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A Troubling Case at the University of Illinois

By John K. Wilson

The firing of Louis Wozniak by the University of Illinois raises disturbing questions about academic freedom, due process, and the failure of faculty to defend these principles. Normally, the firing of a tenured professor is such an extraordinary event that it involves acts of breathtaking misconduct or total incompetence. This is not the case with Louis Wozniak. In fact, if Wozniak were a mediocre teacher, he would still be working at the University of Illinois. It was Wozniak’s excellence in teaching that led him to be given awards, and then to being fired when he objected to not receiving a teaching award that he had earned.

The Board of Trustees report on Wozniak is startling because of the reasons actually given for his dismissal: causing a student to cry, reporting this fact publicly, and then refusing to censor his website or conversations about it. This, according to the Board of Trustees, was the reason for Wozniak’s firing: “Professor Wozniak engaged in professional misconduct when he publicly disseminated information about a student’s emotional reaction during a private conversation between her and Wozniak.”

The student in question was a leader of a student honor society that presented a teaching award to the professor with the most votes from students. Wozniak was surprised that he hadn’t won the award again, and spoke with her about it. She lied at first and said that he didn’t receive the most votes, and then cried, admitting that he had. Wozniak reported this fact in detailing what he suspected was administrative influence against him receiving the award.

There is no university policy demanding teacher-student confidentiality. The U of I’s ethics website has a code of conduct that only requires confidentiality of particular documents such as “student records,” not all faculty-student interactions. The AAUP’s policies say nothing about confidentiality, except for a recent statement condemning any requirement of confidentiality for faculty on committees. Confidentiality, in general, is a principle anathema to a free university. And certainly revealing a student’s reaction to controversy about an official award is not the same as revealing a private confidence about a student’s personal crisis. While some might feel morally that Wozniak should not reveal such details, it clearly does not rise to the level of any academic misconduct. To fire a tenured professor on such grounds is literally unheard of in the history of modern higher education in America.

Of course, the crying student was not the real reason why Wozniak was fired. But faculty committees at the University of Illinois had rejected other accusations against Wozniak (such as making a bad sexual joke in an email to graduating seniors, which was the original reason for his suspension) as inadequate to justify firing him. Sadly, the faculty on key committees at the University of Illinois bear some responsibility for this result. The same faculty report that declared Wozniak should not be fired for his actions denounced his publicity of the student’s crying, and threatened that his failure to censor his comments could be a cause for dismissal. Law professor Eric Johnson, chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, declared that “CAFT was justified in directing Professor Wozniak to refrain from making future reference to this conversation in public or quasi-public communication.” Johnson concluded, “The Board should dismiss Professor Wozniak if it concludes that he violated the CAFT’s directive.“

Johnson’s comments are troubling for many reasons. The spectacle of a faculty committee demanding censorship of a website (and even “quasi-public” conversations by a professor) is deeply disturbing. Due process is also important here. Endorsing the firing of a faculty member without a further faculty hearing is a clear violation of AAUP standards. The dismissal of a tenured professor, under AAUP guidelines, must balance consideration of a professor’s flaws and accomplishments, and not simply be an automatic response to a professor’s failure to obey orders. And the orders given by CAFT had no basis in university policies or the ethics of the profession. If Wozniak’s revelation of a student crying did not justify his immediate dismissal (and it obviously didn’t), then his continued defiance would not change anything.

If Wozniak had been friendly with administrators, instead of regularly criticizing them for ethical lapses, no one can imagine that he would be out of a job today over his complaints about a teaching award that he actually earned. The Wozniak case reveals the perils for faculty who refuse to obey orders and remain defiant about what they believe is right.