Why the AAUP Should Censure Mizzou’s Board for Firing Melissa Click

BY JOHN K. WILSON

The AAUP today issued a report on the University of Missouri, condemning the Board’s decision to fire Melissa Click. The full report is well worth reading, and I have previously argued in defense of Click, but I want to make a personal response to the Mizzou Board of Curator’s 10-page letter that it wrote to the AAUP in reply to a draft of the report.

According to the Board, the 1940 AAUP statement provides that “dismissal for cause of a teacher previous to the expiration of a term appointment, should, if possible, be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution” (emphasis added by the Board). The Board argued, “a normative practice is not an absolute requirement” and added, The Board supports the normative practice and has no contrary pattern of acting on its own in such matters – indeed, it has not done so in any other case within active memory.”

This is a very strange justification for violating due process: we’ve never done it before, and won’t do it again, but it was okay for us to do it one time.

According to the Board, “this case was uniquely challenging. Dr. Click’s conduct had been well known for many weeks and was sufficiently egregious that it led to a criminal charge for assault against a student.” And they added, “It was only after there had been a failure of any other process to address the seriousness of Dr. Click’s conduct that the matter rose to a level where the University’s commitment to its educational standards was in serious question and the Board felt compelled to act on its own. At that point, engaging any other process would have allowed those questions to linger for such a time that in the Board’s view the effects on the University’s educational environment would have been caustic.”

In essence, they are admitting that Click’s criminal charge (which was quickly dropped) caused negative publicity for the university. There was never a “failure of any other process” because no other process had been started. But they were “compelled” to act because any other process would take too long and allow questions to “linger,” which would have a “caustic” effect on the “educational environment.” Why was a rush to dismissal so essential that due process had to be ignored?

The “caustic” rationale makes very little sense. First of all, Click had already been suspended by the Board, without a hearing, on January 27. How could Click have a “caustic” effect on the educational atmosphere if she was already suspended? It appears that the “caustic” effect was a threat by Republican legislators to punish the university in its budget.

The “caustic” standard appears nowhere in any University of Missouri policy, and such a vague standard would allow the dismissal of virtually any professor or student merely for being controversial.

The due process violations alone by the Board are sufficient to justify censure of the University of Missouri Board by the AAUP. The use of a “caustic” bad publicity standard to justify Click’s dismissal is equally deserving of censure. But there is also the substantive question of whether Click’s actions justify firing a professor if the Board had actually followed due process and had not invoked bad publicity. In my view, Click’s actions do not.

The Board responded to the AAUP, “Dr. Click assaulted one of our students and encouraged others to physically intimidate him; she excluded people from a public space where they had a right to be present; and she interfered with freedom of the press at the university.” When most people think of an “assault” leading to dismissal, they don’t imagine jostling a camera. When most people think of physical intimidation, they don’t imagine someone calling for “muscle” or security to maintain a barrier.

Click chose to get involved in a conflict between students: students who were trying to protect protesters from intrusive actions, and students who wanted to photograph the protest. She made a mistake in choosing the wrong side, but it was a reasonable error.

Imagine if Click had taken the other side of this dispute, and she had defended the right of photographers to take pictures of the protest camp, and in the chaos had jostled one person’s camera and called for “muscle” to help protect the photographers, and then quickly apologized. No one can seriously imagine she would have been prosecuted or punished, let alone fired, for those actions. It was not her actions, but the side she took, the side of the protesters, that led to her dismissal. Click’s error was not in calling for muscle or security, but in defending the area around protester tents as if it were a private space entitled to protection. It’s nothing remotely close to a fireable offense.

As for the notion that the Board is so deeply concerned with defending First Amendment rights that anyone who participates in a violation of them must be fired without due process, I find it highly unconvincing. Indeed, right now the University of Missouri administration is considering a complete ban on campout protests on campus, which is a far greater limit on expression than anything Click did. I imagine the Board fully supports such restrictions, but even if they didn’t, it is impossible to imagine the Board firing an employee without due process for suppressing student rights by this change in the rules.

The Board claims that “no other process had addressed that critical point,” as if the need for speed overrules the fundamental rights of a suspended professor. The Board claims that it dismissed Click in “a fundamentally fair manner” by investigating it and holding a hearing. But how could it be fundamentally fair if the Board had already suspended her (without cause or due process), and the entire reason for refusing to follow normal procedures was in order to punish Click more quickly? The Board had already pre-determined that she needed to be punished faster than existing procedures would allow, and so their inevitable conclusion was that she deserved to be punished surprised no one at all. The appeal process in this case was also a joke. Click was forced to appeal to the very same body which had just concluded that she must be fired. That’s not a fundamentally fair process, because no fair appeal is possible.

I can understand why (although I strongly disagree) some people think that Click’s jostling of a student photographer and calling for “muscle” should result in her firing. But there is no rational defense for the manner in which Click has been fired by the Board of Curators.

So let me be much blunter than the AAUP:

If you support this dismissal of Click, you do not believe in due process.

If you support this dismissal of Click, you do not believe in obeying campus policies.

If you support this dismissal of Click, you do not believe in academic freedom.

3 thoughts on “Why the AAUP Should Censure Mizzou’s Board for Firing Melissa Click

  1. In the background here is the idea that the press — or anyone with a smart phone — has the right to capture the images and words of all those who enter a public space. Also in the background may be a (literally Utopian) ideal of unproblematic transparency that denies all political actors any right to meet and plan in private.

    The lack of political and other privacy is something that makes Sir Thomas More’s UTOPIA less than eutopian, and the trend toward openness and “transparency” of the last couple decades is mostly good but can go far too far.

    During the “Troubles” of spring of 1970, I gently escorted out a reporter who wanted to cover a meeting of the campus Strike Committee, with him vigorously citing the State of Illinois’s Open Meetings Act. I pointed out to him that legally we were conspiring to disrupt the University of ______ and that semi-criminal conspiracies weren’t covered by Open Meetings legislation. In more peaceful times a few years later, I was teaching a class on the lawn of a quadrangle on a fine spring day and asked a person taking photos of us who he was and for whom he worked. He said he was a photographer for the student newspaper, and I pointed out to him that university regulations required classes to be taught in the spaces assigned to them, so I was in violation by teaching the class outside the building we’d been assigned to — and given the strong desire of at least one university vice president to have me fired, I’d just as soon the newspaper didn’t publish the pictures. I further suggested a point of manners: following the old-fashioned custom of asking people permission before photographing them and perhaps even getting a signed release before publishing a photo.

    The immediate issue for the AAUP in the matter of Melissa Click is due process and the possibility of a governing board’s yielding to political pressure, or going along with some enthusiasm. Related background issues also need to be discussed. To start with, every time “transparency” is cited as an absolute good, the speaker of such sentiments should be reminded of the One State in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopia WE (ca. 1920): where people live in literal glass apartments, almost constantly exposed to view by their neighbors and Guardians. As pointed out in more recent dystopias — e.g., Dave Egger’s THE CIRCLE (2014) — privacy in the postmodern world needs renegotiation.

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