University Fires Professor Who Mooned

Fort Hays sees incident reflecting larger problems in college debate -- but organizers of competitions say allegations are unfair.
August 25, 2008

Becoming a YouTube star by mooning a room of students and professors doesn't exactly provide job security for a professor without tenure.

If there was any doubt about that, Fort Hays State University cleared it up Friday when it dismissed Bill Shanahan as assistant professor of communications and debate coach. The university acted after a video posted on YouTube showed Shanahan exchanging four-letter words, jumping up and down, and dropping his pants in an extended argument with a debate coach from the University of Pittsburgh. While the altercation took place in March, the video surfaced only this month -- and it has attracted thousands of views, prompted debate, and inspired some to set the incident to music.

Once the video surfaced, Fort Hays announced it would review the situation -- and on Friday, it said Shanahan would be dismissed.

"Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, but these actions are not acceptable for someone who is representing our university," said Edward H. Hammond, president of the university, in a statement. "Professor Shanahan's conduct falls below the standard established to protect our university, its faculty, students and alumni. As a representative of FHSU, he had a duty of care that was seriously breached by his behavior. If the coach of one of our athletic teams became angry and 'mooned' officials, student athletes and fans during a sports event, he or she would no longer be a coach at Fort Hays State University. Standards for our debate program are certainly just as high."

The statement noted many "good things" Shanahan had accomplished at Fort Hays and Hammond said that Shanahan was "highly esteemed by his students and his debaters."

The university's announcement also included a statement from Shanahan: "I greatly appreciate the strong support I have received from FHSU over the last 10 years in the fullest tradition of academic freedom and the outpouring of support and concern expressed by countless colleagues, students and former students. I am terribly sorry that my actions reflected poorly on the university. However, they must be judged in the unique context of college debate, marked by its passion and rigorous intellectual engagement. I hope this incident does not detract from the incredible work done by Fort Hays State debate over the last decade or my other contributions to FHSU, which are far greater than a 9-minute YouTube clip."

Richard Hughen, a professor of philosophy at Fort Hays State and also president of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors (which is the faculty union there), said that the incident raised multiple issues. "It should be clear that a faculty member can be dismissed for unprofessional behavior," he said, adding that it was "pretty obvious that Dr. Shanahan did not exercise appropriate restraint nor did he show respect for the opinions of others in this incident."

But even if there may be grounds for dismissing Shanahan, that doesn't mean the president should be making the decision himself, he said. "Dr. Shanahan had a right to have a hearing by his peers to see if his colleagues agree that his behavior -- perhaps accumulative behaviors -- justified his dismissal," he said. The faculty union should have been involved and it was "an affront" to it that the AAUP did not play a role, Hughen said, adding that it would be "premature" to announce any action the organization might take as a result.

In announcing the decision to dismiss Shanahan, the university also provided more details about how the incident transpired. One factoid Fort Hays was sure to include was that when Shanahan lowered his pants, he exposed "his underwear-clad backside" -- the video itself was not shot from an angle that would provide evidence one way or the other on just what he had exposed.

Details were also released on the origins of the dispute between Shanahan and Shanara Reid-Brinkley, the Pitt coach. Fort Hays found that its team had "exercised its prerogative under the debate rules to dismiss Reid-Brinkley as a judge" of a match between the teams from Fort Hays and Towson University. Both Towson team members and Reid-Brinkley "said the decision to remove a black female judge was an act of white hegemony, which is to say an exercise of the power whites enjoy over people of color," the Fort Hays statement said. Hammond, the university president, noted that while Shanahan's behavior was wrong, "I understand why Mr. Shanahan was outraged by the not-so-veiled accusations of racism. During his 10 years at FHSU, I have known Bill to be a fervent champion of the underdog and racial equality."

A spokesman for Pitt said that the university was still investigating the incident.

Under the rules of the Cross Examination Debate Association, each team gets to strike one prospective judge without giving any reason why. What was unusual about the altercation that cost Shanahan his job, association leaders said, was that Reid-Brinkley and the Towson team knew that she had been blocked from judging the competition. Blocking takes place before judges have been selected, so each team removes one person as a potential judge before a judging panel is selected at random from those remaining in the pool. Blocking choices aren't announced, so those not selected aren't supposed to know if they were blocked or just happened not to be chosen.

The debate association found itself under attack Friday. Not only did Fort Hays fire its debate coach, but it suspended its debate program. Hammond, noting that he was once a college debater, said he valued the competition, but was shocked at the state of debate today. "Our society has become increasingly confrontational and uncivil," he said. "Our investigation revealed that those ills have also infected college debate. We have a responsibility not only to deal with the specific incident but to stand up against this decline in the standards of college debate."

He added that until he viewed the video of his university's competition, "I had no idea that college debate had degenerated into the kind of displays that we witnessed.... If anyone doubts my conclusion, that person should view the entire debate, which was laced with four-letter words, a lack of personal respect and a lack of civil discourse."

That analysis has angered leaders of the debate association, which has been conducting its own investigation of the incident involving the Fort Hays and Pittsburgh coaches.

"In the course of thousands of debates that can take place in a single tournament, and you multiply that by all of the events, and it's so rare that it takes 30 years for something like this to happen," said Darren Elliott, president of the Cross Examination Debate Association, and an assistant professor of speech and coach of the debate program at Kansas City Kansas Community College.

Elliott said that the tenor of the debate viewed by everyone on YouTube "is outside the norm of what debate is like," and that people should not judge debate programs by that incident.

At the same time, the association released a statement indicating that it would review its curriculum and bylaws to make sure that debate programs upheld appropriate levels of civility.


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