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Northwestern Lifts the Illegitimate Suspension of Jackie Stevens

By John K. Wilson

On Sept. 21, political science professor Jackie Stevens began teaching her class at Northwestern University. Earlier that week, she didn’t know if that would happen. Stevens had been banned from campus (and prohibited from any contact with students) since July 28, when the administration announced she was a potential threat and would need to undergo a four-hour psychiatric evaluation before being allowed back on campus if the administration permitted it. After numerous delays that Stevens blamed on the administration, Stevens had her evaluation last week, and apparently she passed the test.

This was not a surprise, because there was never any evidence Stevens was a threat to anyone, and no reports that anyone filed a complaint asking for her to be banned from campus. Stevens has also been deported to the far north end of campus. Her new office, dictated by the university, is almost a mile away from Scott Hall, where the political science department is.

But even though the suspension is over, the conduct of Northwestern’s administration is alarming, especially because they appear to be planning further punishment of Stevens.

The suspension of Stevens was expressly prohibited under university rules. On July 28, 2016, Adrian Randolph, dean of arts and sciences wrote to Stevens, “in accordance with the Northwestern University Handbook provision on Medical Leave/Fitness-For-Duty, I am placing you on immediate leave because the University has concerns that you may pose a direct threat to your own safety or the safety of others.” Randolph also ordered, “you cannot have contact with graduate or undergraduate students,” even though it’s not clear how Stevens could endanger students by email.

This was a clear violation not only of Stevens’ academic freedom but also the academic freedom rights of students to communicate with anyone they wish to.

It was also a direct violation of Northwestern’s policies. According to the Northwestern faculty handbook, a medical suspension is only permissible after a medical evaluation, not before one: “If the evaluation affirms that a faculty member does pose a direct threat, the faculty member may be offered a voluntary medical leave. If the faculty member declines to take a voluntary medical leave, the University may place the faculty member on involuntary medical leave.” The faculty handbook does allow for suspensions in extreme circumstances in anticipation of a disciplinary hearing, but the administration has announced that Stevens has never been subjected to any disciplinary action (yet), so it could not have invoked that clause.

But although the illicit suspension is over, the administration announced it is still planning to go after Stevens. Stevens has released a letter she received Sept. 19 from Randolph which announced the end of her suspension: “It now appears we have excluded the possibility that your conduct was unintentional.” If Stevens had been crazy, Northwestern would have banned her as a threat. Because she’s not crazy, now they plan to get rid of her for knowingly committing the crime of incivility.

In the Sept. 19 letter, Randolph announced he was “exploring…whether disciplinary procedures are appropriate” over complaints about her teaching.

But it is more likely that the Administration wants to punish Stevens for her behavior toward colleagues. Randolph announced that Stevens’ actions display “a lack of civility and are in contravention of our policies.” Normally, that kind of statement is made after evidence at a disciplinary hearing proves it, and not announced as a conclusion beforehand.

Randolph warned, “I am in the process of determining whether you conduct requires disciplinary action.” He also accused her of “bullying” and demanded that she “acknowledge this problem as a first, important step toward reconciliation.” I’m sure it would make the administration’s planned disciplinary actions much easier if Stevens would simply confess to bullying. Reconciliation is hardly the Northwestern administration’s goal, since it has refused Stevens’ request to have a mediator work with the political science department to resolve their differences, since doing so might interfere with their desire to put all the blame for the conflict on Stevens.

The origins of this dispute, like many academic disputes, are incredibly stupid. On March 8, 2016, Stevens met with Alvin Tillery. Tillery told her that the department wanted to take away her large lecture class in the fall, Introduction to Political Theory, and give it to a new professor to teach. She would need to teach a different class in the fall, and then teach the larger class in the Winter. Stevens did not like this idea, and there was an argument. After a 5-10 minute meeting with the door open, Tillery told her to get out and shut the door after she left.

Stevens filed a complaint with the administration, accusing Tillery of violating Northwestern’s Civility and Mutual Respect policy, claiming that he yelled at her and slammed the door shut. Yes, sadly, there is such a policy allowing “rude, obnoxious” people to be punished, along with “Guidance on Civility and Violence” that explains how “namecalling, raised voices and petty meanness” are examples of violations of Northwestern’s policy against “disrespectful” statements.

This policy clearly violates academic freedom and needs to be immediately eliminated, but it will probably soon be used against Stevens.

Tillery, in response, had his attorney send Stevens a letter in April threatening to sue her for libeling him by telling other professors that he had yelled at her. Stevens, who didn’t want to spend her own money fighting a frivolous lawsuit, asked the University to pay for her legal expenses under the university’s indemnification clause in the Statutes, which protect employees when engaged in university business.

The University in turn hired a lawyer, Kathleen Reinhart, to investigate the indemnification issue. And that’s when things really got weird. Instead of looking at indemnification and the March 8 dispute that led to the lawsuit, Reinhart’s report became an investigation of everything negative about Stevens. Stevens released the executive summary of Reinhart’s report, but not the entire 11-page report quoting critics of Stevens.

