Monday, March 21, 2011

Northwestern Violates Its Own Rules in Protess Case

This week, Northwestern administrators removed journalism professor David Protess from teaching his class on investigative journalism in the spring quarter.
Students in Protess' class wrote a petition protesting his removal as the professor.

Protess is probably the man most hated by Cook County prosecutors because for years he led classes of his students to investigate the cases of innocent convicts, many of them on Death Row in Illinois. Protess exposed police and prosecutor misconduct, and brutal police torture taking place in Chicago. He and his students proved the innocence of many convicts. Almost certainly because of his classes, the Illinois General Assembly passed a law, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in March, to abolish the death penalty in Illinois.

Perhaps in retaliation, Cook County prosecutors decided to go after Protess and his students in the appeal of convicted murderer Anthony McKinney. After Protess and his students found evidence indicating McKinney's innocence, prosecutors demanded their notes and even their grades. The key question in dispute is what evidence had been provided to McKinney's lawyers, which would be available to prosecutors, and what evidence was protected by journalistic privilege. Northwestern officials think that Protess deceived them about what evidence was provided. Protess claims that he simply didn't remember what records had been turned over to McKinney's lawyers. It's possible—but in no way proven yet—that Protess acted unethically in his dealings with university officials. Until that proof is offered, no university can remove a professor from a class without endangering academic freedom.

Normally, faculty are only removed against their will from teaching a regularly scheduled class because of the most severe reasons, when they are proven guilty of serious misconduct by a jury of their peers, or when their continuing presence in the class endangers the safety or rights of their students. Nothing like this has even been alleged in this case.

No one can question Protess' qualifications to teach a class on investigative journalism. While his ethics as the subject of a subpoena may be questioned (though nothing has been proven), this has no connection with his work in the classroom. Protess may be the most highly regarded journalism professor in the country, because the investigations conducted by his students dramatically changed the lives of numerous innocent people rotting in prison, and because those investigations were often the most significant class any of his students ever took.

Protess hasn't cost Northwestern any money here. Northwestern would have still been compelled to fight the subpoena in court because prosecutors demanded access to student grades in Protess' class, and revealing that irrelevant information would be a clear violation of university policies on student privacy. But even if it did cost Northwestern money, that's their problem. Academic freedom doesn't stop when it costs a university money.

Northwestern University hired former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas to investigate Protess and the Innocence Project, which was a highly unusual step. It is common practice for universities to having faculty investigate faculty; hiring a former prosecutor to investigate a professor is almost unheard of in academia.

Likewise, any punishment of faculty should only come from a determination of misconduct by a faculty committee, which also recommends an appropriate penalty. However, removal from teaching a class is among the most serious penalties that a faculty member can receive. The removal of a teacher should only be undertaken when there is clear evidence established before a faculty committee.

And that's exactly what Northwestern requires. Northwestern's faculty handbook (pdf) is not a well-written document. The section on academic freedom merely quotes the outdated language of the AAUP Statement of Principles that the AAUP updated over 40 years ago.

But it is quite clear on the rules and procedure for a suspension: “If the University believes that the conduct of a faculty member, although not constituting adequate cause for termination, poses a sufficiently grave infraction of the principles of academic freedom or of faculty responsibility to justify suspension from service for a stated period or some other severe sanction, the University will follow the procedures below in conducting proceedings that may impose such sanctions.”

The removal of a faculty member against his will from a regularly scheduled class due to allegations of misconduct is the quintessential definition of a suspension. A suspension is still a suspension even if the term is not officially used. Although the administration is given broad latitude in scheduling classes, the removal and replacement of a teacher less than two weeks before a class begins, for no reason other than allegations of misconduct, cannot be defined as anything other than a suspension.

In the case of a suspension or termination, the faculty handbook requires a “reasonably particularized statement of charges against the faculty member by the president of the University or the president’s delegate.” These charges “shall be referred to the Faculty Committee on Cause for mediation.” If no resolution is made, then the Administration can continue proceedings before the UFRPTDAP university committee.

What is most notable, however, is the failure of the Administration to follow its rules on temporary suspensions: “Pending a final recommendation by the Panel, the faculty member will not be suspended or assigned to other duties in lieu of suspension, unless immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened by continuance.” Not only is there no evidence of “immediate harm” compelling a suspension in the Protess case, but a temporary suspension cannot take place without the first stages of the suspension process—a written statement of charges—being made. Nor does it appear that the required consultation with the UFRPTDAP committee was ever made, as is required: “If the Administration wishes to suspend a faculty member pending an ultimate recommendation on the faculty member’s status through the hearing procedures, the Administration will consult with the UFRPTDAP Executive Committee concerning the propriety, the length, and the other conditions of the suspension.”

If the Administration could temporarily or permanently remove faculty from any teaching or research assignments and avoid any of the rules for suspension by using a different name, it would make a mockery of the Faculty Handbook. According to the story in the Daily Northwestern, “Bitoun also said that as a matter of Medill policy, professor changes can be made at any time.” By the Northwestern Administration's logic, they could ban Protess from ever teaching another class without needing to charge him with any misconduct. Clearly, this cannot be true. A suspension is a suspension, no matter what excuse is used to justify it.

It does not appear that the Administration followed any of these rules required by the faculty handbook. These procedures are important to protecting the right of faculty to teach freely, and the right of students to be taught. It is dangerous to allow arbitrary punishment of faculty without any proof of misconduct. It is dangerous for the administration to issue punishments such as suspension before any evidence of misconduct is offered or a final determination of appropriate penalty is made. Northwestern University's statement on the Protess case does not answer any of these issues, except to indicate that an investigation of Protess is ongoing (which would make the suspension illegitimate under Northwestern's rules).

The fact that Protess is deeply despised by powerful political interests for his activism on the death penalty makes the violation of University procedures in this case all the more troubling. Is the Administration making a sound academic judgment about the qualifications of a journalism professor, or is it seeking to punish a professor who it believes may have embarassed the institution? Northwestern University needs to immediately overturn this suspension and restore David Protess to his classroom until it can prove misconduct that justifies such a penalty in accordance with proper procedures.

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