The Suspension of David Protess at Northwestern University
By John K. Wilson
In March, Northwestern University 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.
For years, Protess led classes of his students to investigate the cases of innocent convicts, many of them on Death Row in Illinois. Protess exposed police and prosecutorial 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.
Apparently in retaliation, the office of Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez 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 this dispute is what evidence had been provided to McKinney's lawyers, 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 was not honest in his dealings with administrators. Until that clear and convincing 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. 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 and the laws of the state of Illinois. Numerous students cite his class as the most significant one they ever took, and his teacher ratings are among the highest of any professor at Northwestern.
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 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 University Faculty Reappointment, Promotion, Tenure, and Dismissal Appeals Panel (UFRPTDAP).
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 quoting director of Undergraduate Education Michele Bitoun, “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). (Northwestern officials refused to comment on the violation of the Faculty Handbook procedures.)
Protess agreed under the extreme duress of an illegitimate suspension to take a leave of absence in the Spring semester. But this fact should not cause anyone to ease up the pressure on the Northwestern administration and demand an explanation for why they violated the Faculty Handbook and the rules of the university in suspending Protess from his class.
In the decades that I've spent studying academic freedom, I've never encountered a case where a university of Northwestern's prestige has violated a faculty member's due process rights so completely as this Administration has.
The faculty should be outraged at this violation of shared governance and due process, and angry to learn that they can be banned from their classes, their labs, and their offices at the whim of an administrator. The students should be appalled to learn that they pay vast sums of tuition money only to have their faculty removed from classes for unknown reasons at the last minute.
First, administrators need to file formal charges of misconduct, and prove to the satisfaction of a faculty committee that Protess intentionally engaged in unethical conduct that violates the fundamental rules of Northwestern. Then they need to show this alleged misconduct is directly relevant to Protess' qualifications as a professor, and so extreme that it would outweigh all of the positive reviews of Protess' teaching and research as to require something virtually unknown in the history of the Northwestern University: the termination of a tenured professor.
Northwestern administrators must immediately provide clear and convincing evidence that Protess committed a serious academic crime. Their failure to do so can only lead to the conclusion that this suspension had no legitimate basis.
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 Protess to his classroom until it can follow proper procedures and prove misconduct that justifies such an extreme penalty.
AAUP Letter to Northwestern about David Protess
March 18, 2011
Dear President Schapiro:
Dr. David Protess, professor in the Medill School of Journalism, has consulted with our Association as a result of the decision earlier this month by Dean John Lavine to remove him from teaching his assigned course in investigative journalism in the spring quarter (which begins today). Professor Protess reports that the notification of his suspension came without warning, that no stated explanation for it has thus far been provided, and that it is being imposed without affordance of opportunity for an independent faculty hearing.
Under Regulation 7a of our Association’s enclosed Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure, incorporated in all essential respects in Northwestern University’s official policies, if the administration “believes that the conduct of a faculty member ... is sufficiently grave to justify the imposition of a severe sanction, such as suspension from service for a stated period, the administration may institute a proceeding to impose such a severe sanction.” The proceeding, akin to one in which dismissal is sought, is to be an adjudicative hearing of record before an elected faculty body in which the administration bears the burden of demonstrating adequacy of cause for the sanction it seeks to impose. See our enclosed report, On the Use and Abuse of Faculty Suspensions.
Our concerns in this matter are heightened by press accounts of the events which preceded Professor Protess’s suspension, particularly a longstanding conflict between him and the dean which reached a head only days before his removal from the course that was about to begin. These accounts suggest to us the possibility that the decision to remove Professor Protess from the course may have been taken for reasons that violate his academic freedom.
The information in our possession relating to the case of Professor Protess has come to us primarily from him, and we realize that those at Northwestern with administrative responsibilities may have additional information that would contribute to our understanding of what has occurred. We shall therefore welcome your comments. If the facts as we have recounted them are essentially accurate, we urge, absent demonstrated cause or threat of immediate harm, that Professor Protess be informed of reinstatement as soon as feasible to his regular teaching duties.
B. Robert Kreiser
Associate Secretary, AAUP