Hell No -- He Won't Go

May 4, 2006

Professors, what would you do to avoid teaching freshmen? Deans, what would you do to get senior professors teaching what you want them to teach?

A battle of wills at the University of Maryland at College Park -- perhaps soon to escalate into a court battle -- is a good illustration of the kinds of choices faced by colleges and professors when it comes to who will teach what.

Daniel Leviton, a professor of public and community health, has been teaching a course on death education since 1968. The senior level course packs in about 200 students a semester -- with the cutoff usually determined by the size of the auditorium in which the class meets. Topics include mourning, the psychology of death and grief, working with dying people, the history of death, and so forth. While death is obviously not a new topic, the course is regularly updated -- so, post-9/11, more material was added on deaths caused intentionally.

Leviton, backed by students who flock to his course and alumni who consider it to have been one of the high points of their education, says the university is trying to kill his death course and his career, which he intends to keep alive.

He says that Maryland officials are telling him he must start teaching freshmen instead of his senior-level courses. He's refusing -- even taking pay cuts for insubordination to hold on to his current courses and to avoid taking on the new classes. "I've been on the campus a long time and I don't take any crap," he says.

A spokesman for the university said that the dispute is a personnel matter, so officials cannot comment on the specifics or the general issues the fight raises.

Leviton sees the dispute as one of frustration that he is still around. He's 75 and without retirement plans. He volunteers that he is probably costing the university plenty of money on health insurance -- while he's in good health now, he's had a heart attack, hip replacement surgery, and knee surgery in recent years. "They want to get rid of me. They want me gone," he said.

Until 1994, Maryland would have had no problem doing so. Until then, colleges had an exemption to some age-discrimination laws and so could continue to have mandatory retirement ages in place. When that loophole expired, colleges started using incentives to encourage professors to retire, and Leviton says that along with the usual carrots, the university also used sticks, such as ordering senior professors to teach freshmen, even when it would mean abandoning another popular course.

For standing his ground, Leviton says that Maryland had cut one paycheck by 15 percent and another by 50 percent. He's filed an internal grievance and may sue. His students and former students are sending in letters about how significant death education was to them, and asking that he be allowed to continue teaching the course. One of the many letters sent in said that the course had a "profound effect" on this student, more than any other course, in providing her with "skills for life."

Leviton says he's willing to continue to have his pay docked, but that he will protest and hold on to his course. "Students not only love this course, they need it," he said.

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