AAUP Accuses Bethune-Cookman U. of Denying Due Process to 7 Dismissed Professors

October 25, 2010

[Updated with the university's response, 5:14 p.m., U.S. Eastern time]

An investigative panel of the American Association of University Professors has accused Bethune-Cookman University of denying due process to seven dismissed professors, including four men who, the panel says, were fired for sexual harassment based mainly on hearsay and on complaints from unnamed students relayed to administrators by a consultant.

In a report issued on Friday, the AAUP panel broadly characterized Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college in Daytona Beach, Fla., of being "repressive of academic freedom."

"A pervasive atmosphere currently exists at Bethune-Cookman University in which the administration supports favorites and ignores or punishes those who fall out of favor or who question, contend, or appeal," the report says. "No adequate mechanism or procedure exists for the impartial or balanced hearing of grievances."

The University Responds

Bethune-Cookman officials on Monday issued a statement in which its university counsel, Pamela G. Browne, said the AAUP report "contains many errors and false assertions and presents a one-sided view" of how the university handled the matters in question. With respect to the four professors accused of sexual harassment, she said the university had no other recourse, after a review of the evidence, but to suspend the professors immediately.

"When faced with conduct that poses not only a threat to student safety but also creates an immeasurable exposure for legal liability, a university has a responsibility to take swift action once it has been given notice of such a threat," Ms. Browne said.

The university's statement was accompanied by a review of its handling of the sexual-harassment allegations conducted by David Honig, an outside lawyer. His report, delivered to the university in June, describes the university's case for dismissing the four in detail and concludes that the university's handling of the allegations against them "needed to be expedited for reasons of student health and safety."

Mr. Honig's report, which does not name the four professors but instead assigns them numbers, includes salacious details about how they were accused by other faculty members of maintaining an apartment where they took students for sex. One of the faculty members cited as a source of the allegations, whose name is not given, said a student had complained that one of the professors tried to rape her.

Anonymous Accusations

All seven of the faculty members covered by the report were dismissed last year. Besides the four men accused of sexual harassment, they include three other professors fired after clashes with the administration. One was dismissed for purportedly lacking sufficient graduate credentials, but, the AAUP report says, was denied a chance to demonstrate he had indeed earned the academic credits the university asked him to have.

The other two were among 34 faculty and staff members that Bethune-Cookman said it had dismissed for budgetary reasons, even though the university had failed, as required by the AAUP, to issue a formal declaration of financial exigency before taking such a step.

The four professors fired for alleged sexual harassment initially were accused by a human-resources consultant, the People Business, that had been hired by Bethune-Cookman to conduct universitywide interviews regarding the selection of a new vice president for academic affairs.

The consultant relayed rumors of sexual harassment implicating the four professors to the administration at about the same time the university's president, Trudie Kibbe Reed, received an e-mail from a student who reported hearing complaints about a professor's having inappropriate relations with students, the report says.

Ms. Reed then directed a university administrator to survey students in the university's school of social sciences, where the four men taught, and the administrator reported back the finding that students in the school felt sexual harassment was a problem there. The administrator's report also cited a visiting faculty member's complaint that the men had engaged in inappropriate sexual activities with students, as well as an incident where a student had once complained, in front of witnesses, about being sexually harassed by one of the four.

The administrator's report offered only "grounds for suspicion," the AAUP panel said. The report says that the panel did not find any sign of a written complaint of harassment by a student and that no committee was formed to hear evidence from both sides before the professors were dismissed.

"The four were accused, suspended, and dismissed without having received specific written charges and without having been afforded an opportunity to confront and cross-examine witnesses against them," the AAUP report says.

The statement issued by the university said it did not need to follow the usual procedure of forming a faculty committee to investigate the professors because the original sources of the allegations against them—faculty interviews conducted by an outside consultant, followed by a study survey—fell outside of the university faculty handbook's definition of the circumstances requiring an investigative committee's formation.