AAUP Faults Louisiana State for Its Treatment of 2 Scholars

Jackson Hill for The Chronicle

Dominique G. Homberger, who has taught at Louisiana State U. at Baton Rouge for 31 years, was abruptly removed from her biology courses.
August 01, 2011

An investigative panel of the American Association of University Professors has accused Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge of violating the academic freedom and due-process rights of both a nontenured hurricane researcher who lost his job after criticizing the design of the levees around New Orleans and a tenured biology professor removed from a classroom following complaints she had graded students too harshly.

In a report released today, the AAUP panel said the two scholars' cases were "different in the administrative officers involved and in the matters under dispute but alike in putting core issues of academic freedom to the test."

The hurricane researcher discussed in the report is Ivor van Heerden, who came to be at odds with his superiors over his criticisms of the levees that failed in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. The AAUP report says his case "tested the relationship between freedom of research and publication, and freedom of extramural utterance in a politically charged atmosphere."

The second case in the report, of Dominique G. Homberger, who was suspended from teaching an introductory biology course for nonscience majors after her supervisors complained that the grades she had been giving were too low, "tested the freedom of a classroom teacher to assign grades as she sees fit," the report says.

The AAUP report says Louisiana State violated Ms. Homberger's due-process rights by suspending her from teaching her class without affording her a faculty hearing at which it would have had to demonstrate cause for its actions. The report accuses the university of violating Mr. van Heerden's right to academic due-process protections associated with tenure protections. Even though he was untenured, he had been at the university for 17 years—and therefore, the report says, he was entitled to tenure protections that the AAUP says colleges should give to full-time faculty members after seven years.

Louisiana State, which had been provided with advance copies of the AAUP report, issued a statement on Friday in which Angelo-Gene Monaco, its associate vice chancellor for human-resources management, said the university "is not at liberty to comment" on Mr. van Heerden's case because of his pending lawsuit against the institution.

In reference to Ms. Homberger's case, Mr. Monaco said the university's Faculty Senate has recommended steps the university should take in dealing with such situations in the future—many of which the institution has adopted—and "the Faculty Senate is developing a policy statement that will address procedures for these types of situations."

University administrators did not cooperate with either of the AAUP's investigations, the report says.

The report cites a letter in which a lawyer for the university system's Board of Supervisors responded to a draft text of the report's section on Mr. van Heerden by saying that the document "contains numerous factual inaccuracies" and that the university fully disagrees with all of its conclusions but would not discuss the matter further in light of the professor's pending lawsuit.

Mr. Monaco responded to a draft text of the report's findings on Ms. Homberger's case by calling the report's conclusions "premature" considering that the university was still working to put in place recommendations devised by its Faculty Senate in response to the controversy.

The Storm After the Storm

Mr. van Heerden, who is also a coastal geologist and had been deputy director of a university center that studies hurricanes, was removed from that post in early 2009 and told that his contract would not be renewed when it ended the following year. In a subsequent lawsuit against Louisiana State, which remains pending, Mr. van Heerden accused university officials of wrongfully terminating his position as part of a campaign of retaliation for his criticism of the levees built around New Orleans by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a major source of the university's federal grant money. He alleged that the university threatened to fire him if he served as an expert witness in a lawsuit filed against the Corps of Engineers by several New Orleans property owners, and, although he did not end up serving as an expert witness, he nonetheless angered administrators at his institution by advising the plaintiffs' lawyers and speaking out about what he regarded as the levees' defects.

In January, Judge James J. Brady of the U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge rejected one of the lawsuit's key claims, that Mr. van Heerden was entitled to "de facto tenure" given how long he had worked at Louisiana State. The judge's ruling said that Mr. van Heerden, who had worked at Louisiana State on a series of one-year contracts, was ineligible for tenure protection under university regulations governing that sort of position.

The AAUP panel's report takes a different stand on that question, arguing that the university's refusal to confer tenure rights on Mr. van Heerden stemmed partly from its inaccurate classification of him as a researcher when in fact his job involved other professorial duties. Although Mr. van Heerden worked as a researcher financed with outside grants early in his career at Louisiana State, he had been a full-time associate professor there for the 12 years leading up to his termination, creating an expectation that he was entitled to tenure protections, the report says.

The AAUP panel found "abundant reason to believe that the LSU administration acted against Professor van Heerden out of displeasure with, and in retaliation for, his extramural whistle-blowing activity with regard to the Army Corps of Engineers and the failed New Orleans levees," mainly because administrators there feared a loss of revenue if the corps held back grants for hurricane-recovery projects and other activities. In regard to Mr. van Heerden's interactions with the news media, the report accuses Louisiana State's administration of wanting "to have it both ways," trumpeting his connection with the university back when it agreed with the public statements he made before Hurricane Katrina, but then attacking him in print and trying to cut off his access to the news media when it disagreed with what he had to say.

The report also says the university tried to restrict Mr. van Heerden from doing research that administrators there did not want done, constraining "his academic freedom as a senior research scientist to determine his own research priorities." It disputes the university's assertions that Mr. van Heerden's position was eliminated as a cost-cutting measure, based on the panel's finding that the university had kept on other researchers with less experience and that the money paid Mr. van Heerden was simply plowed back into a university fund for research and development, without any financial savings down the road.

Making the Grade

In Ms. Homberger's case, the report says, problems began after the tenured full professor, who was accustomed to teaching upper-level courses and had received high marks in doing so, decided in the spring of 2010 to "pitch in" by teaching an introductory biology course for the first time in 15 years.

After she administered her first test in the course, the course coordinator complained to her that the grades she had given students were too low and urged her to be more lenient, the report says. When she then graded most students poorly based on their performance on the midterm, the dean of her college, without consulting her, stepped in and suspended her from continuing to teach the course. The course coordinator then raised every student's grade on the first examination before letting her get access to online records to enter the grades she gave students on the second. The dean said he was willing to let Ms. Homberger explain her side of events in the classroom but his decision to suspend her stood.

Ms. Homberger filed a complaint with the university's Faculty Grievance Committee, which concluded that the administration intervention in her classroom "occurred too hastily" and encroached on academic freedom, threatening her right to exercise her own pedagogical approaches. The grievance committee, the AAUP report notes, found that Ms. Homberger's removal from the classroom had nothing to do with the quality of the course, its content, or her teaching performance, but instead "was made solely on the basis of midsemester grade distribution."

The AAUP report accuses the university's administration of insincerely shifting its rationale for removing Ms. Homberger as the controversy drew national attention, by increasingly stressing its concern over low student retention in the course as opposed to any concern over low student grades. The report argues that faulting her for low retention may have been unfair because she complained that colleagues and at least one associate dean had been encouraging students who received low scores early on to drop her course.

"That no apology has been provided to Professor Homberger by the LSU, Baton Rouge, administrative officers responsible for the injustice of her suspension, is much to be regretted," the report says.

The AAUP could vote at its annual meeting next June to censure Louisiana State, if the association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure recommends such an action.