Losing Tenure for Being Difficult?

Academic freedom watchdogs paid little attention to Louis Wozniak's case at U. of Illinois because it appeared he had due process. But was he treated fairly?

January 8, 2014
Louis Wozniak

The tenure system is supposed to protect faculty from abuses of administrative power or personal vendettas, no matter how unlikable a professor may be. And the system is also supposed to assure that minor transgressions can't end the career of a faculty member who is meeting expectations in teaching and research. And most of the time it does, at least for those who earn tenure. Institutions wishing to remain reputable afford professors with grievances due process, the most important element of which is their ability to defend themselves before peers. But does that system ever fail?

The case of Louis Wozniak, an associate professor of general engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for some 50 years, raises that question. When his tenure was revoked earlier this year by the university’s Board of Trustees, his case attracted little attention from academic freedom watchdogs because due process seemed to have been followed. But a pair of essays in this fall’s Academe journal of the Illinois conference of the American Association of University Professors sheds some new light on the circumstances leading to his dismissal. The pieces, one of which is written by the fired professor, suggest that his case shows people can lose tenure for relatively minor offenses, and that this undercuts job security for all faculty members.

"This is not about a 52-year veteran of the University of Illinois with the dubious distinction of having been recommended by President [Robert] Easter to the Board of Trustees for revocation of tenure and dismissal,” Wozniak says in his essay, “In His Own Words." “Having defended convincingly at all faculty-staffed committees, and to have their recommendations unheeded by administration, this is about faculty ‘shared governance’ that has degraded to an oxymoron.”

Wozniak ostensibly was fired for having revealed the emotional state of a student on his blog after she allegedly admitted that her honor society gave another professor the $500 teaching award he won by a narrow margin. But in his essay, he says he was fired more for personal reasons, including conflicts with now-retired colleagues going back to the 1990s. Those conflicts led in part to his first suspension from teaching, for not readily sharing grading information with his department, and informed the process by which his most recent suspension was handled, he says. Essentially, Wozniak argues that if he’d been a more cooperative colleague over a number of decades, he’d still have his job.

“The university is keeping tenure for the blindly obedient but tenure’s original goal was to protect the freedom -- financially and professionally -- of independent thinkers,” Wozniak said in an interview.

Wozniak’s most recent troubles began in 2009, when a student honor society awarded another professor the departmental teaching honor he believed was his. Called “Woz” by his “GKs” or “grandkids” – what he called students – Wozniak was a respected teacher who had won the same award in several previous years. Suspecting that something was amiss, he confronted the president of the honor society in his office and asked her what had happened. He says that she admitted that the society had chosen to give the award to another professor who had lost to Wozniak by a narrow margin. Wozniak believes administrators encouraged the students to give the award to a colleague who was up for promotion, to help his chances. That was never confirmed by the students as part of the investigation.

He said he consulted his department chair, who was unsympathetic. So he filed a departmental grievance and posted a video about the award and his exchange with the student -- including the fact that she cried -- on his website, IllEthics. He included a link to the video in his signature block on his emails.

Wozniak says in the video that remains on his website, “I wouldn’t do it again the next time, but considering that she had lied to me, I felt not too much remorse about it.” He also points out that she was a 22-year old “woman” and graduating senior, not a young freshman.

The fired professor also tried to sue the student and another leader of a similar student society to find out exactly how the award decision had been made. He says the suit was an attempt to compel the students to offer information about the case, and that he had no interest in financial gain. He also allegedly confronted the new student leaders of those societies the next year to discuss what had happened with them.

Wozniak’s lawsuit never found its way to court, but the professor soon found himself the subject of an administrative inquiry into his conduct. He was suspended with pay for three years, during which time a faculty committee conducted an extensive review of his case. Ultimately, the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, a subcommittee of the Faculty Senate, found that numerous counts of misconduct brought by the administration – including a sexual joke he made in an email to seniors, that he only remembered the names of “GKs” he’d slept with – was not worthy of suspension or termination. But the committee said it was seriously troubled by Wozniak’s failure to keep confidential the student society leader’s emotional state, and warned him to cease talking about it and remove all references to it from his website, along with all other personally identifiable student information. He was exonerated on all but 2 of 12 counts, including allegedly videotaping students in class without their permission (that was found to be untrue).

The professor’s “failure or refusal to comply with [these conditions] shall be cause to dismiss him,” the committee wrote in its January 2013 report.

But Wozniak did not comply, saying he would not follow a “muzzling” order. The administration soon alerted him he was in violation of university policy, and, after consulting with a faculty advisory committee, referred his case to the Board of Trustees. In September, Wozniak testified before the board. In its report, the board says at “no time did [Wozniak] apologize for the publication of confidential information concerning students, nor did he indicate that he would cease these activities if permitted to return to teaching.”

In November, the board revoked Wozniak’s tenure, effectively immediately, despite the standard of one year’s notice generally afforded to fired professors. The case was reportedly the first of its kind to be adjudicated by the board.

“There is nothing more fundamental to the mission of the university than to protect its relationships with students,” the board wrote in its report. “This includes ensuring that student confidences are maintained and that information is not published about them without the consent required by university policies. Every student of this university deserves nothing less than our complete and unwavering support of these policies. [Wozniak] has refused to meet this most basic understanding. His termination, therefore, must be effective immediately.”

Did Due Process Fail?

In an essay accompanying Wozniak’s, John Wilson, Illinois Academe editor and an academic freedom expert, argues that his case shows how due process can fail a tenured professor when fellow faculty “fail” to defend it as a principle, along with academic freedom. While the committee investigated whether Wozniak posted the video, which was never really in dispute, it was too quick to accept that it was grounds for dismissal, he says.

