Northwestern Lifts the Illegitimate Suspension of Jackie Stevens


On Sept. 21, political science professor Jackie Stevens began teaching her class at Northwestern University. Earlier that week, she didn’t know if that would happen. Stevens had been banned from campus (and prohibited from any contact with students) since July 28, when the administration announced she was a potential threat and would need to undergo a four-hour psychiatric evaluation before being allowed back on campus if the administration permitted it. After numerous delays that Stevens blamed on the administration, Stevens had her evaluation last week, and apparently she passed the test.

This was not a surprise, because there was never any evidence Stevens was a threat to anyone, and no reports that anyone filed a complaint asking for her to be banned from campus. Stevens has also been deported to the far north end of campus. Her new office, dictated by the university, is almost a mile away from Scott Hall, where the political science department is.

But even though the suspension is over, the conduct of Northwestern’s administration is alarming, especially because they appear to be planning further punishment of Stevens.

The suspension of Stevens was expressly prohibited under university rules. On July 28, 2016, Adrian Randolph, dean of arts and sciences wrote to Stevens, “in accordance with the Northwestern University Handbook provision on Medical Leave/Fitness-For-Duty, I am placing you on immediate leave because the University has concerns that you may pose a direct threat to your own safety or the safety of others.” Randolph also ordered, “you cannot have contact with graduate or undergraduate students,” even though it’s not clear how Stevens could endanger students by email.

This was a clear violation not only of Stevens’ academic freedom but also the academic freedom rights of students to communicate with anyone they wish to.

It was also a direct violation of Northwestern’s policies. According to the Northwestern faculty handbook, a medical suspension is only permissible after a medical evaluation, not before one: “If the evaluation affirms that a faculty member does pose a direct threat, the faculty member may be offered a voluntary medical leave. If the faculty member declines to take a voluntary medical leave, the University may place the faculty member on involuntary medical leave.” The faculty handbook does allow for suspensions in extreme circumstances in anticipation of a disciplinary hearing, but the administration has announced that Stevens has never been subjected to any disciplinary action (yet), so it could not have invoked that clause.

But although the illicit suspension is over, the administration announced it is still planning to go after Stevens. Stevens has released a letter she received Sept. 19 from Randolph which announced the end of her suspension: “It now appears we have excluded the possibility that your conduct was unintentional.” If Stevens had been crazy, Northwestern would have banned her as a threat. Because she’s not crazy, now they plan to get rid of her for knowingly committing the crime of incivility.

In the Sept. 19 letter, Randolph announced he was “exploring…whether disciplinary procedures are appropriate” over complaints about her teaching.

But it is more likely that the Administration wants to punish Stevens for her behavior toward colleagues. Randolph announced that Stevens’ actions display “a lack of civility and are in contravention of our policies.” Normally, that kind of statement is made after evidence at a disciplinary hearing proves it, and not announced as a conclusion beforehand.

Randolph warned, “I am in the process of determining whether you conduct requires disciplinary action.” He also accused her of “bullying” and demanded that she “acknowledge this problem as a first, important step toward reconciliation.” I’m sure it would make the administration’s planned disciplinary actions much easier if Stevens would simply confess to bullying. Reconciliation is hardly the Northwestern administration’s goal, since it has refused Stevens’ request to have a mediator work with the political science department to resolve their differences, since doing so might interfere with their desire to put all the blame for the conflict on Stevens.

The origins of this dispute, like many academic disputes, are incredibly stupid. On March 8, 2016, Stevens met with Alvin Tillery. Tillery told her that the department wanted to take away her large lecture class in the fall, Introduction to Political Theory, and give it to a new professor to teach. She would need to teach a different class in the fall, and then teach the larger class in the Winter. Stevens did not like this idea, and there was an argument. After a 5-10 minute meeting with the door open, Tillery told her to get out and shut the door after she left.

Stevens filed a complaint with the administration, accusing Tillery of violating Northwestern’s Civility and Mutual Respect policy, claiming that he yelled at her and slammed the door shut. Yes, sadly, there is such a policy allowing “rude, obnoxious” people to be punished, along with “Guidance on Civility and Violence” that explains how “namecalling, raised voices and petty meanness” are examples of violations of Northwestern’s policy against “disrespectful” statements.

This policy clearly violates academic freedom and needs to be immediately eliminated, but it will probably soon be used against Stevens.

Tillery, in response, had his attorney send Stevens a letter in April threatening to sue her for libeling him by telling other professors that he had yelled at her. Stevens, who didn’t want to spend her own money fighting a frivolous lawsuit, asked the University to pay for her legal expenses under the university’s indemnification clause in the Statutes, which protect employees when engaged in university business.

The University in turn hired a lawyer, Kathleen Reinhart, to investigate the indemnification issue. And that’s when things really got weird. Instead of looking at indemnification and the March 8 dispute that led to the lawsuit, Reinhart’s report became an investigation of everything negative about Stevens. Stevens released the executive summary of Reinhart’s report, but not the entire 11-page report quoting critics of Stevens.

