A faculty member at Eastern Michigan University was suspended over sexual harassment claims. He returned a year later, in 2008, and taught for several years, but was then denied tenure. When he reapplied, after an arbitrator agreed with the faculty union that proper rules were not followed the first time, he was denied tenure once again, and the provost cited sexual harassment as a reason, according to the letter denying him tenure.
The case involves Edwin Etter, an associate professor of accounting at the university’s business school, who was denied tenure earlier this year. He will depart in August, 2013, but according to a local website he will be on “desk duty” till then. Walter Kraft, vice president for communications at the university, declined to comment on the case while Etter did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for an interview.
In the letter denying tenure to Etter, Kim Schatzel, provost and vice president, said the professor's record of repeated sexual harassment (against students and one staff member) could not be ignored, despite his strong teaching and service record. The Detroit Free Press, which viewed a report on the university's investigation into the allegations and quoted from it, reported that Etter told a female student that she would do better on an exam if she wore a short skirt and high heels. The newspaper said students complained about being touched on the shoulder and thigh by Etter, who also told an employee that he wished he were under her desk.
The newspaper also quoted from Etter's tenure application where he apologized for his conduct. "I am truly sorry for the conduct that led to my suspension, and I want to take this opportunity to again apologize to the EMU community for my actions," he wrote in his application, according to The Detroit Free Press. "I believe my conduct over the past four years and one-half (years) demonstrates that I will not repeat the actions that led to my suspension."
According to Eastern Michigan's collective bargaining contract for faculty, a faculty member can be denied tenure on "justifiable facts" based on performance or other issues, and Schatzel's letter pointed out that Etter had not satisfied the terms of the contract.
And though neither Etter or administrators are keen to talk, the situation raises questions about why he was allowed to teach for several years after the university found that he had harassed multiple times, and yet denied him tenure citing those claims. Experts called the case intriguing and complex, from the perspectives of students and of the professor.
Theresa Beiner, associate dean of faculty development and a law professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, said tenure is seen as giving lifetime employment to someone barring significant misconduct, and she wondered if that factor played into the Eastern Michigan’s decision.
“I think the distinguishing factor here was the tenure decision,” said Beiner, who is an expert on sexual harassment issues in higher education. Beiner said that a university might not want to increase its risk in certain situations. “It is a tough situation for the employee, and the university, which is caught in a catch-22 situation.”
As for the perspective of the victims, Beiner noted that the professor was suspended and attended counseling sessions. “Thus, the university at least attempted to address the victims' concerns and did more than simply slap him on the wrist, so to speak,” she said in an e-mail. “I can't tell if that was done here, but it is a possibility that the victims were consulted about the punishment and thought it was appropriate.”
Beiner wondered if the results would have been any different if universities had stronger rules for “de-tenuring.”
Some pointed to the complex nature of the tenure process, and how different groups can have different opinions.
Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, LLC, a consulting firm on higher education issues, said that, although the best institutions have clear standards for tenure, faculty evaluations involve a lot of people.
“Reviewers in the initial stages may feel one way about a candidate while those in later stages may feel differently. Reasonable people may disagree about the seriousness of a faculty member’s shortcomings and his or her success in correcting them,” Franke wrote in an e-mail. “Opinions of peers should receive considerable, although not dispositive, weight in the final decision.”
Franke, who wasn’t commenting specifically about Eastern Michigan, said that if a faculty member does not meet the standards of an institution, it might be prudent to decline to renew that person’s contract earlier rather than later. “Both the individual and the institution have less invested in the relationship at its earlier stages,” she said.
The American Association of University Professors expects university administrators to follow a recommendation by a faculty body, unless there is a rare and compelling reason not to do so, said Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the association.
Scholtz said that if the professor’s misconduct was grave, he could have been dismissed for cause or not reappointed. “There might have been this assumption that this was misconduct capable of being remediated… and for the person to meet the standards of tenure,” he said. “On one hand, it seems, he addressed the problems. Now, we are getting the message, he did not address the problems and he has to leave. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
But what about the issue of exposing more students to a faculty member who has been found to be sexually harassing students despite counseling?
“There is a social culture of misusing power in sexual harassment cases. As a feminist, I wouldn’t want to give a person a chance to engage in such behavior,” said Michelle Hughes Miller, an associate professor of sociology and women’s and gender studies at the University of South Florida. “But as a criminologist, I want to say that one can learn from sanctions and change their behavior.”