Erlene Grise-Owens’s 18-year career with Spalding University came down a memo, saying her time there was over and her office would be packed up for her. Her offense, she says? Repeatedly questioning her administration’s response to a report of an armed student with a history of troublesome behavior.
“You have two choices: either resign and accept the enclosed offer of settlement and release or be terminated,” reads Spalding’s terse note to Grise-Owens, sent in November. The tenured professor of social work had 21 days to make her decision and was to contact human resources with any questions.
Declining the agreement that would have, in the university’s words, kept her “whole” for the next 18 months, Grise-Owens eventually contacted the American Association of University Professors. The group asked Spalding to reinstate Grise-Owens, to no avail. It released the results of its eventual investigation of Spalding’s actions against the former professor today -- a report that could well result in a vote of censure for the institution when the AAUP meets next month.
Beyond describing alleged violations of tenure, shared governance and academic freedom, AAUP’s report touches on other issues of concern to academe: protection for whistle-blowers, bias against faculty members of color, campus safety issues related to firearm laws and academic freedom for nontenured faculty members.
Whistle-Blower or Someone With an Agenda?
The university, a private Roman Catholic institution in Kentucky, denies many of the allegations in the report and called Grise-Owens someone with an “agenda” and a long history of antagonism toward colleagues. It says the student in question was examined by health professionals and found not to be a threat to herself or others.
As for concerns about diversity and climate, Spalding says its demographics rival those at a local community college -- numbers that the university believes should speak for themselves.
AAUP’s report mentions that Grise-Owens had a history of complaints against the university, starting, by its telling, in 2014 and enumerated in an October memo to the Faculty Senate co-written with two faculty members of color (Grise-Owens is white). That memo alleged that minority students dismissed from the social work program were not afforded equal appeals processes to white students in similar situations. It also alleged bullying behavior by an associate dean.
Grise-Owens had also previously complained, individually, of bullying by two other administrators and a fellow faculty member, and of the circumstances by which she was removed as director of the master of social work program. A human resources officer had investigated some complaints but never sided with Grise-Owens, according to AAUP.
The incident linked to Grise-Owens’s dismissal happened in February 2016 and involved a white female student with an alleged history of making racially charged comments and using racial epithets in class. The student allegedly brought a gun to the campus parking lot and showed it to a fellow student, saying, “I am tired of these people fucking with me.”
Worried that the armed student meant harm to social work students and professors, the report says, the second student reported her peer’s comments to Spalding. But the institution allegedly did not contact Louisville police and took no direct action against the student. She eventually went on medical leave.
The chair of the School of Social Work reportedly found the incident serious enough to tell program faculty members in the small department about it, however -- except for its three faculty members of color, all untenured. The student allegedly attended one of the minority faculty members’ classes the day after the incident, when the professors of color were still unaware of the incident, and she “behaved provocatively and used racial epithets,” according to AAUP.
Upon hearing of the gun incident, one of the professors of color filed a complaint about not being told. Grise-Owens also filed a complaint, saying her status as a senior, tenured professor allowed and compelled her to speak for those who might feel they could not.
The administration didn’t respond until September, according to AAUP, and in the meantime delayed one minority faculty member’s appointment to her part-time teaching duties. Grise-Owens in July complained to the administration that the delay had “the appearance of retaliation.” The appointment soon came, the report says.
In August, Grise-Owens sent an email to human resources and the provost, questioning why the university had not taken action against the student with the gun.
Tori Murden McClure, Spalding’s president, responded to the email, saying that the professor was somehow using the Spalding incident for personal gain.
“We have never had a student, an intruder or bystander brandishing a weapon inside one of our buildings, with or without making racially charged statements,” McClure wrote. “If such an event had occurred, we would have contacted the Louisville Metro Police Department and had such a person removed. I believe you are actively demonizing a former Spalding student for your own political agenda. This is unacceptable behavior for a tenured faculty member at this university.”
McClure said she planned to take up the matter with the Faculty Senate. When another faculty member wrote to say she shared Grise-Owens’s concerns, McClure allegedly responded that it was “outrageous that we should involve” city police in incidents in which a student made racially insensitive remarks or legally kept a gun in her car under state law.
“I think perhaps we should maybe educate the student instead,” McClure said, adding that calling the police would have violated the student’s civil rights. “It is equally outrageous to connect these separate events as if they happened all in one day and that Spalding stood by and did nothing.”
‘No, Stop, Enough’
McClure made good on her threat to take the matter to the Faculty Senate, saying in an email to members that Grise-Owens’s account of what had happened was “tantamount to defamation” and shining a “false light that is potentially damaging to the reputation of the university.”
It’s “my position that someone needed to tell this tenured member of the faculty ‘no,’ ‘stop’ and ‘enough,’” she wrote, saying that she herself had little recourse against Grise-Owens, under faculty governance procedures.
In the meantime, the university closed its investigation into the gun incident and found it had acted appropriately -- despite ongoing objections from the faculty members who had not been notified.
Laura Escobar-Ratliff, a now former assistant professor of social work at Spalding who had raised concerns alongside Grise-Owens at the senate's November meeting, is quoted in AAUP’s report as saying that the “discomfort and fear was palpable,” as McClure was in attendance.
That same day, Grise-Owens received her letter of dismissal. With it was another memo, signed by the chair and four members of the social work program, accusing Grise-Owens of long-term “abuse of power,” bullying and harassment. Such complaints came to light during a human resources investigation of the social work climate initiated by Grise-Owens, the note said, and internal attempts to mediate conflict had been unsuccessful.