In the executive summary, Reinhart essentially admits that the indemnification issue was just an excuse to go after Stevens: “The demand letter has created a clarifying ‘pause point’ for the University to assess Stevens’ conduct, its impact on colleagues and students, and the nature of the actions the University now is prepared to take.” This reference to “actions the University now is prepared to take” in her own report indicates a strong collaboration between Reinhart and the administration.

Normally, an investigator’s report would not include a reference to a punishment that was supposed to be based on that report. Reinhart’s statement means that she and the administration were directly communicating about plans to punish Stevens, and that the report was written, perhaps from the very beginning, as an indictment of Stevens to justify this punishment.

According to Reinhart, “academic freedom does not afford faculty a basis to behave in contravention to these policies.” She never considers the possibility that these policies violate academic freedom, which they do.

Reinhart’s investigation was highly dubious. Reinhart concluded, “Stevens’ hostile and aggressive conduct toward colleagues over time (e.g., contributing to an ongoing state of tumult and dysfunction in the Department, and her refusal to retract public statements that Tillery verbally abused on March 8) may constitute a breach of her duty of loyalty under University Statutes and thereby may preclude the indemnification of her conduct toward Tillery on March 8.”

This is an incredibly troubling conclusion. A university doesn’t get to say, “We think you’re a jerk to other people so we won’t indemnify you.” But that’s exactly what Reinhart said and the university relied on. If Stevens was being sued by Tillery for her comments about the March 8 event, the indemnification issue is solely related to what happened on that day. Using the complaints by colleagues “over time” against her is completely irrelevant to the lawsuit and therefore to the indemnification issue Reinhart was supposed to be investigating.

Oddly, the executive summary of Reinhart’s report never reaches a conclusion about what happened on March 8. Since yelling and slamming are ill-defined terms and subject to personal interpretation, it would be almost impossible to conclude that someone intentionally made a false claim of slamming a door. And Reinhart never alleges that in the executive summary. But that’s what she would have needed to do in order to conclude that indemnification doesn’t apply to Stevens. Stevens’ “duty of loyalty” to the university means not filing intentionally false charges. But it doesn’t mean being nice to other people.

While Reinhart refuses to state that Stevens lied about what happened on March 8 or even to state that she does not meet the standards of indemnification, Reinhart has no problem concluding that Stevens’ conduct “is contrary to current policies regarding the nature of civil behavior expected of all employees of the University.”

It was not Reinhart’s job to investigate Stevens’ civility over the last several years, and not surprisingly, she did a terrible job at something she wasn’t supposed to do. Reinhart reaches all of these conclusions about Stevens without giving Stevens the opportunity to defend herself against these accusations. Stevens, who assumed that Reinhart was actually investigating the March 8 incident and the indemnification issue, instead found herself blindsided with a hit job hired by the university.

Reinhart’s report also includes what seems to be an outright lie about the March 8 incident: “none of the witnesses, other than Stevens, heard shouting.” As Stevens points out, an undergraduate student in the hallway reported, “I heard a male voice yelling,” and also heard the words “get out” and the door slamming.

Reinhart dismisses this witness by writing, “he said he never actually saw anything.” However, apparently none of the other witnesses saw anything, and one could conclude that a person in the hallway is more likely to hear something than a professor concentrating on their work in their office.

Is it possible that Tillery may have raised his voice while telling Stevens to leave his office? Is it possible that when he shut the door it was with sufficient force to be interpreted as a slam? Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with what Tillery allegedly said or did. Yelling, telling people to leave your office, and slamming a door might be rude under certain circumstances, but they should not be a policy violation. Tillery himself described a yelling match the previous year between the department chair and Stevens that he said could be heard on the entire floor.

But it is very, very odd that the only person who filed a disciplinary complaint ended up being suspended as a violent threat. Normally, if someone poses such an enormous threat, there would be a campus complaint about it, and a police report. The fact that the information deemed to justify a suspension came from an investigation of Stevens’ complaint is highly suspicious. This raises the question of retaliation, that Stevens is being punished for filing the complaint.

And the administration has a political axe to grind against Stevens. Stevens was a leader of the movement this spring by faculty in opposition to the appointment of former military commander Karl Eikenberry, who lacks a Ph.D., as the head of Buffett Institute for Global Studies. Eikenberry eventually withdrew from the appointment, and there is no doubt that the episode angered and embarrassed the Northwestern Administration.

The fact that this suspension happened soon after this very public incident (and Stevens’ promises to investigate the Board of Trustees further) is highly suspicious. Would the administration have violated its own policies to act with similar haste against a professor who had been supporting their efforts?

The Northwestern administration used a routine indemnification investigation that turned into a fishing expedition against Stevens and went far beyond any reasonable bounds. The administration violated the Faculty Handbook with an illegitimate suspension that’s directly contrary to the stated policies. And even though the administration has overturned its illicit ban on Stevens, it seems likely to pursue more disciplinary action based on questionable rules, a dubious investigation, and a completely unfair process that threatens academic freedom at Northwestern.

