Report Finds Violations of Academic Freedom

By Jordan E. Kurland

A new AAUP report, which appears in the 2011 Bulletin of the AAUP that accompanies this issue of Academe, finds violations of academic freedom in two cases at Louisiana’s flagship public institution, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The cases were investigated and the report written by a committee of AAUP members with no previous involvement with the individuals in question. The first case, affecting a nontenured associate professor of engineering, involves freedom in pursuing research, publication, and extramural speech in a politically charged atmosphere. The second case, affecting a tenured professor of biology, involves the freedom of a classroom teacher to conduct a course and assign grades.

The subject of the first case is Ivor van Heerden, a researcher serving since 1992 in a non-tenure-track appointment. For years, his work in coastal erosion and in hurricane- and flood-related issues brought him public prominence and consistently favorable evaluations. The August 2005 onslaught of Hurricane Katrina with its flooding of New Orleans placed van Heerden in a national spotlight that the LSU authorities were initially happy to share. They gave him LSU apparel to wear in media interviews, and in September 2005 an LSU campus police officer escorted him and two colleagues through military roadblocks to inspect the flooded areas.

The attitude of LSU administrators quickly changed, however, after van Heerden found that a main cause of flooding was structural failure of the levees overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Administrators, anticipating cooperation and support from the corps in hurricane recovery projects, did not appreciate being linked in the newspapers with these findings. They took steps to restrain van Heerden’s public activities, to distance LSU from those activities, and, eventually, to deny him further appointment.

The Association’s investigating committee concluded that the administration denied van Heerden the academic due process to which he was entitled through length of service and also violated his academic freedom in a number of ways: by denying him reappointment largely in retaliation for his dissent from the prevailing LSU stance on the levees, by restricting the nature of his research, and by punishing him for exercising his extramural speech rights as a citizen.

The subject of the second case is Dominique G. Homberger, a biologist. As a tenured full professor teaching upper-level courses, she was repeatedly commended for teaching excellence and was praised particularly for her “rigorous approach” and “demanding coursework.” In spring 2010, in order to “pitch in,” Homberger took on a section of an introductory course for the first time in fifteen years. The grades she assigned for the first test struck the course’s coordinator as too low, and he suggested more leniency. Her mid-term grades, however, were more strongly skewed to grades of D and F. The matter was referred to the college dean, who, without consulting her, removed Homberger from teaching the course. The coordinator then raised each student’s grade on the first examination before allowing Homberger to enter her grades for a second. When Homberger asked the dean to hear her side of the story and reconsider, he replied that he was receptive to discussion but that his decision stood.

Homberger filed a complaint with LSU’s Faculty Grievance Committee, which found unanimously in her favor. In response, administrators assured the grievance committee that the senate was “developing an improved policy” on issues relating to student grading. The college dean apologized to Homberger for not having met with her in person to tell her she was being removed from the course—but he did not apologize, as the grievance committee had recommended, for not having consulted her before acting.

The investigating committee, citing a series of departures from AAUP-recommended standards, concluded that the LSU administration violated Homberger’s right to assign student grades and, in peremptorily removing her from a course that was in process, violated her academic freedom to teach. The committee concluded further that the administration’s imposing the severe sanction of suspension on her, without opportunity for a faculty hearing, denied her the basic protections of academic due process.

The full report is on the AAUP website at http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/programs/academicfreedom/investrep.

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