B-CU releases response to flawed AAUP report and attempts at censure
Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) faculty today responded to a report from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization whose members consist of professors and other academic personnel employed by colleges and universities in the United States. The AAUP is not an accrediting agency nor does it have any oversight over colleges and universities.
"This report, which concerns the termination of seven faculty members by B-CU in 2009, contains many errors and false assertions and presents a one-sided view of the manner in which the university handled the matters in question,” said Pamela G. Browne, Esq., General Counsel.
At the same time, the university released the findings of a study on sexual harassment on campus, which led to the termination of four faculty members on such grounds. Four of the seven faculty members were dismissed based on allegations of sexual harassment after the university hired a consultant to conduct a thorough investigation. The AAUP alleges that the four professors were denied their due process rights. That is not true. In fact, B-CU presented the AAUP with a thorough report which contained documentation showing that, prior to the present administration, three of the four professors had student complaints filed against them for sexual misconduct. The university found also files documenting administrative hearings involving two of the professors. The hearings were conducted by the previous administration in late 1999 and 2000 and concluded the professors had engaged in acts of sexual harassment against students. The professors were issued letters of reprimand which warned them of termination if this behavior continued. The four professors subsequently filed claims against B-CU with the EEOC, and all four claims were dismissed.
The university commissioned a report, by renowned civil rights attorney David Honig, to give an impartial review the terminations and to issue a report of his findings concerning the claim of "lack of due process” brought by the AAUP. "Bethune-Cookman University's handling of the incidents involving the four professors needed to be expedited for reasons of student health and safety. Once President Reed learned of the allegations, she set in motion a process that was rapid, appropriate, and ethical. It afforded the four professors the process they were due,” ,” Honig's report concluded. Additionally, the university's actions were in compliance with federal mandates that require taking "swift and remedial action” to correct situations involving allegations of sexual harassment.
"The university is publicly releasing the consultant's report, as well as Mr. Honig's report, in an attempt to maintain the confidence of students, faculty, staff and the public in the university and, two, to encourage other schools to publicly address this issue. We did not have to release both reports – and some other institutions might have swept this under the rug,” Browne said. "But we have learned a lot in dealing with this situation, and one of the things that we have learned is that sexual harassment is more widespread than many realize, and that victims often are reluctant to come forward. We want to encourage students, faculty and university administrators to take a stand. Also, we hope that faculty, community and women's organizations that are committed to providing a safe campus environment join us in this cause.”
Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, also applauded Bethune-Cookman University for its swift action to support the education of students who are entrusted to an institution that is supposed to be safe and nurturing.
Browne noted that the four professors were suspended after a review of substantial and credible evidence of sexual misconduct, including:
- An independent consultant hired to gain input from faculty during the search for a new vice president for academic affairs in early 2009 heard from many faculty members that there was a serious problem of sexual misconduct involving four professors in a particular school at the university.
- In May 2009, a distraught student, accompanied by a faculty member, went to the office of Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed and gave a detailed account of sexual misconduct by one of the four professors.
- A visiting professor told the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs that the four professors showed him nude photographs of students with whom they had engaged in sex.
Further investigation revealed prior complaints and administrative hearings, under the previous administration, relative to one or more of the four professors.
As for the other three faculty members, two were terminated for financial reasons and one because he did not have the proper credentials, Browne said.
The two faculty members terminated for financial reasons were among 34 faculty and staff members whose positions were eliminated as part of the university's right-sizing mandate. To ensure the university's financial stability during an economy that was in crisis, the university asked Hewitt Consulting to recommend cost-saving measures and the company produced a comprehensive analysis with many recommendations instituted by B-CU, including the elimination of faculty and staff positions, Browne explained. She noted that during the economic crisis in 2009, many universities eliminated faculty positions as part of cost-saving measures, including the University of Washington, the University of Central Florida and Harvard. One faculty member was terminated after he could not produce a terminal degree from an accredited regional institution recognized by SACS, Browne said. It is entirely appropriate that a university require such a credential, and the university acted entirely within its rights to dismiss the professor for failing to produce it, she added.
While the report alleges that the university did not follow procedures for an investigation of a sexual harassment complaint, in fact such procedures did not apply because the university's initial investigation resulted from the faculty interviews conducted by a consultant and a student survey. Therefore, the Faculty Handbook provisions that would have required the formation of a faculty committee upon receipt of a complaint of sexual harassment were not triggered. The AAUP report fails to acknowledge that the terminated faculty members received each of the essential elements of process due to them – notice, the right of appeal before impartial colleagues, and an opportunity to present all relevant evidence, Browne explained.
The university had no other recourse, after a review of the evidence, but to suspend the professors immediately. Anything less would have been irresponsible on the university's part, she said.
"A university must have the flexibility to take the steps necessary to ensure that it will protect its students,” Browne said. "When faced with conduct that poses not only a threat to student safety but also creates an immeasurable exposure for legal liability, a university has a responsibility to take swift action once it has been given notice of such a threat.”
The National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C., issued a statement supporting a university's right to take swift action with regard to sexual misconduct.
"A university has a fiduciary duty to its students to protect them from acts of sexual misconduct by professors and must take swift and remedial action to ensure their continued safety and an environment free from intimidation and sexual harassment,” the statement said. "Sexual misconduct on college campuses has been shown through comprehensive studies to be widespread, and such cases must be handled in a way that puts students' health, safety and welfare as the top priority. Anything less erodes the core values and mission of B-CU's founder, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.”
