Grading Furor Over National Guardsmen Left Northern Iowa Professor Fearing Attack

U. of Northern Iowa

The faculty union has accused the U. of Northern Iowa's president of wading into a dispute in a way that may have provoked public controversy and caused a professor to be harassed and threatened.
November 02, 2012

[Updated (11/2/2012, 5:39 p.m.) with comment from the AAUP's president.]

The University of Northern Iowa's faculty union has accused that institution's president, Benjamin J. Allen, of administrative misconduct for wading into a grading dispute between a professor and a student in a way that stirred public controversy and may have caused the professor to be harassed and threatened.

In a statement released this week, the United Faculty, a union affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, said Mr. Allen had issued a written statement about the dispute that contained misinformation and violated the professor's privacy. The union has demanded a meeting with Mr. Allen, but the university's administration has rejected the request, arguing that he did not do anything wrong in issuing his statement.

Meanwhile, the grading dispute—between Mary Catherine DeSoto, a professor of psychology, and two psychology students who are in the National Guard—has been resolved informally and amicably enough to raise questions about why the whole controversy arose in the first place.

The dispute began last month, when Ms. DeSoto refused to let the two students retake a test that they would miss as a result of attending training exercises outside the state. When one of the students, James Roethler, a freshman, returned from the training, he filed a formal grievance with the university.

Mr. Roethler has told the university's student newspaper, The Northern Iowan, and other local news outlets that he filed the grievance mainly to draw attention to the university's lack of a clear policy for accommodating National Guard members who must miss class for guard obligations short of active duty, such as taking part in drills or lending aid in natural disasters.

It also has become clear that Mr. Roethler and his classmate in the National Guard were never in any real danger of seeing their grades drop as a result of missing the test. That's because Ms. DeSoto planned to let them replace their grade from the test with a grade from an in-class quiz or their grade for participation.

Hate Mail and Angry Messages

When local reporters got word of Mr. Roethler's grievance, however, the dispute was quickly characterized as arising from a public-university faculty member's refusal to accommodate students who were serving their country. Early on, President Allen did little to calm tensions, replying to news-media inquiries about the dispute with a statement that said, "As university president and a veteran, I strongly disagree with the decision made by the professor in this case." The statement said he was working to ensure the student who filed the grievance "won't be penalized for serving his country."

The ensuing uproar gave the psychology professor a firsthand lesson in mob mentality. She found herself barraged with hate mail and angry voice messages on her telephone. Some messages were threatening in tone. One e-mail, for example, said, "Save us all the trouble. Kill yourself now, please." She ended up having to ask the university to give her police protection.

The university's psychology department issued a statement of support for Ms. DeSoto. It said, "Her course policy on makeup work is and was appropriate, complied with university policy, and did not negatively impact the grade of either student."

'Polite and Well Spoken'

As of Monday, the dispute between Ms. DeSoto and the student had been informally resolved, negating the need for an appeals panel of faculty members and students to weigh in on it. Although the terms of the resolution are confidential, Mr. Roethler has told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier that his grades will not drop as a result of missing the test, and he regrets that Ms. DeSoto has been harassed.

Ms. DeSoto, in an e-mail, said the students' grades had never been in danger and "this was all resolved by talking" to the students, whom she described as "polite and well spoken."

Ms. DeSoto's e-mail said she had had no contact with Mr. Allen during the controversy. The United Faculty, which has been at odds with the university's administration over merit pay and program cuts, said in the statement issued this week that it wanted to meet with President Allen "to resolve this immediate problem of faculty safety and the larger, ongoing problem of poor communication and lack of respect for faculty."

A lawyer for the university's administration, Timothy J. McKenna, responded to the meeting request by saying he had advised President Allen not to grant it, on the grounds it is unnecessary. In an e-mail to union leaders, he said the statement that President Allen had issued about the grading dispute "was factual" and "did not name the professor, department, or college." Mr. McKenna's e-mail also said the university's police force had been "working to address the safety concerns of Professor DeSoto and her spouse."

Rudy H. Fichtenbaum, president of the AAUP, on Friday sent Mr. Allen and Iowa news organizations a letter criticizing the statement the university president had issued about the conflict between Ms. DeSoto and her student as "highly prejudicial and inflammatory." Noting that Ms. DeSoto had publicly opposed earlier efforts by the university's administration to cut faculty positions, the letter said Mr. Allen's actions "appear to be retaliatory."

Mr. Fichtenbaum's letter added: "I fear that your rash action in condemning Professor DeSoto and your failure to retract your public statements once the full story had been established have not only endangered Professor DeSoto personally, but have had a chilling effect on academic freedom and free expression at UNI generally." The letter called on Mr. Allen to withdraw his earlier statement and "employ the university's public-relations staff to restore Professor DeSoto's good name."

Ms. DeSoto said in an e-mail on Friday that she had found the letters "USA" carved into the passenger side of her car that morning, although she is not sure when the vandalism occurred. Mr. Fichtenbaum's letter to Mr. Allen also called on him to personally reimburse her for any damage done to her car.

At the administration's urging, the Faculty Senate is reviewing the university's policy on class attendance and making up missed work to determine if it can be clarified to more explicitly accommodate students who have military duty. "I think the policy actually worked quite well given the pressure that people were under due to public attention," Scott Peters, the Faculty Senate's chairman, said in an interview on Thursday.