Professors' Right to Disagree

August 1, 2011

The American Association of University Professors is today issuing a report that finds Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge violated the rights of two faculty members who, in separate cases, took stands that were unpopular with administrators.

In one case, a research professor -- who has since had his position eliminated -- took a stance on the reason the levees failed after Hurricane Katrina that angered federal officials, who expressed that displeasure to LSU administrators. While LSU asserts that the end of the professor’s job was prompted by tight budgets, the AAUP found that he lost his position -- and, before that, was ordered not to pursue certain research topics -- because of the controversy caused by his research findings. The AAUP found that this amounted to retaliation that violated the faculty member’s academic freedom.

In the other case, a faculty member was removed from her course after reports about the high percentage of students who were receiving low grades. The faculty member maintains that she was simply enforcing academic standards -- and the AAUP found that the university’s action took place without due process rights and violated the faculty member’s right to teach as she saw fit.

LSU is disputing the AAUP’s findings in both cases, but is responding with little detail. In the first case, the university says that it cannot say much because of litigation involving the dispute. In the second case, the university says that it cannot say much because the case is working its way through faculty grievance procedures. In the second case, however, the university’s response suggests some acknowledgment that the situation may not have been handled appropriately and that better procedures are needed for any similar disputes in the future.

The Post-Katrina Whistle-Blower

The researcher involved in the post-Katrina debate is Ivor van Heerden, who served for most of his 17 years at LSU in “research professor” slots -- positions for which LSU does not award tenure. Although he focused on research, he also played a role in curriculum development, and did some teaching, including serving on the committees of some graduate students.

A coastal geologist and hurricane researcher, van Heerden’s areas of expertise made him a logical expert both in advance of and after Hurricane Katrina hit. He issued papers and conducted research that helped New Orleans and Louisiana plan for the arrival of the hurricane, and he provided analysis after the fact to government entities and to the news media. The AAUP report notes that, in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, LSU officials were so pleased with the attention van Heerden was receiving that he was given a university tie pin, lapel pin, cap and T-shirt so he could be associated with LSU whenever he appeared on television.

The university’s pride in van Heerden evaporated, however, after he shared in The Washington Post and elsewhere his conclusion that the flooding was the result not just of a natural disaster, but of “catastrophic structural failure” in the design of the levees in New Orleans. That finding pointed blame at the Army Corps of Engineers -- a view that was disputed by federal officials in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, but that the AAUP report notes was later acknowledged. Indeed much of van Heerden’s work that was controversial when he spoke immediately after Katrina is now commonly accepted.

The AAUP report details a series of discussions and exchanges of letters among LSU officials noting federal anger over van Heerden, orders that he stop speaking out in certain ways, orders that he distance himself from LSU, and so forth. (The report notes that federal officials also complained to the University of California at Berkeley about research findings that disputed the administration's position, but that Berkeley rebuffed the complaints.)

Citing the bulk of evidence that van Heerden's position had been renewed year after year until he offended campus leaders by creating a headache for them with Washington, the AAUP panel said that he was denied reappointment in a way that violated his academic freedom. Further, the AAUP found that since van Heerden worked at LSU for 17 years, he should have been afforded the protections of tenure after seven years, which would have given him heightened due process rights.

A.G. Monaco, associate vice chancellor for human resource management at LSU, said via e-mail that "while the AAUP is at liberty to discuss the Ivor van Heerden case, LSU is not in a position to comment due to pending litigation." Van Heerden has sued the university.

The Tough Grader

The other case in which the AAUP found that LSU had violated a professor's rights was that of Dominique G. Homberger, a tenured biology professor who was removed from teaching a course, mid-semester, after it was determined that she was failing or giving low grades to too many students. Homberger does not believe in grading on a curve or making things easy for students (for multiple choice questions, she gives 10 possible answers, not the expected 4). She argues that students need to be held to high standards to achieve mastery of key subjects.

The AAUP report says that in removing Homberger from teaching because her grading was too tough, the administration at LSU violated her "right to assign student grades" and her "freedom to teach."

Further, the AAUP report calls the action by LSU effectively a "suspension" of Homberger and says that such a "severe sanction" should not have taken place without a faculty hearing in which she could have defended herself and been judged by peers, not administrators. LSU's handling of the case "denied her the basic protections of academic due process" to which she was entitled, the AAUP report says.

The report concludes by noting "the immediate and widespread condemnation" of the way Homberger was treated by LSU. "It is now a matter of public record that a tenured professor was suspended summarily and that the suspension was not revoked. Moreover, the investigating committee finds it much to be regretted that no apology has been proffered to Professor Homberger that addresses the simple injustice of her suspension."

Monaco, the LSU human resources official who responded via e-mail, did not dispute the basic facts in the Homberger case, but suggested that there was no need to condemn the university. He noted that the Faculty Senate (which backed Homberger) has been studying the issues raised by the case. "The university has accepted many of the Faculty Senate’s recommendations on how to address these situations in the future and the Faculty Senate is developing a policy statement that will address procedures for these types of situations," he said.



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