6 thoughts on “Northwestern Lifts the Illegitimate Suspension of Jackie Stevens

  1. And the administration has a political axe to grind against Stevens. Stevens was a leader of the movement this spring by faculty in opposition to the appointment of former military commander Karl Eikenberry, ***who lacks a Ph.D***., as the head of Buffett Institute for Global Studies.

    I have highlighted the aside. Why would this be pertinent? Perhaps this person was not qualified for the job, if so it is that which is pertinent not whether they have a piece of paper testifying to a set of related but insufficient qualities.

    • The argument of critics is that a Ph.D. is a relevant qualification for a top academic position. I don’t happen to agree with that (I think academia is too obsessed with Ph.D.s), but it’s a legitimate argument. Obviously, if Stevens were punished for arguing this, it would be wrong.

  2. As too often happens here, this post takes one side of a complicated situation and acts as if it is unvarnished truth. Again and again you take as truth Stevens’s account of the events. Having read both her accounts and Tilly’s, I’m not at all confident that her account is correct.

    I think this situation demands nuance you are suggesting it doesn’t.

    You are right that Stevens deserves every due process right guaranteed to her, and you make a good case (as does she) that she’s been denied it.

    But the larger case–that this is a trumped-up, purely political effort to remove an outspoken professor for totally inappropriate reasons–I do not yet find persuasive. Stevens’s posts are, to me, much less sober than Tilly’s account. Further, Stevens posts documents by third parties that she claims support her case, and while at some nominal level they do, they also–and she seems not to realize this, which is part of what concerns me about her account–often give even stronger support to the case against her. I am particularly troubled by the statement she seems to have extracted from a student about the talk with Tilly–it is legalistic to the point of excess. It sounds almost coerced. I realize that’s impressionistic, but it sounds that way to me, and it does not provide the strong counter-evidence Stevens says it does to the other accounts of that one event.

    Further, Stevens openly admits (without realizing it) to a fairly paranoid account of her employment at Northwestern, full of enemies who are secretly conspiring against her, unwilling to make relatively ordinary accommodations (teach this class instead of that one, the proximate cause of the event with Tilly) for new colleagues out of perceived slights, and many other behaviors toward students, staff, and colleagues.

    Based on the evidence I’ve read, including her own account, Stevens does sound like a very difficult colleague and employee to have, in her behavior toward everyone in the environment. Academia is a particularly difficult place to deal with such individuals, in part due to very real academic freedom issues. She absolutely deserves due process. But it seems to me that, just as AAUP calls for Northwestern to review these events dispassionately, not making judgments prior to investigation, so should AAUP itself. Otherwise AAUP is arguing that professors have an inalienable right to repeatedly antagonize their colleagues and students and that institutions have neither the right nor the ability to try to curtail that antagonism. That threatens many rights of the students and her colleagues.

    I urge you to re-read Tilly’s account. To me her comes across as sincere, thoughtful, committed to his school and department, and completely uninterested & uninvolved in the larger political context Stevens claims is at issue. Moreover, he makes clear how difficult Stevens has been toward all her colleagues for years. I am uncomfortable with what seems to be your response to that, which is: “too bad.” If we deprive institutions the ability to in some way manage people who abuse their power, that ends up giving a great deal of power to those abusers, which hurts everyone.

    • I don’t argue that this is necessarily a political plot against Stevens, although that certainly is possible. But the violations of due process are clear even without that issue. Also, my opinions (and this blog) are not the AAUP’s positions. The AAUP hasn’t investigated this case. And I think there are many things Northwestern can do to deal with an inter-department conflict. Suspending a professor without a hearing on dubious grounds in violation of due process is not one of those options. So I agree that this situation requires nuance, and that’s exactly what Northwestern’s administration failed to provide.

    • Contrarian, I think you miss the issue. Obnoxiousness is not enough reason to strip someone of tenure. If it is extreme enough, I would allow obnoxiousness as a reason to deny *granting* someone tenure, or hiring them away from Santa Barbara, but even then, many, perhaps most, people would say one’s personal defects should not trump good scholarship and doing one’s duty in other respects. Yes, do read Professor Tillery’s account. How is arguing with an administrator grounds for expelling someone from campus, particularly when the professor is a woman and presumably smaller than the male administrator? Professor Tillery may be devoted to the university, but it no doubt stings when someone points out that he was hired only because of his wife’s desirability, and we must reckon that in when we think about his dislike for Professor Stevens.

  3. I wonder if Professor Stevens ought to sue Northwestern for libel. They’ve been trying to ruin her reputation with general charges but without any specific bad behavior, unless we count the alleged shouting in Tillery’s office. This leads me to suspect there isn’t any real bad behavior, just things like (I’m guessing here) telling an affirmative-action spousal hire that he was an affirmative-action spousal hire, or raising awkward questions in faculty meetings. A libel suit would smoke Northwestern out, requiring it to back up its claims.

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