Canceling Emeritus

San Diego State considers a policy on revoking emeritus status when retired professors hurt the university's reputation.

July 23, 2020
 
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Tenure, once earned, is hard to revoke. That’s the idea behind it. Most institutions nevertheless have processes for stripping a professor of tenure where there is demonstrated incompetence, neglect of duty, academic dishonesty or serious personal misconduct.

Fewer institutions have clearly outlined processes for denuding emeritus professors of that honorary status. The University Senate at San Diego State University this week considered a proposal on adopting one. But the policy was sent back to the subcommittee that drafted it over academic freedom concerns.

No one at San Diego State outwardly opposes the idea of taking back emeritus status when a professor is revealed to have, say, sexually harassed someone or committed some other serious crime. Instead, what rankled professors was proposed language on revoking emeritus status “when it is determined that an individual’s conduct, before or after emeritus status has been granted, causes harm to the university’s reputation.”

Harm to the University’s Reputation

The emeritus faculty member under review would have had the opportunity to defend their case in writing to the Senate, allowing for some due process. But in discussions this week, members of the Senate said the notion of harming the university’s reputation was way too broad.

Peter Herman, professor of literature at San Diego State, one of the proposal’s most vocal critics, said Wednesday that it “read like a nondisclosure agreement. Causing harm to the university’s reputation?”

Herman, who has written a number of op-eds criticizing his university over the years, said it appeared the proposal meant to “squelch embarrassing or critical views. It was trying to preserve the university’s reputation above academic freedom or prevent them from being criticized in any way.”

Other colleagues pointed out that the timeline for transgressions -- before or after emeritus status is granted -- was wide-open, as well, Herman said.

“There is no timeline on this. How far back are you going to go, to look for something that would harm the university’s reputation? And of course, what exactly does that mean and who is going to judge this?”

For the record, the draft policy said emeritus status may be revoked for cause at any time by the president upon recommendation of a vote of the Senate. Any member of the Senate, the provost or the president could initiate the revocation process through the Senate Executive Committee.

The University Senate and observers including Herman generally opposed the draft as written, meaning it won’t proceed to a vote before undergoing some major revisions. But it was unanimously put forth for consideration by the university’s Academic Policy and Planning Committee. So at least one group of tenured professors found it palatable.

The chair of that committee, D. J. Hopkins, professor of theater, did not respond to a request for comment. According to the now-dead proposal, Hopkins’s committee was asked by Senate officers to consider introducing a policy whereby emeritus status could be revoked for cause, in line with some other California State University campuses.

An ‘Agent of Intolerance’

Some say that the proposal was written in response to a recent, graduate student-led petition against Stuart Hurlbert, professor emeritus of biology at San Diego State. Citing the May murder of George Floyd, the petition calls for the “end of all racism, bigotry and other intolerance,” including “one particular agent of intolerance.”

Hurlbert “has a long history of bigotry,” dating back to at least 2006, according to the petition. That year, he claimed affiliation with the Minutemen Project, which opposes offering undocumented immigrants aid at the border, and was reportedly asked to stop using his university email address for political organizing purposes. In 2008, Hurlbert used his university email address to support a controversial bill on immigration in Arizona, calling Mexico “a hostile nation” with “many agents” in the U.S., according to public records.

Hurlbert also used a graduate program Listserv multiple times to share information about what is referred to by some as “population stabilization," or moving toward zero population growth through limiting immigration and other means. In 2017, he also used the Listserv to oppose what he called “‘diversity’ hires and graduate student admissions.” The intended effect of such initiatives, Hurlbert wrote in a mass email, “is to force or encourage the use of sex and race preferences in our hiring and admissions processes. To do so would be illegal and unethical, as you know.”

More recently, in May, Hurlbert used the Listserv to link coronavirus deaths within the European Union to immigration, writing that "the great majority of eastern European countries, the Euroskeptic contingent, have much lower per capita mortalities than the does U.S. [sic]. Is there a message there for alert globalists?”

In June, Hurlbert wrote another mass email criticizing the Ecological Society of America’s statement in support of Black Lives Matter, saying that “nobody is more welcomed by law-abiding Black people to their neighborhood than are the police.” As for “underlying economic problems of Black people,” he said, “nothing has been more damaging than mass immigration.”

Hurlbert is also alleged to have posted or attempted to circulate within the department political books and pamphlets, including articles from The Social Contract, a journal that many consider to be nationalist in its orientation.

Hurlbert, who has been an emeritus professor since his retirement in 2006, said this week that he’d reached out to the university about the petition against him but heard nothing.

Calling the Senate committee proposal an “emeritus euthanasia” policy, Hurlbert said it’s a “horrifically bad, ideologically inspired idea like so many others coming, not from faculty majorities, but from highly politicized University Senate committees and the big chiefs in central administrations.”

If his "sins" are bad enough for his emeritus status to be revoked, Hurlbert continued, “why shouldn't Cornell [University], once it gets the news, revoke my Ph.D.?”

In any case, he said, academe is “now full of lemming mobs,” resulting in the revocation of building names and additional honors bestowed upon others in different times.

Herman, who does not know Hurlbert, also linked his case to the broader “cancel culture” decried by some academics, including the co-authors of a recent (and much criticized) open letter in Harper’s magazine.

"Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial," that letter says. "Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity."

Wherefore Emeritus?

Emeritus professors are generally retired and no longer employees subject to university rules and regulations. Yet they still enjoy many faculty privileges and campus access, and arguably represent the institution to some degree.

At its “simplest,” Hurlbert said, emeritus status is a “reward for services rendered.” At its best, he continued, it “encourages and facilitates continued professional and societal contributions from people who are a helluva lot smarter [than] when they were cowed, wet behind the ears assistant professors.”

In a statement, San Diego State said that the emeritus policy was merely a first draft, under discussion for the first time. It did not say what prompted the proposal, but noted that emeritus revocation policies elsewhere consider a range of violations, such as sexual misconduct, harassment, discrimination, falsification of data or data mismanagement, plagiarism and violent crimes.

Indeed, Harvard University last year de-emeritized Jorge Domínguez, former Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico, Emeritus, and onetime vice provost for international affairs. In so doing, Harvard said that an investigation found he’d engaged in unwelcome sexual conduct toward several individuals on multiple occasions over four decades.

If Hurlbert thinks he's a victim of cancel culture, petition organizers think he has discriminated against undocumented immigrants and possibly other groups by linking environmental and other social problems to immigration.

They are seeking the revocation of his honorary emeritus status and all accompanying privileges, including his university email address, faculty ID card and access to campus resources.

San Diego State is “a Hispanic-serving institution that has made commitments to serving underrepresented minorities and to creating a welcoming and safe environment for Black, Indigenous, People of Color, immigrants, and international students,” the petition says. Hurlbert’s actions, meanwhile, “directly oppose these commitments.”

More specifically, his “comments and actions work to diminish recruitment, support, and retention of both graduate and undergraduate students at SDSU,” the petition says. “Racism is unacceptable, and we, the Biology Graduate Student Association, will no longer tolerate it. We deserve university communications and an environment that will let us, and future students, work in peace.”

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