Crossing a Line

Community college moves to fire math professor after finding that she pressured students to back Obama re-election.

February 18, 2013

Brevard Community College announced on Friday that it would seek to fire a faculty member who it found to have inappropriately pressured students in classes last year to back the re-election of President Obama.

While some conservative critics of higher education regularly accuse professors of trying to encourage students in a left-leaning direction, and while surveys regularly find that faculty members are, on average, to the left of the general public, specific findings that professors have crossed a line between expressing political views and pressuring students to share them are rare. (The American Association of University Professors and other faculty advocates have defended the right of professors to discuss their political views in class, but not to insist that students hold any particular position.)

The allegations against Sharon Sweet, an associate professor of mathematics at the Florida community college, first surfaced in September. At that time, she requested and was granted a leave, pending an investigation.

Brevard then contacted the 85 students who were taking mathematics courses from Sweet at the time, and 43 of them agreed to respond to a written survey about Sweet's conduct in class. The college's summary of the investigation, released Friday, said that:

  • "Professor Sweet strongly encouraged or mandated that students from several classes sign a card that stated, 'I pledge to vote for President Obama and Democrats up and down the ticket."
  • Sweet "misrepresented her intentions to multiple students, indicating at various times that she was conducting voter registration for the college, that the pledge cards were nonpartisan voter registration forms, and that the pledge was a 'statistical analysis.' "
  • The "in-class voicing of her political views and actions regarding the distribution of political pledge cards created a hostile academic environment that violated college policy which governs workplace behavior."
  • "Professor Sweet’s actions caused students to feel considerable discomfort, to believe their privacy was being invaded, to fear their grade could be negatively impacted if they refused to sign the pledge cards, and to feel intimidated."

Based on these findings, the college's report said that Sweet's action "constitute harassment, incompetence, misconduct and unprofessional behavior in the workplace." The report added: "The investigation's evidence calls into question Professor Sweet’s compliance with college policy in compromising student learning time in class to impose her personal political beliefs, and misrepresenting her intentions regarding the distribution of partisan political pledge cards in class."

The report said that the findings, in "totality," meet the standard of "just cause" for firing.

The college said that it notified Sweet of the findings and gave her 10 working days to provide a written response. At that point, a recommendation to fire Sweet is expected to go to the college's board.

Sweet did not respond to an e-mail seeking a response and has not responded to Florida press inquiries.

The president of the faculty union at Brevard (which Sweet serves as a senator) declined to comment.


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