There are ways to rid oneself of troublesome professors

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.


  1. says

    Sexual harassment and other direct mistreatment of students and co-workers is different from obnoxious speech directed at no particular person. Unfortunately many authorities agree that because of the First Amendment, IU, which is a public university, cannot fire him. This is from CNN’s take on it:

    Indiana University is a public school, which means it’s essentially a state institution. Though private employers can fire employees for almost any reason, public employers are bound by the Constitution and the First Amendment.
    The issue around campuses gets sticky. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech — including speech that may be offensive — but not true threats, incitements to violence, fighting words or harassment, said Tori Ekstrand, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s school of media and journalism. Ekstrand studies the First Amendment and told CNN freedom of expression surrounding college campuses is a “special animal altogether.” . . .
    Rasmusen expressed his viewpoints on his private platforms. He hasn’t acted in a discriminatory manner that the university is aware of, nor have any official complaints from students, faculty and staff been made against him from [sic], Robel told CNN.

    They seem to be doing everything they can.

  2. says

    Except that the university is making an admission that Rasmusen’s views do affect the content of his classes. They have removed him from all required courses in his discipline and require double-blind grading of all assignments…which means they’ve got to employ a separate grader for all of his classes. Why do that if Rasmusen has been scrupulous about keeping his obnoxious speech out of the classroom?

    Don’t get me wrong: I think the principle of academic freedom does protect Rasmusen, and that IU is doing the right thing. What I’m objecting to is the rationale that the Constitution is protecting him — professors have contracted freedoms that go beyond what the US Constitution says, and I doubt that IU will confer this degree of benefit on their custodians.

    Although I would love to see a principled defense of every individual in the country getting this much protection from the Constitution.

  3. says

    It is true that because students know about his noxious views, his ability to teach is compromised. However, that is a murky area and it’s hard to see exactly where to draw the line about that.

    I actually don’t know if they would fire a custodian who expressed similar views outside the confines of the university, but firing the custodian would not attract any public notice and the custodian probably couldn’t afford to sue them; if he did, the amount of the settlement would be small. I am not a lawyer but there are a whole lot of lawyers who are saying that this is a First Amendment issue. I concede, however, that police departments do sometimes cashier cops who turn out to be racists. I presume the argument is that it more directly entails their job responsibilities. Legal arguments are often convoluted and the courts make distinctions that don’t always make sense to the rest of us. It’s obvious the president wants to fire him and he’s doing everything he can short of that. If he believed it was legally possible to fire Rasmusen, he would surely do it.

    The military discharges racist soldiers but soldiers don’t have the same rights as civilians.

  4. says

    That’s what I’m saying: IU would love to fire Rasmusen. However, they’re not doing so because they have a contract with the man, and breaking that would open up a hellish amount of legal shenanigans, not because they are devoted to the Constitution.

  5. PaulBC says

    The First Amendment isn’t medicine. It’s an amendment. And unlike medicine, it contains words that need to be read and understood in order to be effective. Notably it begins “Congress shall …” and does not say anything about university policy in the ensuing text. People really don’t seem to get that, do they?

    I have no idea of the university’s contractual obligations to Rasmusen, but I am really sick of people hiding behind the Constitution to justify inaction.

  6. says

    Well no. The 14th Amendment extends the protections of the Bill of Rights to state governments. And Indiana University is part of the state government. So the 1st Amendment very definitely applies.

  7. says

    Also, Prof. Meyers, I don’t know if they are devoted to the Constitution but they are bound by it. I don’t know anything specifically about their tenure policy but they presumably do know all about it. I don’t know why they would give a justification for their actions other than the real one. This is the policy at Brown for revocation of tenure:

    This process applies to alleged acts of Prohibited Conduct committed by any Brown faculty member or other person with a teaching or research appointment at Brown University whether or not employed directly by the University (“faculty”)1 when:

    (1) the conduct occurs on Brown University premises; and/or

    (2) the conduct occurs in the context of a Brown University employment, education, or research program or activity, including but not limited to Brown University-sponsored study abroad, research, internship, mentorship, summer session, or other affiliated programs or premises; and/or

    (3) the conduct occurs outside the context of a Brown University employment, education, or research program or activity, but has a direct adverse effect on a Brown University employment, education, or research program or activity.

    This process governs when the alleged Prohibited Conduct by a faculty member arguably violates either Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

    Note number (3). The policy goes on to specify a lengthy and elaborate review and adjudication process. I think if this guy taught at Brown they could and would fire him, despite the associated travail.

  8. PaulBC says

    cervantes@6 Point taken. There are still many behaviors that are not illegal but for most people are grounds for firing in both private and public employment. There are more protections if you’re tenured, but it’s funny that the letter doesn’t mention that at all. If Rasmusen were an adjunct, would the “strong medicine” of the First Amendment prevent Indiana University from taking action?

  9. says

    Probably in principle but they don’t have to rehire adjuncts from semester-to-semester and they don’t really need to give a reason. Non-tenured associates don’t have to get their contracts renewed either, it’s a largely subjective process. So tenure does matter in that they need a reason to fire him. Their problem seems to be that this reason isn’t available.

  10. bcwebb says

    @25 there might be some asbestos in the ceiling tiles of his current office so it clearly needs to be torn-up and checked. For his safety.