony of only one of my advisees—the student whose claims were shown to be substantially false. Since neither the Faculty Senate nor the Chancellor have seen fit to quote from my supportive witnesses in their reports, I would like to use the balance of my time to share some of their words with you. These are the people who know me best, as a colleague, a teacher, a mentor, and a man. Needless to say, the portrait they paint of me is far different from that of the depraved fiend evoked by the administration.
My former department chair at the University of Iowa, a chaired professor who has known me for 30 years, writes:
“Rob is one of the finest graduate teachers and mentors I have ever worked with. His students consistently succeed in publishing early, winning graduate awards, and securing jobs. He was a winner of the University’s Teaching Award, which recognizes a faculty member who has ‘demonstrated outstanding rapport with students and who creates an exemplary classroom atmosphere.’ Rob has never hesitated to share his near encyclopedic knowledge with his colleagues and grad students, pointing them toward topics and supporting their writing with meticulous editing that has produced a generation of younger scholars who have Rob to thank for their success.”
Another Iowa colleague writes:
“Rob’s mentorship of graduate students was not only exemplary; it was a source of envy for other faculty. Simply put, I have never seen any other professor more thoroughly dedicated to graduate teaching and advising, more devoted to the developing careers and overall welfare of his graduate students, and more successful in helping students both to become excellent scholars and to land good academic jobs. I never once heard either a graduate student or a faculty member express anything but admiration for his selflessness and sensitivity as a teacher and mentor.”
A senior colleague at UCR who has known me for 25 years testifies:
“Rob is the single most dedicated and effective mentor I have ever seen at work. I don’t think there is any faculty member that’s ever served on an exam or defense committee that hasn’t walked away extremely impressed with Rob’s mastery, his kindness, the positive impact he is having on his students. He gives the most voluminous notes, the most prescient suggestions. He does not force his students to look at the materials they are working with from his perspective, but encourages them to develop as scholars in their own original ways.”
Another UCR colleague whom I have known for well over a decade testifies:
“Rob is an amazing mentor of graduate students. I have to say in my experience here at UCR that Rob’s students are at the top in terms of their preparation for dissertations and the job market among all the grad students I have worked with over the last nine years.”
And the former chair of my department at UCR, whom the administration initially planned to call as a witness only to decide at the last minute to exclude her, said this in an email to me after the charges had been filed:
“I know how many students you have helped, how many admire you and are grateful for all that you have done to launch their careers and enrich their intellectual lives. You’ve done a huge amount for our department and built a wonderful program and I am very sorry to see it in jeopardy now.”
These are the words of my colleagues. But since the sustained charges have to do with endangering graduate students, let me quote from some of my current and former advisees, since these are the very people Chancellor Wilcox wants to deprive of my academic mentorship and scholarly expertise. From advisees at Iowa and UCR come the following comments:
- “Rob represents the best of what a mentor should be: an enthusiastic, invested, rigorous, and compassionate guide through the challenges of graduate education. His guidance made me both a better student and, now, a better faculty member.”
- Another: “Rob was a vital link for me as a grad student. He brought budding intellectuals together, and we sorely needed that in our small, Midwestern town. He brought us together to think, and the conversations he prompted were intense, broad in scope, enlightening, and often profoundly challenging. To me, he embodied the very point of studying at a university—coming together with others to think deeply and critically about our lives.”
- Yet another: “Rob’s tremendous commitment to his current and former students stands out in a profession that often lacks true mentorship. Rob’s concern for my professional advancement as well as my personal wellbeing was distinctive in my grad school experience. Rob took the time to get to know me as a person as well as a student and he fostered a sense of confidence in my own abilities, helping me to secure a tenure track job at a liberal arts college. This style of mentorship, one that allows for a friendship as well as a professional relationship to develop, sets Rob apart.”
- And a fourth: “Rob is tough on his grad students. His standards are rigorous and he lets you know what he expects up front. At the same time, he’s deeply invested in each student whose career he agrees to shepherd. When we first met, I was uncertain about my choice to leave 10 years of law practice to pursue a doctorate in English. Rob took me under his wing and treated me like a colleague. His friendship and generosity helped me manage a difficult time. My prior law practice was as a prosecutor and so I take allegations of harm to vulnerable people as seriously as anyone. I’ve seen Rob interact with students and colleagues, in all kinds of settings, and haven’t heard anyone complain of a single thing that would suggest he could exercise the kind of disregard for others that would ever lead to harm. It isn’t simply that he’s principled; Rob is genuinely kind.”
Finally, two current graduate students at UCR—students who were the best friends of the complainants in my case, and who have had to endure harassment and intimidation at the hands of an administration intent on turning them against me—testified as follows:
- “Rob is extremely generous with his time, has always been there any time that I have ever had a question. He has also been very generous with resources, has always gotten back to me promptly, which is in my experience very rare. He is honestly the best mentor I have ever had.”
- And: “When I came here the faculty in science fiction, Professor Latham specifically, is what attracted me to this school. And he has done nothing but consistently impress me. I can’t explain it, how supportive and kind of an advisor he is. To me, that’s the best professor I’ve ever worked with. So I just want to work with him again. I don’t understand why I can’t.”
Speaking now for myself, I have to say that I don’t understand why he can’t either. I do understand that I showed extremely poor judgment with regard to a relapse into substance abuse for which I deserve to be sanctioned. I do not question that. Like all of us, I am a flawed human being who has made regrettable mistakes. But to be deprived of my position, after such great success and in the face of such glowing testimonials, because a hostile administration cannot admit that it pursued false charges, mishandled an investigation, and allowed political pressures and homophobic bias to color its judgment, is an outcome I simply cannot grasp—and one I am unwilling to accept without a fight. As the comments of my colleagues and students indicate, this profession isn’t just a job to me, it is my entire life and soul.
Moreover, I believe this case is much bigger than my own situation: by moving to dismiss me, you would be telling the academic world that the University of California has no respect for the institution of tenure, which can be abrogated after a biased and corrupt process driven by administrative misconduct and arrant homophobia. You would be telling all current and prospective UC faculty that a spotless twenty-year career can be tossed aside because a disgruntled student lodged incendiary false charges to which a rattled administration responded recklessly. You would also open the floodgates for hostile or even merely risk-averse administrators to move to fire other tenured professors in order to save themselves embarrassment or to cover up a tainted process. I cannot imagine that this is the message you would want to send to the larger academic community.
This concludes my comments to the board, and once again, I thank the Regents for this opportunity to address you. I thank you for your patience and attention, and I trust you will make a decision that is reasonable, fair, and wise—as well as in the best interests of this great institution whose global reputation you have the honor to shepherd.