"Bethune-Cookman University has a rich heritage that originates from its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune; and if she was alive today, she would say, ‘Not at Bethune-Cookman' when it comes to sexual misconduct,” Rev. Sharpton said. "I have personally studied this case, and the university was within its right and boundaries to do exactly what it did. And I feel obligated to support the administrators with this decision. It's amazing to me that of all the institutions in the nation, this organization is challenging a historically black college and university when actions of this type are reported all over the nation. Just like the nation must address racism, respect for a person's mind, dignity and body are just as important. Thank God that Bethune-Cookman dared to stand up to protect its students.”
Dr. Claudette McFadden, past president of the B-CU Faculty Association, lauded the university for taking a strong stand against sexual misconduct and not backing down despite the tactics of AAUP, an organization that Dr. McFadden noted has publicly stated its intention to aggressively pursue university officials. She noted that the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation issued a comprehensive report in 2005 that concluded: "Most college students experience some type of sexual harassment while at college, often during their first year.”
"Sexual misconduct is a serious problem on college campuses,” McFadden said. "A zero tolerance position is our only choice in such situations, regardless of who the individuals might be and regardless of whether they are alumni of the university or tenured or non-tenured. Zero tolerance is just that, zero tolerance. Failure to respond appropriately places both the institution and individuals at jeopardy of being legally negligent and, consequently, open for litigation.” McFadden further added, questioning the intent of the AAUP report, "Faculty Governance has never been stronger at Bethune-Cookman University than it is today.” The Faculty Committee on Promotion and Tenure recommended to the Board of Trustees, on October 22, 2010, that 24 faculty receive promotion and/or tenure. The BOT awarded promotion to all 24, and 17 of the 24 were awarded tenure. Following that action, the faculty's official representative to the Board of Trustees, Dr. Alice Wood, commented: "We appreciate the ongoing support that Dr. Reed has provided throughout the various stages of developing and implementing the new tenure and promotion process. The approval of tenure for so many faculty members by the Board of Trustees this week is very encouraging to the faculty and it is a strong indication of the support that the university administration continues to show for the faculty.”
In an attempt to be proactive and to avoid future incidents, officials hired a consultant to examine the university's policies regarding sexual harassment. The consultant – attorney David Honig, a civil rights attorney who has represented over 70 national organizations before the FCC, the federal courts of appeals and the United States Supreme Court and has done pro bono work for the NAACP in Florida – came forth with a series of recommendations.
Honig confirmed that the university handled the professors' dismissals properly, balancing quick and effective action that protected students and upheld the university's integrity with providing the professors the opportunity to challenge the evidence before an impartial panel. Honig's report also concluded, however, that more should be done "to repair the climate of fear and intimidation that kept these incidents quiet for several years.”
The report cited evidence of sexual harassment on campuses around the country:
"According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) report, of the total number of students sexually harassed, about seven percent of harassed students have been harassed by professors.” The report added: "Moreover, AAUW states that while faculty/staff-to-student sexual harassment is atypical, faculty or other college personnel of colleges sexually harass roughly half a million undergraduate students every year.”
Honig's report lauded Bethune-Cookman for taking a stand:
"Bethune-Cookman University, founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1904, holds a time-honored legacy of overcoming the seemingly impossible. It has changed the lives of countless youths who otherwise might not have received a degree in higher education. The conduct of the four former professors stained the University's legacy.”
Honig's report studied best practices at other Florida universities and offered four recommendations:
- Expressly define harassment, hostile environment, and relationship restrictions.
The university's Faculty Handbook should address in more detail the types of relationships that are acceptable and not acceptable, so that any ambiguities dealing with boundaries in faculty-student relationships are clear and faculty and staff members are aware of the precise prohibited behavior the university will not tolerate.
- Facilitate anonymous complaints. Since many students are fearful of the humiliation associated with bringing forth claims of sexual harassment, Bethune-Cookman should consider creating an anonymous hotline, perhaps in collaboration with other local colleges and universities. The hotline could also be available to handle instances of rape, including date rape, depression, drug abuse, and other issues that can inhibit academic success and impair personal health, safety and security.
- Use professors, student leaders and a human relations expert as confidants. Bethune-Cookman should encourage students to speak in confidence with professors, student leaders, or others with whom they are especially comfortable. Before such a policy is adopted, a designated human resources professional (a "Gender Equality Mentor”) should train professors, counselorsand student leaders on how to handle and report instances or allegations of harassment.
- Provide students with enhanced knowledge and an opportunity for open dialogue. The "Gender Equality Mentor” should give frequent lectures and class visits on the full range of issues germane to the empowerment of women and men, particularly including all forms of sexual harassment, rape including date rape, and discrimination in the workplace. He or she could also bring to campus bi-annual distinguished lecturers to address harassment and rape, and thus educate students about prevention methods, alternatives and risks.
The Florida State Conference of the NAACP issued a statement praising Bethune-Cookman's actions in terminating the professors and issuing the report:
"I am in total support of the president and university, and I mean 100 percent,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Florida State Conference. "We are totally opposed to sexual misconduct of any form. …I can't imagine how anybody can make it appear that it is alright for this to happen. We have to do all we can because all of us are responsible for all of the students in this country,” Nweze continued. "We are taking a stand because Mary McLeod Bethune was the vice-president of the NAACP. We support her goals and mission for this institution. In her spirit, we must stand up to insure that the institution fulfills its mission to educate students in an open, transparent and equitable manner and make sure there is equity across the board.”
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About Bethune Cookman University:
Founded in 1904 by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU) today sustains her legacy of faith, scholarship and service through its relationship with the United Methodist Church and its commitment to academic excellence and civic engagement. B-CU offers more than 40 degrees on its main campus and online college. Located in Daytona Beach, B-CU is one of three private, historically black colleges in the state of Florida. The institution boasts a diverse and international faculty and student body of more than 4,000. For more information, visit www.cookman.edu.