Not a Criminal, but Not Professor Material?

A Penn State professor says he was protecting pro–vaccine mandate demonstrators when he struggled with a counterprotester. The professor was vindicated in court, but Penn State wants to fire him anyway.

January 18, 2022
 
Pennsylvania State University
Oliver Baker

Pennsylvania State University at University Park intends to fire a tenure-track professor who scuffled with a counterprotester at a pro–vaccine mandate rally on campus.

Oliver Baker, assistant professor of English and African American studies, was initially charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct following the August incident. Those charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence. Baker pleaded not guilty to the remaining charge, harassment, and was acquitted in November.

Penn State nevertheless continued its disciplinary case against Baker, who had been on administrative leave following the altercation.

Baker and his supporters say the university recently confirmed that it intends to fire him via a disciplinary process known as AC70. The policy outlines due process procedures for the tenured or tenure-track professors Penn State seeks to terminate for adequate cause, meaning professional incompetence, excessive absenteeism, moral turpitude or grave misconduct.

“Dismissal for adequate cause will not be used to restrain or otherwise affect faculty members in the exercise of their individual or collective academic freedom or in contravention of other legal rights,” the policy says.

AC70 also says that the burden of proof of adequate cause “rests with the university and shall be satisfied only by clear and convincing evidence in the record considered as a whole.”

Baker, whose supporters say he’s being accused of grave misconduct, declined to share his termination notice. He said via email, “I can confirm that the university has activated the AC70 process. Regrettably, the university intends to hold a hearing under the AC70 process if I choose not to resign. I am fighting this vigorously. I feel constrained to say anything more about this at this time.”

Lisa Powers, university spokesperson, said Baker “remains on administrative leave while internal university processes, which are considered confidential, continue.” She declined further comment.

The incident in question (but not what led up to it) was captured on video and shared online by the Center Daily Times. It’s difficult to determine from the short video exactly what happened, but Baker’s hand appears to grab the counterprotester’s “Shut the Fuck Up Liberal” sign, and a struggle between the two men ensues. More people eventually get involved, according to additional video footage from the Times, and the counterprotester emerges with a bloody nose.

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Baker, via his lawyer, has said that the counterprotester—elsewhere identified as a student—was antagonizing demonstrators who supported a campus vaccine mandate. Other witnesses have said the same. Earlier attempts to get the student to leave the group alone were unsuccessful, Baker and witnesses have said.

Multiple campus groups, including the American Association of University Professors chapter and the Coalition for a Just University at Penn State, have publicly urged the university to reinstate Baker, given the outcome of his criminal case and the nature of the incident itself.

The coalition, which organized the pro–vaccine mandate rally, said in an initial statement about the incident that the student counterprotester was “running around the perimeter and through the center of the rally, lunging at people, threatening them physically by bumping against them and foisting his maskless face in the faces of rally attendees.”

The counterprotester was seen “putting his shoulder into” Baker’s chest as he moved through the crowd, “swinging his fists and lunging at Prof. Baker and other attendees,” the coalition also said. It is therefore “very unfortunate that the police are targeting Prof. Baker, who took it upon himself to address a menacing and aggressive counter-protester in an effort to ensure the safety of all attendees.”

The AAUP said in its own statement that Penn State’s decision to fire Baker “sends a chilling message to all university faculty: that they can be brought up for dismissal by an unaccountable human resources office that has ignored a faculty member’s exoneration by a court of law.” The group said it’s aware of the argument that Baker should have left campus police to deal with the counterprotester, but that “these are volatile times, and rally attendees had legitimate reason to fear violence. We believe Prof. Baker should be lauded for his commitment to protecting the safety of students and faculty who felt threatened.”

Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Penn State and member of the AAUP chapter, said Baker was trying to protect witnesses who subsequently testified that they felt threatened by the counterprotester, and that a “court of law determined, even with the testimony of police and the counterprotester himself, that Professor Baker did nothing wrong.”

Even if Penn State still wants to signal disapproval of Baker’s actions after all that, “initiating termination proceedings is like calling a nuclear strike on a jaywalker,” Bérubé added. “A jaywalker who was cleared of a charge of jaywalking, at that.”

Baker’s case recalls that of Melissa Click, a former assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri at Columbia whom the university system’s Board of Curators dismissed in 2016. The 4-to-2 board vote was based largely on Click’s interaction with student journalist at a 2015 campus protest about racial justice, in which she grabbed at the student’s camera and asked for “muscle” to remove him. (The board also considered resurfaced video from earlier that year of Click yelling at campus police who were clearing student protesters from the homecoming parade path.)

Like Baker, Click said she was protecting student protesters, though it was never alleged that the student journalist in her case was physically threatening anyone. Also like Baker, Click faced criminal charges. But she entered a plea—to avoid jail time, she said at the time.

Mizzou said Click’s criminal case forced its hand, but many onlookers accused the university of bowing to political pressure and of failing to follow established university faculty dismissal policies that would have afforded Click due process.

Following Click’s dismissal, the national AAUP censured the university for alleged violations of academic freedom and tenure. The censure was not a referendum on Click’s actions, but about the university’s circumvention of established disciplinary procedures in her case. Click is now a tenured professor at Gonzaga University.

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