This Issue’s College Issues: How tenure can be used to protect controversial professors

Image Courtesy of Creative Commons User Alex Guerrero

Though professors are protected from unjust termination, administrative overreach plagues academia


As a staunch opponent to the educationally destructive institution of tenure, I rarely encounter news stories in which tenured professorship has indeed progressed the academic environment of a school.  Instead, news outlets frequently divulge the many aggravating horror stories related to the offering of unmonitored, nearly irreversible, guaranteed reemployment — as such a nonsensical system would implicitly elicit.  However, as the world consistently continues to shock me with its blatantly illogical decisions, I have nonetheless found another one of the rare stories.

Recently, at The City University of New York’s Brooklyn College, a professor was threatened by the college’s administration, having been charged by the university’s Title IX office with violating institutional rules regarding sexism and homophobia in one of his classes.  Claiming that soliciting a participation grade from his class “could be misunderstood as a request for sexual favors” and a “prelude to sexual harassment,” the office demanded the professor remove the category from his syllabus.  Additionally, the administration ordered that he remove from the syllabus a phrase proclaiming that “all constitutionally protected speech” would be tolerated within his classroom, as well as small clip art triangles — used in place of bullet points—around the phrase, which they purported to be anti-gay propaganda.

The professor refused.

Geology Professor David Seidemann — the professor in question — was nonetheless protected in his refusal to edit his syllabus through his tenured with the university.  When Seidemann initially asked the college’s Title IX office what was offensive within the syllabus, the administration refused to respond.  He was merely told to alter whatever specifics they demanded, as an investigation and trial against him had already occurred — completely unbeknownst to the professor himself.  Furthermore, documentation of the original accusation, investigation, administrative trial or final findings were denied to Seidemann.

The professor emailed the college’s Director of Diversity Investigations and Title IX Enforcement, explaining that in place of in-person meetings to discuss the demands the office had made, he would prefer email communication, citing the ability for documentation of all correspondence.  The Title IX director originally denied all involvement in the professor’s trial, claiming the entire situation was a result of “apparent misconceptions and miscommunications,” despite having informed a collection of Seidemann’s fellow faculty of the office’s trial and findings against Seidemann.  Seidemann was informed of the accusations against him not by the accusatory Title IX office itself, but rather by his co-workers.  When Seidemann requested further email conversation with the Title IX director, the charges against him were immediately dropped, and he was told that, while he had been accused and investigated, the Title IX office deemed the problem resolved.  No further conversation occurred and Professor Seidemann’s class continued without any trouble.

Had Seidemann not been protected by tenure, the University’s administration would have  undoubtedly pummeled the professor with their illogical censorship or at the very least fired him for not complying with their horrendously unsound accusations.  Much to my chagrin in admitting something positive about tenure, Seidemann’s status as a tenured professor and his ability to circumvent such a clear abuse of power from the Title IX office truly preserved the academic freedom of the entire college.  Furthermore, Seidemann’s personal investigation set a precedent for the school’s Title IX office, who, in gravely overstepping their boundaries and doing so without relevancy, harassed the wrong professor.  Seidemann directly exposed the school’s tragically flawed, purposefully and unilaterally unjust system of sexual harassment and sexual bias reporting, thereby demanding changes be made for students and faculty.

When non-issues are thrust into the spotlight as egregious and unfathomable errors, they belittle issues of legitimate worry.  A participation grade on a syllabus is not sexist, nor is it something unfair.  In fact, it is an effective mechanism for boosting student participation and morale within the classroom.  When one becomes disproportionately offended at something not even remotely offensive and chooses plague others around him with complaints, he limits the degree to which grave obstructions of justice can be actively pursued.  He wastes important resources that could be allotted to preventing authentically harmful events from occurring.

One of the direct reasons vast systemic issues are rarely solved — or even alleviated semi-successfully — is simply because otherwise irrelevant non-issues are blasted to attention, thereby placing real issues in a societal queue, never to be approached.  With each new illegitimate issue that arises, a real one remains unsolved.

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