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Not Guilty ... and Not Long Employed

August 25, 2011

A Georgia jury has acquitted Frank J. Rybicki, assistant professor of mass media at Valdosta State University, of battery charges related to his shutting the laptop of a student in one of his classes in March.

Rybicki denied hurting the student's finger, as she alleged, but said that professors have every right to shut a laptop when a student violates class rules or is rude by surfing the Web rather than using a laptop to take notes. Valdosta State, which removed Rybicki from teaching duties (but didn't change his salary) after the incident, has cleared him to return to teaching. However, in July, before his trial, the university informed Rybicki that this academic year would be his last.

Asked if he was being punished for the crime for which he was arrested (and of which he was subsequently acquitted), he said that "I think that's pretty obvious."

Still, Rybicki said he was pleased that he would be able to teach in the year ahead, and that a jury had rejected the charges. And he said he was thrilled that students had turned out to support him at the trial and online, on the Team Rybicki page on Facebook, which has now adjusted its illustration to feature the words "NOT GUILTY." Many students have been arguing since the spring that an outstanding professor was having his career destroyed unfairly.

Exact details of the incident have been disputed, and the university has declined to comment on why it suspended Rybicki from teaching after the arrest -- even when so many students backed him. In April, when he was first interviewed by Inside Higher Ed, he said he couldn't discuss the incident except to say that he had never hurt a student.

In an interview Tuesday, he said that when he became aware that the student was using her laptop for non-course-related work, he "went to put the laptop down, she tried to pull it away from me, and she claimed that her finger got stuck." Rybicki said that he "didn't see the finger get stuck," and doesn't remember that. But he said that the point that most helped him at trial was that nobody was able to offer evidence that he intended to hurt his student's finger. (Rybicki has never named the student, and a woman with the name cited in some Web commentary as the student in the case has not responded to questions about the incident.)

Rybicki said he thought the real issue in the case was the right of a professor to maintain the classroom as a learning environment. He said that he realizes that some students disagree, and tell him things like "I paid for this class so I should do what I want." But Rybicki said that what a student pays for is "for me to teach," and that means setting some standards in the classroom.

"Students need to realize that even if they pay tuition, they are in a class with other students, in a class that is being guided by professionals," he said. "I'm 'old school,' I guess," he said.

Rybicki's future at Valdosta is unclear. He has been in a tenure-track position, but he received a letter in July from the provost, stating that he would not receive a contract for the 2012-13 academic year. He said that he is considering his options.

A spokeswoman for Valdosta declined to comment on why Rybicki received the letter, saying that the university does not discuss confidential personnel matters. She confirmed that, in the wake of his acquittal, he is being assigned courses once again.

Asked about the university's policy on student laptop use in class, the spokeswoman said that it was the same as it was in March: "at the discretion of the individual faculty member."

 

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