In the executive summary, Reinhart essentially admits that the indemnification issue was just an excuse to go after Stevens: “The demand letter has created a clarifying ‘pause point’ for the University to assess Stevens’ conduct, its impact on colleagues and students, and the nature of the actions the University now is prepared to take.” This reference to “actions the University now is prepared to take” in her own report indicates a strong collaboration between Reinhart and the administration.

Normally, an investigator’s report would not include a reference to a punishment that was supposed to be based on that report. Reinhart’s statement means that she and the administration were directly communicating about plans to punish Stevens, and that the report was written, perhaps from the very beginning, as an indictment of Stevens to justify this punishment.

According to Reinhart, “academic freedom does not afford faculty a basis to behave in contravention to these policies.” She never considers the possibility that these policies violate academic freedom, which they do.

Reinhart’s investigation was highly dubious. Reinhart concluded, “Stevens’ hostile and aggressive conduct toward colleagues over time (e.g., contributing to an ongoing state of tumult and dysfunction in the Department, and her refusal to retract public statements that Tillery verbally abused on March 8) may constitute a breach of her duty of loyalty under University Statutes and thereby may preclude the indemnification of her conduct toward Tillery on March 8.”

This is an incredibly troubling conclusion. A university doesn’t get to say, “We think you’re a jerk to other people so we won’t indemnify you.” But that’s exactly what Reinhart said and the university relied on. If Stevens was being sued by Tillery for her comments about the March 8 event, the indemnification issue is solely related to what happened on that day. Using the complaints by colleagues “over time” against her is completely irrelevant to the lawsuit and therefore to the indemnification issue Reinhart was supposed to be investigating.

Oddly, the executive summary of Reinhart’s report never reaches a conclusion about what happened on March 8. Since yelling and slamming are ill-defined terms and subject to personal interpretation, it would be almost impossible to conclude that someone intentionally made a false claim of slamming a door. And Reinhart never alleges that in the executive summary. But that’s what she would have needed to do in order to conclude that indemnification doesn’t apply to Stevens. Stevens’ “duty of loyalty” to the university means not filing intentionally false charges. But it doesn’t mean being nice to other people.

While Reinhart refuses to state that Stevens lied about what happened on March 8 or even to state that she does not meet the standards of indemnification, Reinhart has no problem concluding that Stevens’ conduct “is contrary to current policies regarding the nature of civil behavior expected of all employees of the University.”

It was not Reinhart’s job to investigate Stevens’ civility over the last several years, and not surprisingly, she did a terrible job at something she wasn’t supposed to do. Reinhart reaches all of these conclusions about Stevens without giving Stevens the opportunity to defend herself against these accusations. Stevens, who assumed that Reinhart was actually investigating the March 8 incident and the indemnification issue, instead found herself blindsided with a hit job hired by the university.

Reinhart’s report also includes what seems to be an outright lie about the March 8 incident: “none of the witnesses, other than Stevens, heard shouting.” As Stevens points out, an undergraduate student in the hallway reported, “I heard a male voice yelling,” and also heard the words “get out” and the door slamming.

Reinhart dismisses this witness by writing, “he said he never actually saw anything.” However, apparently none of the other witnesses saw anything, and one could conclude that a person in the hallway is more likely to hear something than a professor concentrating on their work in their office.

Is it possible that Tillery may have raised his voice while telling Stevens to leave his office? Is it possible that when he shut the door it was with sufficient force to be interpreted as a slam? Of course, there’s also nothing wrong with what Tillery allegedly said or did. Yelling, telling people to leave your office, and slamming a door might be rude under certain circumstances, but they should not be a policy violation. Tillery himself described a yelling match the previous year between the department chair and Stevens that he said could be heard on the entire floor.

But it is very, very odd that the only person who filed a disciplinary complaint ended up being suspended as a violent threat. Normally, if someone poses such an enormous threat, there would be a campus complaint about it, and a police report. The fact that the information deemed to justify a suspension came from an investigation of Stevens’ complaint is highly suspicious. This raises the question of retaliation, that Stevens is being punished for filing the complaint.

And the administration has a political axe to grind against Stevens. Stevens was a leader of the movement this spring by faculty in opposition to the appointment of former military commander Karl Eikenberry, who lacks a Ph.D., as the head of Buffett Institute for Global Studies. Eikenberry eventually withdrew from the appointment, and there is no doubt that the episode angered and embarrassed the Northwestern Administration.

The fact that this suspension happened soon after this very public incident (and Stevens’ promises to investigate the Board of Trustees further) is highly suspicious. Would the administration have violated its own policies to act with similar haste against a professor who had been supporting their efforts?

The Northwestern administration used a routine indemnification investigation that turned into a fishing expedition against Stevens and went far beyond any reasonable bounds. The administration violated the Faculty Handbook with an illegitimate suspension that’s directly contrary to the stated policies. And even though the administration has overturned its illicit ban on Stevens, it seems likely to pursue more disciplinary action based on questionable rules, a dubious investigation, and a completely unfair process that threatens academic freedom at Northwestern.