Should a professor who talked in class about shooting his students with an AK-47 assault rifle been suspended without pay from his university? An Ohio appeal court doesn’t seem to think so, and has ordered Bowling Green State University to give him back pay for the time he was suspended.
The issue pitted the professor’s tenure rights against public safety issues, and the state’s courts, for now, have sided with the professor.
Norman I. Eckel, a tenured professor at the university’s school of business, was suspended for eight months in 2005 following complaints that he had pointed his fingers like a gun and said “shoot you guys” after a student arrived late for class. The professor appealed the university’s decision. A faculty committee ruled in his favor, and so did the Court of Claims of Ohio, which said that Eckel should be paid about $90,000 in back pay and damages. The university appealed, setting up this month's ruling.
“The suspension without pay violated both aspects of plaintiff’s tenure right, as well as the vocational security the right of tenure ensured,” the appeals court said, adding that Eckel was arbitrarily punished for what it called a “one-time lapse in judgment” and the university had not followed its policies when it came to the suspension.
“Bowling Green State University is currently reviewing the court's decision. We cannot comment on ongoing litigation,” said Dave Kielmeyer, a university spokesman, in an e-mail. An attorney for Eckel, who has retired from the university, did not return calls Monday.
According to the appeals court decision, here's what transpired: Eckel had been teaching at Bowling Green for 26 years when the incident happened in 2005. On Feb. 1 that year, as he taught his Accounting 222 class, a student arrived with only 15 minutes left in the period. Eckel asked the student to return to his dorm room, according to court documents.
The professor then addressed his class, pointed his fingers like a gun to his head and said “duh," followed by “shoot you guys.”
“Plaintiff continued, telling the class he should shoot the whole class with his AK-47, and ‘two clips ought to do it,’ ” according to the documents.
The professor claimed that he was joking and many students laughed after he made the comment. But some were concerned enough to complain to the provost’s office. A frightened student was escorted to Eckel’s next class on Feb. 3 by Tim Chambers, the director of undergraduate student development, at the business school.
That day, administrators told Eckel that he was being suspended with pay for the rest of the spring semester and the university would investigate the incident.
An investigation revealed that Eckel had grown increasingly frustrated with the quality of students in his class. By the summer of 2005, Eckel had been suspended without pay for the rest of the year.
Court documents show that administrators were concerned that without a suspension, Eckel “would go back into the classroom without anger management, without some counseling, … that he would stay angry, that he would get angrier.”
But the courts determined that two campus safety experts at Bowling Green thought Eckel wasn’t a security threat and was not going to follow through with his comments. "[E]vidence indicates that BGSU also did not believe that plaintiff posed a serious risk of violence,” the court said.