Fantasies and Due Process

Should e-mail in which a professor shares sexually explicit thoughts about students factor into his suitability to keep his job? Is case in Texas one of enforcing professionalism, or overreaction?
July 14, 2008

When advocates for faculty rights dream about the professors they would like to defend, they think of the courageous dissenter who challenges her administration or conventional wisdom in her discipline. They don't think of one professor sharing his sexual fantasies about students with a colleague at another campus.

But at the University of Texas at San Antonio, such fantasies in e-mail have taken center stage in a bid to fire a professor. And last week, a professor at another college -- who received such e-mail messages, but didn't share similar thoughts about his students -- was suspended.

While much of the discussion in San Antonio has centered on shock in the local community that a professor could spend so much time recording offensive thoughts about students, there are some -- beyond the lawyers for the professors involved -- who believe that the case raises issues of due process and faculty rights.

Jordan Kurland of the American Association of University Professors said that in dismissing tenured professors, the rationale must be "directly and substantially related" to a faculty member's job performance. In the case of e-mail containing fantasies about students, Kurland said that he could see these relating to job performance if a professor widely shared the e-mail in a way that would hurt the students discussed, or if he acted on the fantasies. But if neither of things happened (and no one at San Antonio alleges that they did), Kurland said flatly that there are not grounds for dismissal.

The professor at the center of the dispute is Ronald Ayers, a tenured economics professor who was fired last year by the university for having sexually explicit materials on his computer, in violation of the university's policy of banning the use of the campus network to view obscene materials unless related to a professor's teaching and research.

Ayers's computer was examined after a graduate student reported hearing, from outside of his office, sexual noises coming from within, and then seeing Ayers leave his office alone, with no one else in the office. Ayers was not fired on the basis of his fantasies about students, but the university turned over those e-mails to a faculty panel, to which Ayers took an appeal of his dismissal. The faculty panel overturned his dismissal, saying that however unprofessional he may have been, dismissal was not justified.

The faculty panel -- at least in its statements -- ignored the fantasy e-mails as irrelevant. But The San Antonio Express-News requested and obtained the e-mails and published excerpts. The Web site The Smoking Gun has now published much of the e-mail in explicit entirety (minus student names) in a feature called "The Naughty Professor." And since the e-mails named the professor who received them in addition to the author, the recipient (a community college professor) has now been suspended from his job. Neither professor has been accused of sex discrimination or harassing any student, nor is there any evidence that the e-mails represent anything by fantasy.

The e-mails don't just contain sexual thoughts about students, but insult students' intelligence and appear to make fun of their social class backgrounds. One, for instance, talks about a student from a broken home and says: "From the questions she asked me while taking her economics test today, she is totally DUMB. That may explain her interest in me. Perhaps she has flirted her way through college to an A average." He goes on to describe her cleavage, call her a "100 percent pure bred white girl," and to speculate about whether she works on weekends in a nude bar. Another e-mail describes a student's thong, which Ayers wrote was visible while he was teaching.

Other e-mail messages released to the San Antonio paper reveal complaints from Ayers's department chair that the professor's office was beyond normal levels of messy and included enough garbage and rotting fruit and vegetables that a visitor couldn't be expected to be comfortable for office hours.

The university has said that the e-mails speak to the professor's mindset. The case remains alive -- as the faculty panel's rejection of the dismissal is now under review by the University of Texas Board of Regents. Ayers is on paid leave. So is Duane Conley, a tenured information systems professor at Palo Alto College, a local community college. Conley received the e-mail messages, but his responses never included any mention of his own students.

Many who have been discussing the cases at the San Antonio paper's Web site have little sympathy for Ayers. "Professors are hired to teach and be examples to their students. This guy is a lecher and a pervert. I know that I would be fired for surfing porn on my work computer. There should be no second chances for that. Sorry. No excuses," wrote one commenter.

Lawyers for both Ayers and Conley say that there are important freedom of speech and due process issues at stake. Michael Latimer, a lawyer for Conley, said that the e-mails reveal his client to be a friend of Ayers who periodically exchanged e-mail with him, but who never wrote unprofessionally about his own students or urged Ayers to do so about his. Latimer, in a letter to the San Antonio paper, said his client was being unfairly linked with the comments Ayers made.

Javier N. Maldonado, lawyer for Ayers, said that the relevant issues concerned conduct, not e-mail. Of Ayers, Maldonado said, "He never harassed any student. He never treated any student differently because of sex. He never gave a student a particular grade because of sex. There were never any complaints about Professor Ayers disrespecting students or otherwise treating them in an unprofessional or uncivil manner." The e-mail messages were "personal, private thoughts that never had an impact in his job performance or his relationship with students." As such, Maldonado said, they were none of the university's business.

He said that the university is using the e-mail messages inappropriately by including them in the Ayers file. The university is "now throwing garbage to see what sticks," when "the bigger story is the integrity of the system that exists for dismissing tenure professors." After the faculty panel rejected dismissal, he said, why is Ayers still not working and facing the permanent loss of his job?

Christina Gomez, president of the student body at the university, said that she found the e-mail fantasies offensive, but also (if not used in ways that would directly hurt students) irrelevant. "I personally don't think a professor should be fantasizing like that, but you can't prevent that. As long as he's not doing something to fulfill the fantasy, you can't do anything," she said. "Everyone has their fantasies."

Gomez has never taken one of Ayers's classes. She said that if she wanted to take a course on which he was uniquely qualified, she might enroll. But she probably wouldn't seek him out as a professor, she said. Despite her concerns about considering a professors online fantasies as grounds for dismissal, she noted that there is an additional problem now that the material is out.

She said she could never imagine going to his office to discuss questions. "That's where the problem lies. With all of this, he won't be able to do his job," Gomez said. "I don't think students would feel safe having a one-on-one meeting with him."


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