“Currently, we are unable to meet for regular department meetings, plan strategically for the future of the School of Social Work, and live into the mission of the [school] and Spalding due to the division within our department,” the colleagues wrote, asking the university to take formal action against Grise-Owens. “Therefore, we join the president in saying no, stop, enough, not only with regard to the incident to which the president responded, but with regard to Grise-Owens’s attitude and behavior in general. This. Must. Stop.”
Escobar-Ratliff and another untenured instructor of color promptly resigned, according to AAUP. Escobar-Ratliff, in her letter notifying the institution, said, “I cannot be part of such a system, and I will not be part of a system that continuously models disparity between principles and actions and in so doing puts my life and the lives of my students in harm’s way.”
The two faculty members also filed a complaint with the Council on Social Work Education, which accredits social work programs, over perceived violations of accreditation standards. Their complaint is pending.
Remaining members of Spalding’s social work program declined to participate in AAUP’s investigation, saying they were in complete support of the university.
Widely followed policy recommendations from AAUP say that professors facing severe sanctions, such as dismissal, have a right to appeal before a faculty committee, in addition to a written letter of formal charges. AAUP in its investigation calls Spalding’s current policy -- that hearings will be conducted by the provost -- lacking, at best. And Grise-Owens was denied even that with her summary dismissal, it says.
McClure declined to meet with the investigating committee and forbade it from meeting with the provost, the director of human resources and Spalding’s counsel. The senate president also declined.
Finding Violations of Tenure, Academic Freedom and Shared Governance
Limited, the committee interviewed five current and former faculty members but found enough evidence to accuse Spalding of withholding AAUP-recommended procedural safeguards for tenured faculty members from Grise-Owens prior to her dismissal, in addition to some of its own protections.
AAUP also says it remains unclear why Grise-Owens was terminated. Was it because she “defamed” the university or the student in her account of the gun incident, or because, allegedly, she was a bully? And did the administration solicit complaints from the faculty of social work in order to find grounds to dismiss her?
All that matters because AAUP policy says that adequate cause for a dismissal “will be related, directly and substantially, to the fitness of faculty members in their professional capacities as teachers or researchers.” So politics and personalities should be immaterial.
Grise-Owens, now a social worker and partner at the Wellness Group, said she was terminated because she “was a threat because I wouldn’t be quiet.”
In light of the available evidence, AAUP’s report reads, “the committee believes this succinct appraisal to be accurate.”
Another professor reportedly told the committee, for example, that Grise-Owens was dismissed “because she was doing what all tenured faculty should do” -- namely, speaking out against institutional policies and practices she deemed inadequate -- and because she was “connected to the marginalized voices.”
This faculty member continued, “Erlene was the one to say … why don’t we have a more diverse faculty? She asked the critical questions and taught true social justice and modeled it …. She was a leader on campus.”
The committee says that Grise-Owens “concerned herself with what she considered matters of injustice, particularly when it came to race and diversity.” That was potentially inconvenient to a campus in the midst of a $30 million capital campaign, the report says, and the gun incident was the “last straw.”
Because Grise-Owens was terminated, in AAUP’s view, for speaking out about a campus-life issue with implications for her work, the report also concludes that Spalding violated her academic freedom -- not just the norms of tenure. For reference, association policy says that “academic freedom promotes the spirit of inquiry and discussion required of a free society” and extends to “all levels of faculty responsibility and are not restricted to activities identified with specific instructional research or service programs. The institution of academic tenure has an important role in the preservation of academic freedom.”
The committee wrote that Grise-Owens’s dismissal “had the likely effect not only of eliminating a perceived ‘troublemaker’ but also of significantly chilling even further the climate for academic freedom at Spalding. One interviewee explained that ‘the dismissal of Erlene has a lot of people on edge,’ adding a crucial question: ‘What protections are there?’”
AAUP “found none in this case,” the report says.
The committee further attacks Spalding’s shared governance structure, saying that “weak-kneed” deans and chairs enabled the president. And their “collective weakness stems in no small part from the fact that both groups, according to the faculty governance document, ‘shall be appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the university president,’” the report says.
Rick Barney, a spokesperson for Spalding, reiterated that state law allows students to have guns in their cars. He also said that Grise-Owens declined to meet with McClure and the provost and continued to talk about the student in question prior to her dismissal.
“We will rest on the historic integrity and character of this institution,” he said.
Hans-Joerg Tiede, a senior program officer for academic freedom, tenure and governance at AAUP, said the Spalding case recalled those of other academic whistle-blowers. Those include Ivor Heerden, who reported on concerns over the Army Corps of Engineers’ role in the levy failures after Hurricane Katrina and was terminated from Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center.
“It’s important to recognize that academic freedom should protect these sort of instances of whistle-blowing, and it should have protected Grise-Owens,” Tiede said.
The case also raises questions about Spalding’s racial climate and legislation that permits legal carrying of firearms on university grounds, he said. Kentucky doesn’t have concealed carry on campus, but institutions -- at least public ones -- may not prevent students from having licensed weapons in their vehicles.
For Spalding to claim that informing the police of a safety concern would violate the civil rights of the student, Tiede said, “points to the possibility that institutions may not respond adequately to such concerns because administrators believe that such laws limit their ability to do so.”
Also important is how academic freedom can protect untenured faculty members, he added: tenured faculty members should be able to speak up for them.