A Professor's Speech, In Flight

Penn State investigates faculty member whose behavior, recorded on an international flight, circulates and attracts ridicule. She had two undergraduates with her.

March 23, 2015

An incident last week, in which a passenger on a flight from Nicaragua to the United States was recorded apparently delivering a rant and smoking in the air, quickly spread on social media.

The passenger turned out to be a professor at Pennsylvania State University at Abington. That fact alone wasn't enough to get Penn State involved (although police were involved as soon as the plane landed). But the university now says that the professor had two undergraduates with her, and so is investigating and planning some action against Karen Halnon, associate professor of sociology.

In the video that has circulated, Halnon can first be seen shouting to fellow passengers about Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan leader, whom she admires. Halnon rejects requests that she stop her speeches. And after being told that she would be arrested when the plane lands, she says that there is no reason left for her not to share her thoughts. Later, she lights a cigarette and, when asked about it by a flight attendant, appears to try to blame another passenger.

Penn State officials said that they are investigating because two undergraduates were with Halnon at the time.

Halnon did not respond to email requests for comment.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Eric Barron, the president of Penn State, as saying "we’ve got a problem there,” and Madlyn L. Hanes, vice president for the Commonwealth Campuses, as saying that "the university is taking action.”

Asked for elaboration, Hanes referred questions from Inside Higher Ed to a spokeswoman, who said, "At this time, Dr. Halnon is out of the classroom and not working on campus." The spokeswoman said that Halnon was being paid and did not respond to questions about whether Halnon had been in the classroom this semester, prior to the incident. "We take the matter very seriously and continue to investigate her conduct related to last week’s research trip to Nicaragua and the flight home," the spokeswoman said.

Hank Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and a professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay, said that had there been no students on the flight with the professor, Penn State would not have had reason to get involved. But since there were students with Halnon, the university had a right to investigate and, if an inquiry raised enough issues, to consider various actions. "If she's with a student, it's an extension of the classroom," he said. Otherwise, the conduct is not within the university's purview.

Reichman did say, however, that Penn State's senior administrators shouldn't be making statements like those they made to the Pittsburgh paper until an investigation is complete. Doing so prejudges the situation, he said. They should just state that they are looking into the situation, he said.


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