When Academic Freedom Conflicts With Freedom From Harassment

Reply Tue 8 Nov, 2011 02:35 pm
Prof's rights disregarded by Denver University
(By Vincent Carroll, Opinion Essay, The Denver Post, November 5, 2011)

Shouldn't a fellow who's been on the job for 50 years — and who's been touted occasionally by his university employer in public promotions — be allowed to tell his story before anonymous complaints drive him from the classroom?

Shouldn't he be questioned first even if the complaints allege, according to the dean of his school, that he'd created "a sexual harassment hostile environment" in his classroom?

In fact, shouldn't his version of events be especially relevant under the circumstances, given the damage such allegations could inflict on his reputation?

University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert, 75, is still stunned by the ordeal of the past nine months, which concluded on Oct. 20 when Provost Gregg Kvistad upheld the dean's conclusion that Gilbert violated the school's sexual harassment policy. Gilbert insists DU abused his academic freedom when it yanked him from the classroom last April and barred him from campus and from contact with undergraduates (he's back this fall teaching a graduate class). At the very least, the university trampled on elementary principles of fairness in adhering to a rigid bureaucratic model for dealing with student complaints.

On Friday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based outfit that fights against restrictive speech codes and other attempts to suppress academic freedom of speech and conscience, sent a letter to DU Chancellor Robert Coombe, asking him to "vacate this finding or, at worst, direct the appropriate reconsideration of the allegations in light of their academic context and the entire classroom environment."

If a university receives complaints that a professor's lectures are offensively sexual, it naturally needs to respond. The process that engulfed Gilbert, however, was Kafkaesque, even though he is, as we shall see, not altogether blameless. He can be profane and polemical, not to mention deliberately provocative. He told me he has never forgotten Nietzsche's dictum that you must philosophize with a hammer — and he believes the same holds true for teaching. If you don't challenge students' convictions, he contends, you're not doing your job.

It's clear Gilbert crossed the line in terms of good taste and appropriate speech — and apparently has been doing so for years. But the university's reaction was grotesquely heavy-handed and it has yet to prove he is guilty of sexual harassment.

Last spring, Gilbert had taught two sessions of a class titled "The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War" when two female students lodged complaints about, among other things, references he'd made to masturbation. (The university will not release redacted copies.) A few days later, in a letter dated April 6, the dean of the Korbel School of International Studies, Christopher Hill, informed Gilbert that he was being put on administrative leave pending an investigation.

Gilbert says no one discussed the complaints with him before summarily yanking him from class. No less disturbing, the university's Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity (ODEO), which proceeded to conduct a broad probe of his classes going back several years, admitted in its findings that it never looked into whether Gilbert's controversial statements were "justified by the academic integrity of your teaching of the subject matter."

Those ODEO findings sound ugly on their face: Over the years, Gilbert allegedly "commented often" that males "should masturbate" for their prostate health; "frequently" used the F-word; showed "sexually graphic" film clips; and more than once brought in a vibrator (but not to last spring's class).

If Gilbert truly has been urging male students to masturbate for prostate health, he's out of line. If, on the other hand, he's teaching a unit titled "Drugs and Sin in American Life: from masturbation and prostitution to alcohol and drugs," as was the case last spring, and refers to medical findings regarding masturbation and the prostate, as he maintains, then that is something else again.

I don't know which is true, but it's not clear the university does, either — or that it is particularly interested in the distinction.

And the vibrator? More evidence of Gilbert's proclivity for provocation. He says that in a class in which he discussed "the creation of gender differences in the late 19th century and its relationship to the development of ideas about masculinity and femininity before World War I," he brought in an old art deco vibrator — and had done so for 25 years.

Crude and gratuitous? Sure. Indeed, a 10-member faculty review committee that looked into Gilbert's case this fall after he filed a grievance concluded that he should be "more sensitive to the impact of his teaching methods and classroom presentation on some of his students." But that same panel described the university's treatment of Gilbert — with its sentence before trial and its failure even to consider academic context — "outrageous."

