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December 17, 2004 [feather]
Screwed in Utah

Over at Cliopatria, KC Johnson tells the harrowing tale of a tenure case gone wrong at Southern Utah University. The ingredients will be eerily familiar to anyone who follows botched tenure cases, and will be especially so to those who know Johnson's own harrowing tenure story: There is an outspoken political science professor whose views clash with those of many of his colleagues; there is a department chair who was just looking for a chance to come down on this professor; there is a trumped-up, confidential case made by this chair against this professor just in time to sink his tenure case; and, just as in KC's notorious situation, there is the framing of this trumped-up case in terms of the professor's alleged lack of "collegiality." The two cases are in many ways an almost perfect mirror image of one another--not least because the political rationale behind each is the opposite of the other: While Johnson's colleagues perceived him--and punished him--as a conservative (not because he is one, but because he criticized their own tendency toward politically biased teaching and hiring), this professor is a liberal who is apparently being punished for expressing his views in a conservative academic environment.

Johnson provides an eloquent summary of Stephen Roberds' case, which among other things appears to be an excellent example of the eggshells that politically marginal untenured faculty forever walk upon. Though Roberds is a decorated, popular teacher, he made a fatal mistake when he swore at a student during a heated class discussion this fall. Though he acknowledged his error and publicly apologized for it, he gave his chairman the excuse he needed to attack.

Well worth considering, too, is the growing batch of comments attached to Johnson's article. The evolving consensus there is that Roberds' case is one that FIRE not only should take up, but most likely will take up. Regretfully, I am going to have to disagree with the understandable optimism contained within those comments. Though a strong case can be made that Roberds is being fired for his outspoken expression of his views, and while superficially that seems to make him a good match for FIRE, there is very little reason to believe that FIRE will take up Roberds' case. Look at FIRE's case archive and note the pattern: FIRE does not involve itself in tenure cases. It hasn't, it can't, and unless I am sorely mistaken, it won't. And the reason for this is simple: As a tiny, highly focussed First Amendment watchdog organization, FIRE simply cannot get into the business of arguing personnel decisions, especially when those decisions are shrouded in confidentiality and are ultimately made at the whim and discretion of the various faculty committees involved.

FIRE will only take on cases where it can absolutely document the wrongdoing and when the wrongdoing is very clearly oriented around a First Amendment violation. This is partly tactical--FIRE wants to be an organization whose issues are clearcut and whose cases are slam dunks; it is also partly practical--were FIRE to get into the business of defending everyone who believed he didn't get tenure because his colleagues don't like his politics, FIRE would not only never do anything else, but would also never win a case.

More to the point, FIRE has suffered a lot of embarrassing setbacks over the past year: A glance at the case archive for the past year shows a number of instances in which FIRE went public with a case only to be ignored by the school it was trying to shame into decency and to be largely ignored by the media (whose coverage is necessary for that meliorative shaming to occur). The organization is getting back on its feet again this fall, and has begun winning cases again. But there has been enormous turnover at the organization over the past year, and most of the people there are inexperienced and new to the game FIRE plays. Roberds' case would be a tricky one for even a seasoned FIRE team. At present, the foundation just can't afford to get stuck in the kind of sinkhole Roberds' case would likely become for it.

I'd love to be wrong. I'd love to have to eat my words here. But unless Roberds can document his case as thoroughly as KC was able to document his--which is highly unlikely--I don't think FIRE will touch him.

And just for the record, it's worth remembering that FIRE was not one of KC's public defenders, either (I can't speak for what the FIRE people may or may not have done behind the scenes). It's also worth recalling that there were a number of cases last year in which faculty were fired for their speech--Nona Gerard at Penn State, Robert Day at Cumberland College, two professors at Southern Mississippi. FIRE did not take a stand on any of them.

Again, I'd love to be wrong. I'd love to see Roberds get the kind of support he clearly needs, and I'd love to see FIRE do it. But I don't think the odds of that are very good.

UPDATE: KC Johnson summarizes and dissects an op-ed by the president of SUU's faculty senate that purports to lay the controversy over Roberds' firing to rest. As Johnson makes eminently clear, that's the last thing this damning and telling piece does:

So, to sum up: the president of the SUU Faculty Senate has said that his institution fired its 2003 Professor of the Year because he was uncollegial to the students who voted him their professor of the year; because he criticized a new Faculty Senate constitution coincidentally written by the same Faculty Senate president who now deems him uncollegial; and because SUU has a process in which all tenure candidacies are considered by multiple committees in a gentlemanly fashion. A piece of unsolicited advice to Professor Rees: the next time the idea of penning an op-ed crosses your mind, sleep on it for a day or two.

posted on December 17, 2004 7:49 PM


Erin is absolutely correct that FIRE didn't take a public position on my case, as part of their general policy from refraining from involvement in tenure matters.

And a look through their caseload reveals their need to focus on student-centered matters: at my own Brooklyn College, the same president who tried to deny me tenure recently tried to dissolve the student government after it brought to the floor a Student Bill of Rights. Quick, effective involvement from FIRE yielded an annulment of the decision.

Posted by: KC Johnson at December 17, 2004 11:14 PM

The controversy continues to rage over this incident and the administration is still making ridiculous excuses. We are a group of students trying to get something done about this at our school. If you know anyone who could help to get the word out about this case, please let them know. There is a lot more information on our website www.onlyinutah.org

Posted by: Jennifer Frame at January 15, 2005 4:00 PM