Email Crime and Punishment

How did a professor's stray email linking to an Inside Higher Ed article result in a letter of reprimand in his personnel file?

February 22, 2018
 

We’ve all had our digital mishaps: sharing a link from the wrong web browser tab in a professional email, or sending a text that autocorrect has made nonsensical.

Most such mishaps end with an embarrassed apology and a note to self to check twice before clicking “send.” Sheldon Pollack’s did not. The professor of law and political science at the University of Delaware has been formally reprimanded by Matthew Kinservik, vice provost for faculty affairs, for sending the wrong colleague a link to an Inside Higher Ed article with the word “penis” in it.

Pollack, a longtime Delaware professor and former president of the Faculty Senate, says he also narrowly escaped mandated counseling recommended by the university’s human resources office.

“This is an outrageous violation of academic freedom and free speech,” Pollack wrote in a draft appeal of the reprimand he prepared for the Faculty Senate’s Faculty Welfare & Privileges Committee and shared with Inside Higher Ed. “This administrative action is arbitrary and capricious. The ‘unprofessional’ action that Dr. Kinservik deems to be a violation of university policy and professional ethics is protected speech.”

Here’s what happened. In May, Inside Higher Ed published a news story about an Alan Sokal-style hoax article that somehow made its way through the peer-review process and was published by Cogent Social Sciences. The bogus paper, called the “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” argued that the “conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.” You get the picture.

Chuckling, Pollack forwarded a link to the news story to a male colleague who is a good friend, as well as his own son, with the message “I always wondered why I felt emasculated on university campuses of late. This article explains why.” But instead of his friend, he says, his email program autofilled the contact for a female colleague with similar initials, with whom he had recently corresponded about a promotion and tenure issue.

The female colleague, whom Pollack did not name, responded by telling Pollack his email was inappropriate and asking what he meant. Pollack wrote back that he was sorry and explained he’d sent the note accidentally. “It is a story about an academic satire that someone published that I thought Jeff would appreciate,” he said, referring to his friend and intended recipient. “Guess you didn’t,” he added.

Six months later, Pollack says, the female colleague formally complained about the matter, along with another personnel-related issue (that Pollack did not disclose because he said it related to a confidential promotion decision about another colleague).

Earlier this month, after having reviewed the complaint, Kinservik sent Pollack a formal letter of reprimand, which he described as a corrective action and his duty under the university’s unlawful harassment policy.

“Sending this email with this message and a link to the IHE article, even by mistake, and including a comment that can only be regarded as gender-based bias, even as a joke, is unprofessional and represents a misuse of university email and shows poor taste and poor judgment,” Kinservik wrote.

Pollack says the university’s human resources department also recommended that he attend sexual harassment counseling as a result of the incident, but that Kinservik ignored that recommendation.

“Yes, it is hard to believe,” Pollack wrote in his appeal to the senate. “The vice provost of faculty affairs has issued his Letter of Reprimand to me for ‘unprofessional’ behavior consisting of sending this totally innocuous email to a colleague … Using the word ‘emasculated’ in an email is not a violation of university policy, and it certainly cannot be punished by the [Delaware] administration. It is neither ‘gender-based bias’ nor prohibited speech. The text of my email was not unprofessional, although my email skills were obviously amateurish.”

If the corrective action sticks, he said, “it will be a sad commentary on the current state of academic freedom and free speech (or the lack thereof) on the University of Delaware campus.”

For the record, Delaware’s Faculty Handbook says professors have ethical obligations “that derive from common membership in the community of scholars.” Professors “do not discriminate against or harass colleagues,” it says. “They respect and defend the free inquiry of associates. In the exchange of criticism and ideas professors show due respect for the opinions of others. Professors acknowledge academic debt and strive to be objective in their professional judgment of colleagues.”

The handbook further defines unlawful harassment as that which goes “beyond the mere expression of views or thoughts (spoken or written) that an individual may find offensive. The conduct must be sufficiently serious to unlawfully limit an employee's or student's ability to participate in or benefit from the activities of the university. Further, prohibited conduct must be evaluated from the perspective of a reasonable person in the alleged victim's position, taking into account all of the circumstances involved in a particular matter.”

Kinservik declined comment, saying the dispute was a “personnel matter.”

Pollack is, of course, appealing the corrective action with the senate and has filed a grievance with his faculty union, which is affiliated with the American Association of University Professors. He told Inside Higher Ed that the incident is a reflection of several “unfortunate trends on university campuses,” including increasing administrative control of academic affairs and what he called “a serious decline in respect for academic freedom and free speech.”

All professors must already be very careful about what they say in class, he said via email, “lest they offend a student or colleague. Now, the word ‘emasculated’ is deemed hate speech and ‘gender-based bias.’ I want to hear how the vice provost explains that.”

Deni Galileo, an associate professor of biology at Delaware and president of the campus AAUP chapter, said the union doesn't comment on pending faculty complaints or grievances. "Our local chapter and the national AAUP support academic freedom," he added.

 

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