Tenure Is Forever, Right?
From the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Conspiracy theory (noun): a theory which attempts to explain a disputed event as a plot by a secret group rather than as an isolated act.
Several popular theories have cropped up through the years: In 1947, the story goes, an unidentified flying object (UFO) collided with New Mexico, but the U.S. military suggests this was just a weather balloon. There are those who don’t buy the lone gunman explanation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And some posit that NASA deceived the public into believing the Apollo 11 landed on the moon as a public relations stunt to boost morale during the Cold War.
Conspiracy theorists have a knack for emerging with their theories when emotions surrounding an event run particularly high. And they usually suggest the government was involved, somehow, in duping the rest of us.
James Tracy, a tenured professor who teaches media and communications courses, at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) and holds a Ph.D. in mass communications and media from the University of Iowa, is no stranger to conspiracy theories. Shortly after the horrific attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School, Dr. Tracy took to his personal blog to question how Adam Lanza was able to fire so many shots, why there was so little surveillance video from the crime scene, and what accounted for the absence of the victims’ family members from the public eye immediately following the shootings.
“One is left to inquire,” he said, “whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place—at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation’s news media have described.”
It shouldn’t be surprising that many, like Anderson Cooper, were (and still are) outraged by Dr. Tracy’s statements, some even calling for Dr. Tracy to be fired. But Dr. Tracy doesn’t seem too concerned saying of the University, “if they’re not going to stand up for free speech and ideas and things of the like, then I’m not too sure I want to be here, either.”
Like many, if not most of the nation, I watched with great sadness as the events at Sandy Hook unfolded last December 14. And his statements seem baseless and insensitive, at best. But an emotional reaction to Dr. Tracy’s statements is not a valid reason to fire him. Is it? LASIS wondered if Dr. Tracy has a protected right to express his ideas and keep his job, or if FAU can legally fire him.
Contrary to popular belief, tenure is not a lifetime job guarantee. The National Education Association states that tenure “is simply a right to due process; it means that a college or university cannot fire a tenured professor without presenting evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally or that an academic department needs to be closed or the school is in serious financial difficulty.”
This is a concept that Ward Churchill, who was a tenured professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, knows quite well. Shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Dr. Churchill wrote an essay suggesting that the civilians in the towers were not entirely innocent. In 2005, the essay gained national recognition when Dr. Churchill was invited to speak as a panelist in a debate. Furor erupted.
The Regents at the university unanimously voted that he be removed from his teaching position. An ad hoc panel, however, determined that his essay, which “did not engender imminent violence or unduly interfere with university operations, constituted protected free speech.”
Yet in the end, Dr. Churchill was still fired. The university used his essay as an opportunity to look into nine other instances of alleged academic misconduct. Dr. Churchill then went to trial claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated because the investigation and his subsequent termination were retaliation for the controversial essay.
In 2012, the Supreme Court of Colorado determined that the investigation into Dr. Churchill’s background did not constitute an adverse employment action and it was not an abuse of discretion for his termination to stand.
Contrast that with a professor whose job was spared.
Just 11 days after the shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater, Dr. Gregory F. Sullivan, a tenured professor at the United Merchant Marine Academy, made what some considered an inappropriate joke. On this particular day of class, he had prepared to show a documentary and just before stepping out of the class for a moment, he advised his students, “if someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit.”
Cleary the reference being made was to James E. Holmes, who had dyed his hair orange before killing 12 and injuring 58 more in the movie theater. The academic dean at the school proposed firing Dr. Sullivan for violating the school’s prohibition against “notoriously disgraceful conduct.” After careful review of the facts surrounding this situation, though, the ultimate decision was simply to give him a 45-day suspension and require five hours of sensitivity training.
So here’s what we know: we don’t know for sure what Dr. Tracy’s fate is at FAU. A lot rests on what his particular tenure agreement stipulates and also the course of action that the University chooses to take. It may use this blog article as an invitation to check for other misconduct or it may just give a slap on the wrist, as was the case for Professor Sullivan.
I’m certain that I wouldn’t want to be in one of Dr. Tracy’s classes. But I’m not so sure he should be fired for his offensive and distressing theories.
Update, April 11, 2013: Florida Atlantic University has issued a letter of reprimand to James Tracy and demanded that he distance himself from the University in his controversial blog.