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Insensitive, yes, but cause for firing?

A professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, has been suspended from his job teaching humanities on account of a joke he made just weeks after the Colorado shooting that left 12 dead last month. Greg Sullivan had just put a DVD in classroom’s media player and was turning out the lights. “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room,” he advised in jest, “run for the exit.”

Little did he know that one of his students at the federally run academy had lost his father in that shooting, and now the professor stands to be fired for the remark.

Sullivan promptly apologized to the student, Weston Cowden, the rest of the class, and the administration, but also said he’d had no awareness of Cowden’s loss. The academy’s administration isn’t buying it. They say that emails went out to the entire academic community about the student’s father, and that Sullivan must have noticed that Cowden was absent from class for a few days following the massacre. He also excused two other students so that they could attend funerals in Colorado for other victims of the shooting.

Those are the facts. What do with them?

Sullivan has tenure, which many outside the academy (and even some within it) believe provides ironclad job security. Basically, it doesn’t matter how much you suck, you’ll always have a job. Not true.

In 2005, a tenured professor at the University of Colorado was fired for an essay he wrote in 2001, in which he described the people who’d worked in the World Trade Center as “little Eichmanns,” a reference to the man who managed the logistics behind the deportation of millions of Jews during WWII. His argument was simply that workers at the WTC were complicit in creating the system that had become a target for terrorists, even if they had not masterminded the capitalist tyranny the attacks were meant to topple.

The professor, Ward Churchill, appealed his case, and in 2009, a Denver court ruled that he had been wrongly fired. After all, he had merely been exercising his right to free speech and practicing some independent, if unpopular, thinking. Isn’t that what professors are supposed to do?

Sullivan’s comment will never be mistaken for provocation or independent thought. It was a boneheaded joke, but that’s all. Should he lose his job over it?


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mark August 17, 2012, 8:42 am

    Personally, I’m not sure which way to go on this, but the weakening of tenure continues to be the dominant direction these days:

    I think this is problematic not just for its own sake (or some sort of “assault on academic freedom”), but as part of the broader gutting of the American system of higher education:

  • David Alm August 17, 2012, 8:56 am

    I have misgivings about tenure, if only because all careers don’t offer it. Why should academics be any different than, say, law or banking or journalism? If you stop performing at the level you should, then you should be fired. It’s only fair.

    But I also understand that the academy is inherently unstable, and as a result, a little job security helps ease the stress of going into that field full-time and pinning all your hopes for a future on the promise of lifelong employment. Then again, can’t the same be said of law, banking, and journalism? None of us is immune to the whims of the professional world, and life, simply, isn’t fair.

    I think what bugs me about the Sullivan case is that the guy only made a dumb joke, which is something a lot of professors and teachers (myself included) do in an effort to relate to their students and establish a sense of humanity and trust. Sometimes the jokes are bad, or fall flat, or are downright insensitive. But I get where they come from.

  • DianaAlm August 17, 2012, 11:10 am

    The question of tenure for teachers is far broader than a poor joke in a classroom. I believe it has to do with the right for a teacher to teach what he/she believes is true and not fear reprisal or dismissal for it. It may go back to the Stokes Monkey Trial of 1925 where John Stokes was fired (and later offered reinstatement) for teaching evolution in a public school of Tennessee after the Butler Act of Tennesse made it illegal. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion should have protected him, but it didn’t. Clarence Darrow defended his case and won after Stokes pleaded guilty. The school board offered him his job back, but he refused. A group of scientists put some money together to send him to the University of Chicago the following year — which he did. I wouldn’t be surprised if the tenure issue isn’t due to this case — giving teachers the freedom to speak what they believe in the classroom without fear of a battle in court. This issue still continues as we debate the church vs. state issue in politics. BTW, the Butler Act was finally repealed in 1967 — 42 years later.

  • Barbara Ellen Baldwin September 6, 2012, 5:03 am

    Well,this professor either knew and didn’t care that one of his students would be hurt by his remark,or knew and
    thought he had the right to “joke” about the incident anyway,feelings be damned.I can’t imagine ANY student,sitting
    in ANY classroom in 2012, would laugh at the “joke,” whether they’d had a father murdered or not.I imagine many
    feel they too, could be targets.

    Loss of tenure?Hmm.Maybe loss in the pocketbook, barred from instruction for a
    6 month period? Some things are never funny.And Churchill? He’s all ego and bombast and wants attention.He’s not
    a good writer, but is incendiary.He counts on effect.