"Normally, the firing of a tenured professor is such an extraordinary event that it involves acts of breathtaking misconduct or total incompetence,” Wilson wrote. “This is not the case with Louis Wozniak. In fact, if Wozniak were a mediocre teacher, he would still be working at the University of Illinois. It was Wozniak’s excellence in teaching that led him to be given awards, and then to being fired when he objected to not receiving a teaching award that he had earned.”

Wilson argues that there is no university policy demanding teacher-student confidentiality, and that Illinois’s ethical code of conduct requires confidentiality of particular documents such as “student records,” not all faculty-student interactions. Additionally, he says, AAUP’s policies say nothing about confidentiality of student information.

"Confidentiality, in general, is a principle anathema to a free university,” Wilson wrote. “And certainly revealing a student’s reaction to controversy about an official award is not the same as revealing a private confidence about a student’s personal crisis. While some might feel morally that Wozniak should not reveal such details, it clearly does not rise to the level of any academic misconduct.”

To fire a tenured professor on such grounds is literally unheard of in the history of modern higher education in America, Wilson says, blaming the university's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure for leaving the door open for the Board of Trustees to find a flimsy reason to fire him.

Matthew Finkin, a professor of labor law at Illinois and chair of the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, rejected that accusation. Although Wozniak’s is a “tough case,” he said, “this isn’t an academic freedom case, and this is not a due process case. It boils down to his continuing a course of conduct that is simply wrong and refusing to acknowledge that he’d done anything wrong.”

Repeatedly failing to protect student confidentiality amounts to professional misconduct, clearly and simply, he said. So the committee had no choice but to include a warning clause in its report.

Wozniak, who taught general engineering, was suspended for seven years starting in the mid-1990s, in part for challenging a university requirement that he turn over his grading books (he believed the requirement did not apply to his personal grading notes). Wozniak says, however, that his vocal disapproval of the department chair, among other administrators, led to those charges. He was reinstated in 2002, under a new dean of engineering, and has remained an outspoken member of the faculty.

While he’s clashed to some degree with fellow faculty members and administrators, he said, he decided to dedicate what remains of his career to his students, through great teaching.

That, along with Wozniak’s personal history, help answer the question many involved in his case have wondered: Is a $500 award worth losing one’s career over?

Wozniak said his grievance was never about the money, and that he’s spent some $100,000 in legal fees defending himself. He also recalled two memories of living in a Roman Catholic orphanage in World War II-era Europe after his parents died. (Born in Italy, Wozniak eventually was adopted by Illinois residents.)

In the first, a kindly priest ate with him when no one came to pick him up and take him out for a meal during periodic visitation times. For that reason, he said, he’s given substantial contributions to a Catholic charity. In the second memory, another orphanage worker smeared feces on the face of a fellow orphan who had defecated in his bed, in an attempt to shame him out of the behavior. Wozniak said the incident didn’t bother him at the time, but as he grew older he swore to himself he’d never let anyone “crap” on him, “just because they have the authority to do so.”

“Five hundred bucks is parking meter money to me,” he said. “This is about the fact that the kids’ right to vote, and my award, were stolen.”

It’s unclear whether Wozniak has any chance of getting his job back. The chair of Illinois’s Faculty Senate, referred questions about Wozniak’s case to a university spokeswoman, who said she couldn’t answer questions about individual personnel cases. She directed general questions about due process to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees Statues. Due process is protected by law in Illinois, and generally, Wozniak’s case followed outlined grievance procedures.

But Cary Nelson, a professor of English at Illinois and former national AAUP president who has written extensively on what he sees as the decline of academic freedom, said there are vagaries within the statutes that need to be defined.

“There is a [Board of Trustees] hearing mandated, but no firm guidance about whether the [board] should receive not only an administration account of the case but also a statement of Wozniak’s arguments,” Nelson said via email. “While I would be very reluctant to argue that the [the board] should retry the case, as faculty due process should have priority, I do believe Wozniak should be able to present a written summary of his position to the board. The role of the [Committee for Academic Freedom and Tenure] in requests for second hearings should also be clarified.” (Wozniak was denied a second opportunity to appeal to the committee because the facts of his case were not in dispute.)

Wilson said that lack of clarity presented a clear procedural flaw in Wozniak’s case. But worse, he said in an email interview, were the “substantive” aspects of his process. “[The] reasons for dismissal are completely out of whack with academic norms. We normally expect very serious misconduct when we hear that a tenured professor is being fired. In Wozniak's case, it's hard to identify any misconduct, let alone the most serious kind that would justify dismissal.”

So, why then, did Wozniak’s case not attract more attention as it was being investigated? Wilson attributed it to Illinois’s strong academic reputation.

“I think that many of us, especially myself, ignored Wozniak's case earlier because we assumed that the system works at an elite university,” he said. “I'm accustomed to seeing the worst violations of academic freedom occurring at third-rate colleges where repressive administrators want to get rid of annoying faculty members.”

Wilson continued: “It's a reminder that threats to academic freedom are everywhere, even in top universities, and we can't just assume that because a tenured professor is being fired and the faculty leaders aren't raising an objection, that the system is working.”

Greg Scholtz, director of academic freedom, tenure and governance for the AAUP’s national office, said he couldn’t comment on Wozniak’s case specifically, but confirmed that the professor has reached out for help.

Generally, AAUP recommends that institutions follow certain standards of academic due process in order to protect academic freedom and ensure a degree of fairness. But the AAUP has not taken the position that following these standards – even precisely – guarantees a fair outcome.

However, Scholtz added via email, “given our emphasis in these standards on the primacy of peer review, the association is loath to second-guess judgments rendered by duly constituted faculty bodies when our recommended procedural standards are followed.”

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