It’s a given that Eric Rasmusen of Indiana University is a racist, a sexist, and an all-around horrible person. I agree that, as a tenured professor, he can’t be fired for that. However, I am bothered by this statement from the executive vice president of the university.
The First Amendment is strong medicine, and works both ways. All of us are free to condemn views that we find reprehensible, and to do so as vehemently and publicly as Professor Rasmusen expresses his views. We are free to avoid his classes, and demand that the university ensure that he does not, or has not, acted on those views in ways that violate either the federal and state civil rights laws or IU’s nondiscrimination policies. I condemn, in the strongest terms, Professor Rasmusen’s views on race, gender, and sexuality, and I think others should condemn them. But my strong disagreement with his views—indeed, the fact that I find them loathsome—is not a reason for Indiana University to violate the Constitution of the United States.
This is a lesson, unfortunately, that all of us need to take seriously, even as we support our colleagues and classmates in their perfectly reasonable anger and disgust that someone who is a professor at an elite institution would hold, and publicly proclaim, views that our country, and our university, have long rejected as wrong and immoral.
I don’t think that’s true! Is she suggesting that IU would be unable to fire a custodian who showed up for work in a swastika armband, because of the Constitution? That if a non-tenured administrator started suggesting exclusionary racist admission policies, they wouldn’t be dismissed because of the First Amendment? Does she think the principle of academic freedom only holds true in universities blessed to exist under the Constitution of the United States of America?
Rasmusen can’t be fired because he is employed under an explicit, lifetime contract that defines what actions violate the terms of the contract, and being a racist asshole isn’t one of them. Universities recognize the value of being able to express ideas outside the cultural norm so that they can be discussed and argued over by people who aren’t suppressed by the fear that they could be fired for uttering them. This is generally a good thing. Occasionally someone speaks out in a way that makes everyone regret it, but that’s the price you pay for academic freedom.
There are workarounds. The University of Illinois is using public shaming against a professor found guilty of sexual harassment — his offenses are publicly posted where students can read them. Christian Ott was suspended for a year, and denied the privilege of having grad students until he was adequately mentored, and eventually resigned from Caltech. Geoff Marcy resigned after being found guilty of Berkeley’s sexual harassment policy, and under pressure from his colleagues. This was after years of cover-up by the administration; are we to believe that they’d been slow to expel him because of the First Amendment, or that Berkeley violated the Constitution when they eventually dumped him?
I haven’t read my contract in ages, but I’m pretty sure that if I committed a criminal act, like knocking over a bank, my tenure would be revoked, not because of the Constitution, but because there are various specific clauses declaring grounds for revocation, and committing a felony is one of them. Rasmusen is not being fired because there is no “racist asshole” clause in his contract. IU does not and has not considered that a requirement in their rules for admission to the tenured professor club. Although, you know, I think violating Title IX regulations might be grounds for dismissal.
That’s the thing. Tenured professors have been and will continue to be dismissed for violating regulations at their place of employment. Sometimes it’s about peers using social pressure to get them out; I’m sure Rasmusen’s colleagues are unhappy about the added restrictions on his engagement with students, and would much prefer to replace him with a fresh young face who isn’t a racist asshole and can participate in the teaching responsibilities of the department fully. Sometimes it’s about getting the jerk to leave with voluntary inducements, like a better retirement package.
There are remedies. IU should stop hiding behind the Constitution.