Professors Behind Bars

U. of Wisconsin faces criticism for being unable to immediately fire faculty members who are convicted of crimes.
August 11, 2005

The summer of 2005 has been an embarrassing one at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

First, the university came under fire when it was revealed that Paul W. Barrows, the vice chancellor for student affairs who quit last year, did so because he had had an affair with a graduate student. That Barrows stayed on the university's payroll infuriated legislators, and focused attention on how the university treats employees who get into trouble.

Now some lawmakers have shifted their attention to professors -- three of whom remain employees even though they are either in jail or headed there.

On Friday, Roberto Coronado, a professor of physiology at Madison, was sentenced to eight years in prison after he entered a plea of no contest on three felony counts of repeated sexual contact with a child. While the university is seeking to dismiss Coronado, he is appealing that decision and remains an employee, even though his incarceration prevents him from being on campus.

Because he has unused vacation time, he is currently receiving his salary -- $137,641 -- and will continue to do so until he uses up his vacation time, at which point he will be on an unpaid leave, pending the outcome of his appeals of his dismissal.

Scott Suder, a state representative, on Tuesday called for Coronado to be dismissed immediately. In a letter sent to Chancellor John D. Wiley, he questioned the university's "track record" in dealing with employees. In a statement, Suder noted that Coronado's victims were girls between the ages of 5 and 9, and said, "For the sake of the innocent victims who fell prey to this predator, the university should take immediate action and clearly outline the steps it will take to remove him from the university’s payroll."

The university says it is doing just that, but that due process doesn't disappear because a professor's crime is particularly vile. "The appeal process -- which includes constitutional guarantees of due process -- is under way," said a statement from the university.

The other cases involve Lewis Keith Cohen, who has been sentenced to 30 days in jail for exposing a child to harmful material, and Steven Clark, a human oncology professor serving a one-year jail term for felony stalking. Cohen and Clark are both being reviewed for possible dismissal under Wisconsin's regulations for firing professors.

But Clark, whose salary is $67,761, continues to be paid his vacation time. Cohen -- who has not yet started to serve his sentence and who did not respond to a request for comment -- works on a nine-month contract and so is not paid in the summer. His salary is $72,856. If he returns for the fall semester, he would be paid, but if he is forced to miss work for jail, he would be put on leave without pay.

Faculty members who are involved in reviewing these cases take them very seriously, said James S. Donnelly Jr., a professor of history and a member of the Committee on Faculty Rights and Responsibilities. Donnelly stressed that he could comment only on general approaches to such cases because his committee may be involved in dealing with some of the professors whose cases are in the news.

He said that when a faculty member is convicted in a court of law of a crime of "moral turpitude," it is normal for administrators to seek the committee's approval for a dismissal. "In such a case the concern that I or any other member of the Madison faculty in good standing would have is a double one: Is there clear and convincing evidence of moral turpitude, and have the legally required university procedures for dismissal been carefully followed?"


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