In Defense of Melissa Click
By John K. Wilson
The firing of Communications professor Melissa Click by the University of Missouri has been one of the most prominent cases of academic freedom this year. On Jan. 25, interim Chancellor Hank Foley said the university would "allow due process to play out." That position lasted exactly two days, when the Board of Curators ignored the detailed campus procedures it had approved for removing a professor, and decided to suspend Click on Jan. 27, and then fired her by a 4-2 vote on Feb. 24 after 117 Republican legislators had demanded her dismissal.
The AAUP asked Missouri to end the suspension of Click without due process, and questioned her dismissal. Board Chair Pamela Henrickson (who voted against dismissal) wrote a 10-page letter explaining the Board's reasoning. Claiming "This was not a case about Dr. Click's academic freedom," Henrickson wrote, "The Board supports the normative practice and has no contrary pattern of acting on its own in such matters - indeed, it has not done so in any other case within active memory."
This is a very strange justification for violating due process: We've never done it before, and won't do it again, but it was okay for us to do it one time.
According to the Board, "this case was uniquely challenging. Dr. Click's conduct had been well known for many weeks and was sufficiently egregious that it led to a criminal charge for assault against a student." And they added, "It was only after there had been a failure of any other process to address the seriousness of Dr. Click's conduct that the matter rose to a level where the University's commitment to its educational standards was in serious question and the Board felt compelled to act on its own. At that point, engaging any other process would have allowed those questions to linger for such a time that in the Board's view the effects on the University's educational environment would have been caustic."
In essence, they are admitting that Click's criminal charge (which was quickly dropped) caused negative publicity for the university. There was never a "failure of any other process" because no other process had been started. But they were "compelled" to act because any other process would take too long and allow questions to "linger," which would have a "caustic" effect on the "educational environment." Why was a rush to dismissal so essential that due process had to be ignored?
The "caustic" rationale makes very little sense. How could Click have a "caustic" effect on the educational atmosphere if she was already suspended?
The "caustic" standard appears nowhere in any University of Missouri policy, and such a vague standard would allow the dismissal of virtually any professor or student merely for being controversial.
The justification for firing Click lacks any substance. The Board declares that she was fired because of her "call for physical intimidation or violence."
Let's be clear here. The Board is admitting that Click did not commit violence, and that jostling a student's camera was not an act of violence and did not justify her dismissal. Instead, it is claiming that Click's statement, "Hey, who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here," was a call for violence.
This is plainly untrue. No one can seriously imagine that Click was demanding that people beat up a photographer. Instead, her call for "muscle" was no different from calling for "security" to help protect a space. The fact that Click was mistaken in her decision does not turn the reasonable call for muscle into a call for violence.
The Board confesses that very fact, because it admits that Click's real crime was that her call for muscle "risked instigating violence." In other words, the call for "muscle" was not itself a call for violence, but instead might cause the muscled people she summoned to "instigate violence." But there was no such violence, and no reasonable expectation that calling for security will cause violence.
Imagine if Click had taken the other side of this dispute, and she had defended the right of photographers to take pictures of the protest camp, and in the chaos had jostled one person and called for "muscle" to help protect the photographers, and then quickly apologized.
No one can seriously imagine she would have been prosecuted or punished, let alone fired, for those actions. It was not her actions, but the side she took, the side of the protesters, that offended legislators and led to her dismissal.
The Board claims that it dismissed Click in "a fundamentally fair manner" by investigating her and holding a hearing. But how could it be fundamentally fair if the whole reason for refusing to follow normal procedures was in order to punish Click more quickly?
The Board had pre-determined that she needed to be punished faster than existing procedures would allow, and so their inevitable conclusion was that she deserved to be punished. Click was then forced to appeal to the very same body which had just concluded that she must be fired. That's not a fundamentally fair process. As Click herself noted, "the Board of Curators, under pressure from a state legislature holding MU's annual budget hostage, has refused to follow those procedures."
I can understand why (although I strongly disagree) some people think that Click's actions should result in her firing.
But there is no rational defense for the manner in which Click has been fired by the Board of Curators: It is a violation of basic standards of due process, campus policies, and academic freedom.
If you support this dismissal of Click, you believe in giving trustees the power to fire any professor, and to expel any student, they deem "caustic" to their interests.