As the civil liberties group FIRE observes, "the relevance and appropriateness of Gilbert's academic expression in the classroom has never been evaluated." Nor, in its view, has the proper legal standard for a hostile classroom environment been employed.

Meanwhile, Gilbert's reputation, in the twilight of a long and otherwise unblemished career, has been stained with the ugly blot of sexual harassment. What a dreadful reward for 50 years of service.
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Reply Wed 9 Nov, 2011 12:13 pm
Sex, Pedagogy, and Academic Freedom
(by Dean Saitta, Professor of Anthropology and President, Denver University Chapter AAUP, November 7, 2011)

In the last two weeks the Arthur Gilbert sexual harassment case has blown wide open. An article by Peter Schmidt appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education. A piece by Peter Bonilla was posted to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website. A column by Vincent Carroll appeared in The Denver Post. All focus on the issue of whether Professor Gilbert’s due process rights were respected in the run-up to his being removed from the classroom, suspended from campus, investigated by authorities, branded as a sexual harasser, and sentenced to sexual harassment re-education. Much less was said, even in official case review circles, about whether Professor Gilbert’s classroom speech was justified by academic context and thus protected by academic freedom.

Our campus AAUP chapter expressed concern about the due process and academic freedom dimensions of this case when it first broke last spring. We worried about the consequences for all DU faculty—especially contingent faculty, given their much greater vulnerability—if Professor Gilbert is wrongly busted for justifiable classroom speech. Combining what I now know about this case with what I knew going in, I believe that Professor Gilbert was unfairly charged with sexual harassment and, based on the available evidence, did not even come close to crossing the line of protected academic speech. Professor Gilbert should be fully exonerated of the charges against him and fully restored to his teaching position in the Korbel School of International Studies. It remains to be seen, however, whether the judgment against him will be vacated by DU administrators as requested by FIRE in a letter sent to Chancellor Coombe.

An email I sent to Peter Schmidt commenting on the case from a personal perspective was excerpted in both The Chronicle and FIRE pieces. I worried about how my own academic freedom—even as a tenured full professor—would be severely compromised by the unjust decision to brand Professor Gilbert as a sexual harasser. I was not being hyperbolic. I teach a course on human evolutionary psychology called The Cultured Ape. In one section I play devil’s advocate and challenge students to think about how rape prevention policy changes if we see rape as not simply about power (the nearly exclusive view these days) but also about sex. This is an argument that plays off an understanding of humans as evolved primates. That is, I take an explicitly interdisciplinary, bio-cultural (E.O. Wilson would say “consilient”) approach to this and other hot button topics in the study of human behavior. Invoking an evolutionary position is a risky proposition in itself, given that 45% of the American public isn’t persuaded that evolution is a scientific fact. Moreover, 81% of advanced DU undergraduates don’t understand how evolution works even after taking a year of general education science (this conclusion is based on assessment data in my possession that I’ve shared with appropriate administrators, but that they’ve so far ignored). Given this widespread ignorance, the classroom conversation about rape can get pretty dicey, especially if there are rape hotline counselors in the class. This is so even though the explicit objective of the unit is to think a little more broadly and perhaps a little more clearly about how we might eradicate the societal scourge of rape. Faced with this volatile mix of student ignorance and hot-button controversy I could very easily be charged with spreading lies about the nature of rape, if not accused of sexual harassment. Will the university’s administration have my back if this should come to pass? At the moment I have absolutely no confidence that it will.

