Academic Freedom

Professors Suspended After a Protest Might Also Face Criminal Charges

October 26, 2009

[Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported the status of one of the suspended faculty members. The faculty member is president of the college's faculty union, not president of its Academic Senate.]

The campus police at Southwestern College are considering criminal charges against protesters who participated in a campus rally last week that led to the politically charged suspension of four faculty members, college officials said on Monday.

The San Diego-area community college placed the four faculty members on paid leave and barred them from the campus after last Thursday's rally, which drew hundreds of students and faculty members to protest cuts to course offerings. The suspensions have amplified long-running faculty criticisms of college leaders.

Three of the suspended faculty members, who include the president of the college's faculty union, contend that they are being targeted because they joined in the protest and have criticized the administration's response to a state budget crisis. The suspension of a fourth faculty member was revoked last week.

Southwestern initially issued a statement over the weekend saying the faculty suspensions were due to a personnel matter unrelated to the rally. But a campus officials said on Monday that the suspensions were related to an incident after the main protest, which was officially limited to a one-hour time period and a proscribed "free-speech area" on the campus.

After the sanctioned protest concluded, a splinter group of about 50 protesters attempted to reach the office of President Raj K. Chopra. On the way, they met a line of police officers, according to Brent Chartier, the campus police chief. He said some protesters then committed "illegal activity," which is now under investigation.

Mr. Chartier would not describe the nature of the activity nor say whether the faculty members who were suspended may face charges, citing a continuing criminal investigation into the matter. The investigation should be concluded in the next couple of days, he said.

The campus president, Mr. Chopra, is on vacation and could not be reached for comment. A campus spokeswoman, Melissa Abeyta, declined to answer specific questions about the reasons for the suspensions. She said activity during the confrontation between the protesters and the police near the president's office was what led to the suspensions.

"The rally was fine; it was orderly," she said. "Afterwards was when the issues arose."

Philip Lopez, an English professor and president of the faculty union, said he had not done anything wrong. He said he was notified of his suspension on the night of the protest in a letter hand-delivered by the college's human-resources director and a campus security officer.

The letter did not explain the reason for his suspension, he said. Instead, it cited a section of state law that allows a campus leader to temporarily suspend an employee who has "willfully disrupted the orderly operation" of a campus.

"The important question that needs to be answered is, What are you accused of doing?" he said. "Well, I don't know."

Mr. Lopez said his lawyer had advised him against speaking about the specifics of the incident involving the police. He said he and the other suspended faculty members believe they are being singled out because college leaders are unwilling to tolerate dissent from faculty members.

"This is just an incredibly naïve screw-up by the administration," Mr. Lopez said. "I couldn't have written a better script."

Several of the college district's board members did not return telephone calls or declined to comment. Jean Roesch, president of the board, wrote in a letter to the campus on Monday that staff members should understand that "no formal charges or allegations have been made against any college faculty member or employee at this time."

"The college respects, values, and is committed to lawful free expression," the letter said, "and the student rally provided an opportunity for our students to voice their concerns and to underscore the challenges that all community-college students, and community colleges, are experiencing."