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(Virtual) Exile in Hawaii

April 16, 2007

A University of Hawaii professor sued the institution last week about a month after it essentially banished him from campus and prohibited him from contacting colleagues or students while it investigates accusations that he engaged in “intimidating, hostile and bullying behavior.”

Michael D’Andrea, a professor for nearly 18 years in the counselor education department of Hawaii's main campus at Manoa and a self-described outspoken advocate for peace and social justice issues, describes the action as an attempt to stifle speech and dissent on campus. The American Civil Liberties Union is serving as co-counsel on the case, while the American Association of University Professors has raised concerns about a lack of due process in a letter to the Hawaii administration -- which maintains in a statement that its actions were consistent with the university's responsibilities “to provide a safe and healthy working and learning environment” for faculty, staff and students and “to foster a climate of collegial respect and trust to support our educational mission.”

In a March 2 letter to D’Andrea, Denise Konan, the interim chancellor, writes, "You are prohibited from coming onto UHM campus and you are not to contact individuals at the College of Education (except for your significant partner) or students, whether by e-mail, telephone or in person." The letter did grant him permission to go to the University Laboratory School, where his child is enrolled.

Any violation of the prohibition could be deemed trespass or insubordinate behavior, Konan writes, and could lead to "appropriate action, up to and including discharge" and “other security measures as appropriate.”

The letter, which begins by informing D’Andrea that he has been immediately reassigned to work at home with pay, with his class and advising responsibilities to be assumed by other faculty, stipulates that the complaints against him allege that his "intimidating and bullying behavior" is "not conducive to a positive and neutral work environment." The letter does not provide any examples of the alleged behaviors, but states that the university "must take immediate action to respond to these concerns to avoid further disruption of the operations of the University."

"The decision to reassign you to work at home is not a disciplinary action; however, it is a necessary one. This is not a suspension," Konan writes, "which by definition results in a loss of pay."

The university has since issued a draft proposal that would soften the stipulations, D'Andrea says, allowing him access to most of the campus (but not the College of Education), though D'Andrea has not accepted it as discussions about allowable exposure to faculty and students continue. "While we are pleased with the recognition that they overstepped their authority," D'Andrea says, the university's concessions as to where he might go and who he might speak with represent an "insult to my civil rights and free speech."

D’Andrea, who continues to work from home, filed suit Wednesday based on First and 14th amendment protections. He’s seeking injunctive relief and damages for harm to his professional reputation and emotional well-being.

“I understand that there are complaints from faculty members who have alleged intimidating behavior, and that’s understandable given my near 18-year strong and controversial social justice advocacy that I have implemented over my years at the university,” says D’Andrea (who adds that he has written six books, received 12 national and international awards and been nominated four times for teaching excellence by students). “But we have the grievance process going on to deal with these alleged complaints. At no time has any complaint ever been filed against me for criteria that should be reasonably used to remove someone from a university.”

“This case is really about my right to speak. It’s about other people’s rights to hear what I have to say, and it’s about the misuse of power by persons in administrative positions who would like to see dissent diminished if not eliminated around social justice issues,” D’Andrea says. An outspoken anti-war activist and critic of a proposed naval research facility at the university, D’Andrea has also filed numerous complaints over the years about the ways in which the University of Hawaii perpetuates institutional racism and sexism.

D’Andrea’s lawyer, Eric Seitz, points out that a Republican governor has appointed a number of conservative regents: “We’re quite confident that’s the reason that they want to get rid of him,” Seitz says.

“This case is about the right of any professor and student to be able to exercise the right to speech; if people feel they are violating some policy or institutional procedure, they’re entitled due process, first amendment rights, to address these concerns, but certainly should not be removed,” D’Andrea says.

“I see this to be the biggest threat against the faculty that I have ever seen or experienced in my 40 years at the university,” says Joel Fischer, a professor of social work and executive board member of the Hawaii faculty union. A friend of D’Andrea, Fischer has attempted to rally faculty support for the cause. This isn’t about protecting the student body from a dangerous individual, Fischer says, but about stifling D'Andrea's criticisms.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Knight, director of the Department of Academic Freedom and Governance at the AAUP, sent a letter to Hawaii’s administration expressing concern over a perceived lack of due process earlier this month. "Our focus has been the action taken against him, the suspension, and sharply questioning the administration’s position that his removal from the classroom -- and his banishment from the campus and his communication with all faculty and students ... [is] not a suspension, that it’s not a disciplinary action. We think it plainly is, in fact a very severe sanction. That, as we see it, and I think the local faculty union sees it -- that kind of action should not be taken before a faculty member has had an opportunity for a hearing. Which he has not.”

As for the allegations that the administration was attempting to quash dissent in its removal of D’Andrea from campus, Knight says the AAUP doesn’t know the facts. “The very thing where those kinds of arguments would be considered would be a hearing -- the very thing the university did not do when it barred him from campus," Knight says.

Seitz says that the grievance proceedings initiated to investigate the complaints are apparently being consolidated, and that D’Andrea’s case is likely to go before an arbitrator in the next 60 to 90 days. Citing privacy concerns, a University of Hawaii spokesman offered no further comment on the matter Thursday beyond a prepared statement, which reiterates that D'Andrea is receiving pay and accruing benefits as he works from home while the university resolves the matter. "Occasionally," the statement reads, "we must make difficult personnel decisions given our obligations to the rest of the university community."

 

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