I also teach a course called Ancient Worlds, which is an exploration of the origins and evolution of the modern human mind. Like The Cultured Ape, the course gives history to human behaviors that citizens often take for granted or knee-jerk classify as either “natural” or “unnatural.” One of the units is on the meaning of Ice Age art (paintings and sculptures). I introduce material from literature dealing with sex in the prehistoric world. We look at paintings and sculptures representing human penises, vulvae, dildos, sexual bondage, sadomasochism, and the like. My strategy is akin to Professor Gilbert bringing his now infamous antique vibrator to class (which, by the way, I take to be an archaeological artifact that’s fully appropriate for classroom presentation if the topic is masturbation as it relates to cultures of sin). The point of Ancient Worlds is to investigate and explain the radical explosion of human creativity, self-awareness, environmental consciousness, identity-making, and “cognitive domain-crossing” (e.g., ecological, social, psychological, sexual) that occurred in human history 50,000 years ago. This topic is typically illustrated in classroom life by showing the standard Ice Age artistic representations of therianthropes, speared animals, and pregnant “Venus figurines.” You can find this stuff in any children’s book about the topic. However, this conventional approach is quite limited and, in my view, unbecoming a college-level course when the physical evidence (no doubt repressed by textbook publishers for generations) invites us to explore the much fuller range of human behaviors that were “present at the creation,” including behaviors that are considered today as lurid and unspeakable. Will I do this in the future and risk someone finding my classroom teaching to be, as some have opined with respect to Professor Gilbert’s, crude and salacious? That depends on our academic leaders and how seriously they take our expressed commitment to “add value” to the education that DU students are already paying a perverse amount of money to purchase.

In my opinion Professor Gilbert has been teaching in the rich intellectual tradition begun by those original cognitive domain-crossers of the Ice Age. Over his long career he’s been pushing the interdisciplinary envelope and exploring connections between disparate phenomena that, on the surface, appear unrelated. Some of these phenomena may very well be unrelated, but we won’t know for sure until we go there. My favorite definition of “academic quality” is one that Julanna Gilbert in our Center for Teaching and Learning helped me compose a few years back. In my view, academic quality is research and teaching that makes “beautiful connections” between the varied phenomena that attract inquiry within the great domains of human knowledge. That’s why I love the old faculty warhorses—some would say “dinosaurs”—who are now retired or nearing retirement. For one thing, they understand the meaning of academic freedom. For another, they tend to approach their topics trans-historically, cross-culturally, and inter-disciplinarily. In so doing these faculty are the true keepers of the Enlightenment flame. Tragically, they are now almost completely replaced by an army of academics who know more-and-more about less-and-less as a consequence of universities having become institutional sites of professional job training and credentialing. Instead of vilifying the Arthur Gilberts of the world, we should be honoring them. And, of course, working with them to keep the Enlightenment flame from being completely extinguished.
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Reply Wed 9 Nov, 2011 12:30 pm
I have not read all of this as it is tedious, but the University stopped being primarily about education a while ago, political advocacy is much more its role now, and as such claims of harassment will trump academic freedom because our politics are seeped in the victim culture ideology. Reforming the university will have to wait behind reforming politics and reforming the economic system, so I dont currently pay a lot of attention to the rot of the University.
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Reply Wed 9 Nov, 2011 01:24 pm
If he's teaching a unit called, 'Drugs and Sin in American Life: from masturbation and prostitution to alcohol and drugs,' what do they expect him to talk about?
Reply Wed 9 Nov, 2011 01:28 pm
izzythepush wrote:

If he's teaching a unit called, 'Drugs and Sin in American Life: from masturbation and prostitution to alcohol and drugs,' what do they expect him to talk about?
The politically approved message. For instance one can talk about sex all they want so long as the theme is "sex is dangerous and men suck"....go off the approved message and one will run into trouble rapidly.
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Reply Wed 9 Nov, 2011 02:11 pm
Izzy and Hawkeye,
Apparently female students contend that this creates a threatening environment for them. It seems that the university acted against the professor without examining whether there was educational context. This case represents a type of "culture conflict." I don't know whether legal steps will be needed against the university or whether the academic freedom group can persuade the university to reverse their decision.
Reply Wed 9 Nov, 2011 02:15 pm
Apparently female students contend that this creates a threatening environment for them.
Of course they do. It is much like if when they want a boob job the right words to say are " it will boost my confidence" ...if they want to keep others from saying things they dont like the magic words are to say either that they are feel offended or that they feel threatened. This is how the victim culture rolls, the most squeamish and easily offended set the standards, truth and the rights of others to explore truth be damned. This inevitably means that eventually people learn to claim feelings that they dont actually have because such a claim will allow them to control others.
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