BATON ROUGE – A former Louisiana State University professor's federal lawsuit against LSU administrators is a lesson that instructors cannot be harassed "without fear of retaliation," an American Association of University Professors (AAUP) chairman said.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for Louisiana's Middle District in Baton Rouge on Jan. 22 by fired LSU Associate Professor of Education Teresa Buchanan.
Buchanan was allegedly terminated for using curse words and sexually-themed language in front of undergraduate students. University administrators said Buchanan's salty banter created a “hostile learning environment” and amounted to sexual harassment, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education.
Henry "Harry" Reichman, chair of the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, fears the ordeal may have a chilling effect on university instructors.
"Unfortunately the lesson that many instructors will take is that they should be timid, that they shouldn't be creative, innovative—they shouldn't experiment when they're teaching," Reichman told the Louisiana Record.
Reichman said this is not the first time LSU has appeared negatively on the AAUP's radar. The university was first placed on AAUP's censure list in 2011 for violations of academic freedom in two cases at LSU, according to an AAUP report released that year. The leading college faculty association also has been visibly supportive of the tenured professor since her firing from LSU.
However, the LSU case is not unique because university administrators often very broadly define rules in order to more tightly control instructors, Reichman said. In this case, Reichman said Buchanan's firing was as a result of an over-broad interpretation of the definition of sexual harassment.
LSU has claimed Buchanan’s teaching methods were in violation of it policies that prohibit sexual harassment, defined as “unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical behavior of a sexual nature.” This policy mirrors language issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice in 2013 as “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country.”
Though mentioned in the lawsuit, the U.S. Department of Education is not named as a defendant.
Buchanan's lawsuit claims LSU's policy has no regard for First Amendment protections governing free speech and academic freedom. In particular, the lawsuit maintains LSU based its decision to fire Buchanan, despite the LSU faculty senate's unanimous recommendation that she be censured instead, on an over-broad interpretation of the Department of Education's definition. In October, the LSU faculty senate censured university president F. King Alexander over Buchanan's firing.
King is a named defendant in the lawsuit, along with College of Human Sciences & Education Dean Damon Andrew, Associate Vice Chancellor A.G. Monaco and Director Gaston Reinoso.
Reichman dismissed allegations by LSU administrators that Buchanan created a hostile learning environment.
"There's been absolutely no evidence that she created a hostile learning environment," Reichman said. "In fact, those aren't even the charges, she's charged with sexual harassment."
Reichman said Buchanan's lawsuit is not the first of it's type, calling it "another case in which administrators have abused harassment rules and run roughshod over students and instructors."
Reichman lamented that the case had to go to court at all.
"The best outcome would have been to have not gone to court," Reichman said. "She was already punished, she was suspended."
However, Reichman praised the former LSU education professor's decision to file her lawsuit as "a lesson to university administrators that they cannot harass instructors without fear of retaliation."