AAUP Rebukes College for Firing Professor Who Called Armed Student a Threat

May 16, 2017

Spalding University wrongly fired a tenured professor who had complained of inadequate protection from a student who brought a gun to the campus, concludes a report released on Tuesday by the American Association of University Professors.

For their part, officials of Spalding, a private university in Louisville, Ky., have told the AAUP that its investigative report is "replete with misstatements, half truths, and inexact facts," and is based partly on student information that should have remained confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

In February 2016 a female student brought a gun in a car to a campus parking lot, showed it to another student, and said in angry terms that she was tired of "these people" bothering her, the report says. Believing that the comment referred to faculty members and others in the university’s social-work program, the fellow student alerted Spalding authorities.

The report says the gun incident involved a white student with "a history of making inflammatory and racially charged comments in class," and using racial epithets.

In an interview, Tori Murden McClure, Spalding’s president, accused the professor at the center of the report of having long been biased against the student involved in the gun incident. Erlene Grise-Owens, a professor of social work, discouraged the student academically before stigmatizing her as a security threat, Ms. McClure said. State law gave the student the right to have the gun in her car on the campus, Ms. McClure said.

Ms. Grise-Owens referred requests from The Chronicle for comment to her lawyer, Michael L. Goodwin of Louisville. He called any suggestion that Ms. Grise-Owens had disparaged the student "completely untrue," and said her concerns had been entirely "about how the university handled the incident."

The student had 'a history of making inflammatory and racially charged comments in class.'
The AAUP’s investigative report appears likely to trigger a vote to censure the university at the association’s annual conference, in June. It says Spalding administrators violated Ms. Grise-Owens’s academic freedom and due-process rights in summarily dismissing her in November. Her firing, it asserts, was "a direct result of her having questioned and criticized the administration’s handling of an incident in which a student with a troubled history brought a gun to a campus parking lot and made what could reasonably be interpreted as a threat."

President McClure fired Ms. Grise-Owens, who had been on Spalding’s faculty for 18 years, unilaterally and without any formally stated cause, the report says. It characterizes her termination as symptomatic of a broader lack of functional academic governance at the institution, arguing that Spalding has "an inactive board, an ineffectual Faculty Senate apparently controlled by the administration, and a president who exerts an undue amount of power."

Threat Warnings

Ms. McClure disputed the report’s description of the gun incident, saying the student had never made the threatening remark that it attributes to her.

Spalding’s administration did not take prompt action against the student or notify the Louisville police over the incident, the report says.

The professor is 'a white faculty member using black members of the faculty to fight her battles.'
It also asserts that the university informed most of the social-work school’s professors about the incident, but not its minority faculty members. Ms. Grise-Owens, who is white, and one of those faculty members separately filed complaints saying that that failure was problematic, given the student’s history of making racially charged remarks.

The AAUP report says Ms. Grise-Owens felt a need to speak out on behalf of faculty members who lacked tenure. President McClure, however, offered a more cynical take on the professor’s motives, describing her as "a white faculty member using black members of the faculty to fight her battles."

Mr. Goodwin, the lawyer for Ms. Grise-Owens, called President McClure’s assertion "extremely patronizing and dismissive of the faculty of color at Spalding." He described Ms. Grise-Owens as "a social-justice leader" who had spoken out against discrimination and structural racism at the university. "That is exactly what academic freedom is designed to protect," he said.

Ms. McClure had sent the professor an email accusing her of actively demonizing the student to pursue a political agenda. On the same day Ms. Grise-Owens voiced her complaints before the Faculty Senate, Ms. McClure sent her a notice of dismissal. Enclosed with it was a copy of a letter in which the social-work school’s chairman and four of its faculty members accused Ms. Grise-Owens of having for years subjected her colleagues and students to "abuse of power, bullying, and harassment."

Laura Escobar-Ratliff, an assistant professor, is one of two minority faculty members at the school who subsequently quit. Her resignation letter accused the university of failing to live up to its principles and putting "my life and the lives of my students in harm’s way."

The AAUP’s report says Ms. Grise-Owens was fired for "speaking out against institutional policies and practices she deemed inadequate." She was not offered a hearing, a right to appeal, or any of the other procedural safeguards against unfair dismissal required under AAUP guidelines.

President McClure argued last week that her university’s procedures did not need to comply with the AAUP’s guidelines because none of her university’s instructors are AAUP members. She said presidents of other colleges investigated by the AAUP had called its investigations unfair and had dissuaded her from cooperating with the group.

The AAUP’s report takes a similarly dim view of President McClure, saying that, under her administration, "the future of governance at the university is bleak."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.