Thrown Under the Bus?

Faculty groups say president of U. of Northern Iowa reacted too quickly to a student grievance and ended up endangering a professor and wrongly suggesting she was unfair to someone in the National Guard.

November 5, 2012

A professor and student at the University of Northern Iowa have, according to all involved, "amicably" resolved a question over whether the student -- a member of the National Guard -- could get an accommodation for missing a class (due to his service) in which a test was scheduled. While all details haven't been released, the university has confirmed that the student's grade was never cut, and won't be hurt in any way because of the missed class.

But while the issue of the student's test make-up request has been resolved, faculty leaders at the university (and nationally) say that the university's president, by criticizing the professor before talking to her, left her vulnerable to unfair accusations that she was anti-military and, as a result, to harassing e-mail messages and vandalism. And to faculty leaders, it's not a coincidence that the professor was among those who have clashed in recent months with the administration.

The controversy started last month when a freshman told Cathy DeSoto, a psychology professor, that his National Guard duty conflicted with a class in which a test was scheduled. Via e-mail, she said this is what happened: "Student came to podium after class. This is a class of 200, many students asking various questions. He said he would be gone for test due to National Guard and asked if there was special policy at UNI for National Guard duty. I said I did not know, but would check. He asked what would happen if not, I said if not, then the regular policy for missed tests would apply. No other conversations. The above probably took 10 seconds."

Based on that exchange, the student filed a grievance, and DeSoto said she endorsed this idea. Under university rules, a student who feels a situation is unfair can file a grievance. DeSoto said she never planned to punish the student for missing class, but needed clarification that she was allowed to to make an accommodation because university policy dictates when professors may do so.

While she was awaiting further information, the incident became public, and when local reporters asked the university about it, President Benjamin Allen issued a statement. "As university president and a veteran, I strongly disagree with the decision made by the professor in this case," the statement said. "We have been working with the student involved from the beginning, and continue to work with him to help ensure he won't be penalized for serving his country. UNI has a long and proud history of supporting military and veteran students. We currently have more than 250 military and veteran students on campus and we are proud to serve them every day. The Faculty Senate leadership has agreed to review the policies in question as soon as possible."

That statement was widely reported in the local press. DeSoto and her supporters say that the statement (by referencing the need for the Faculty Senate to review the policies in question) confirms DeSoto's view that there was no appropriate policy that she could have consulted at the time. But the impact of the statement was to suggest to many that DeSoto was anti-military and had punished a student for being part of the National Guard.

So even as the test issue was being resolved informally, and faculty leaders were reviewing policies, threatening e-mail messages started to flow in (to such an extent that DeSoto has received police protection), and her car was vandalized.

DeSoto shared some of the less threatening e-mail messages with Inside Higher Ed. "Do you really consider yourself an patriotic American or some dumb professor who is against was. I say boot you out," said one e-mail message (verbatim). "If you are the professor who denied a soldier the ability to take a test missed while on duty, I just thought I would tell you, YOU SUCK! Nothing more to say!" Another e-mail: "You’re just another example of how the education system is broken. It’s stuffed full of liberal, anti-patriotic people like you. Save us all the trouble. Kill yourself now, please."

On Friday, the national president of the American Association of University Professors -- Rudy Fichtenbaum -- released a letter to President Allen questioning his handling of the situation.

"Before the grievance was adjudicated and the facts in the case were established, and without the courtesy of contacting Professor DeSoto, you issued a highly prejudicial and inflammatory press statement," the letter said. "The media response, which unfairly and falsely characterized Professor DeSoto’s actions, was a direct result of your premature and provocative press release. As a consequence of your actions, Professor DeSoto and members of her family received numerous threatening e-mails and phone calls."

The letter went on to demand a formal apology, a retraction of the original statement by the president, and a commitment by the president to pay for DeSoto's car repair. Fichtenbaum closed the letter by saying: "I want you to know that I hold you personally responsible for the safety of Professor DeSoto and her family."

A spokesman for the university said via e-mail that "it is unfortunate that the professor has been the victim of vandalism and hate mail," but that questions about the AAUP letter would have to be referred to the office of the Iowa Board of Regents spokeswoman. She did not respond to a request for comment.


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