Academic Freedom

U. of Colorado Violated Faculty Rights in Philosophy Dept. Scandal, AAUP Says

April 18, 2014

Administrators at the University of Colorado at Boulder violated principles of academic freedom and faculty self-governance when they responded to allegations of sexual harassment in the philosophy department, and they should reverse their decision to suspend graduate-student admissions in the discipline for the coming year, the university’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors said in a report it released on Thursday.

The AAUP chapter condemned administrators as acting without regard for faculty members' rights to due process after receiving a report from a site-visit panel of the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women. The panel determined that Boulder’s philosophy department "maintains an environment with unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior." It noted that there had been 15 complaints to the university about philosophers there regarding sexual harassment or unprofessional sexualized behavior but that the department had done little to deal with the problems.

In response, administrators in January removed the chairman of the philosophy department and suspended graduate-student admission to the program.

Boulder's reaction to the allegations was unprecedented, according to longtime philosophy professors and women in the field who have been complaining about sexual harassment and discrimination for years. But shortly after the campus announced it had suspended graduate admissions, female philosophy professors at Boulder warned that the university's actions had damaged the department's reputation by leading outsiders to believe that all male philosophers on the campus were harassers.

"That is the kind of decision that has to come from the faculty, who are responsible for curriculum and pedagogy," said Don Eron, a senior instructor in the writing and rhetoric program who wrote the AAUP report, which asks the administration to reinstate graduate admissions.

Checks and Balances

The AAUP report also accuses the university of violating the academic freedom of Bradley Monton, an associate professor of philosophy, when he complained about both the findings of the site-visit committee and about the university’s reaction to it.

At a meeting of the Boulder Faculty Assembly’s Executive Committee in February, Mr. Monton said the site panel’s report had exaggerated the philosophy department’s problems. Some of the panel’s criticisms—including that the department had a culture in which professors frequently drank alcohol with students after hours—referred to practices that had ended years earlier, he added. Shortly after that meeting, Mr. Monton said in an interview, administrators began pressuring him to retract his remarks and to resign from the Faculty Assembly, both of which he did. Administrators also removed him from various departmental committees on which he had been serving.

"The chair said he was so angry with me, and the dean was scowling at me," Mr. Monton said. "So I gave in to their pressure."

The AAUP report asks the Boulder administration to rescind its recommendation that Mr. Monton censor his own remarks and to reinstate him to his university-service positions.

"One of the central tenets of academic freedom is the right of faculty to speak out on matters of institutional policy," says the AAUP report. Without that right, faculty members "cannot enforce the system of checks and balances that is essential for the institution to fulfill its obligation to provide a public good."

The university declined to comment on the situations detailed in the report, saying they were "personnel matters." But it did say it did not plan to follow the report’s recommendations.