AAUP Report: Academic Freedom Violations at LSU

A new AAUP report finds violations of academic freedom in two cases at Louisiana’s flagship public institution, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The cases were investigated and the report written by a committee of AAUP members.
The subject of the first case is Ivor van Heerden, a researcher serving since 1992 in a non-tenure-track appointment. For years, his work in coastal erosion and in hurricane- and flood-related issues brought him public prominence and consistently favorable evaluations. The attitude of LSU administrators quickly changed, however, after van Heerden found that a main cause of flooding after Hurricane Katrina was structural failure of the levees overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Administrators, anticipating cooperation and support from the Corps in hurricane recovery projects, did not appreciate being linked in the media with these findings. They took steps to restrain van Heerden’s public activities, to distance LSU from those activities, and, eventually, to deny him further appointment.

The Association’s investigating committee concluded that the administration denied van Heerden due process and also violated his academic freedom in a number of ways: by denying him reappointment largely in retaliation for his dissent from the prevailing LSU stance on the levees, by restricting the nature of his research, and by punishing him for exercising his rights as a citizen.

The subject of the second case is Dominique G. Homberger, a biologist. As a tenured full professor teaching upper-level courses, she was repeatedly commended for teaching excellence and was praised particularly for her “rigorous approach.” In spring 2010, in order to “pitch in,” Homberger took on a section of an introductory course. The grades she assigned for the first test struck the course’s coordinator as too low, and he suggested more leniency. Her mid-term grades, however, were lower. The college dean, without consulting her, removed Homberger from teaching the course, and the coordinator raised each student’s grade. When Homberger asked the dean to reconsider, he replied that he was receptive to discussion but that his decision stood. Homberger filed a complaint with LSU’s Faculty Grievance Committee, which found unanimously in her favor. In response, administrators said that the faculty senate was “developing an improved policy” on issues relating to student grading. The dean apologized to Homberger for not having met with her in person to tell her she was being removed from the course—but he did not apologize, as the grievance committee had recommended, for not having consulted her before acting.

The investigating committee concluded that the LSU administration violated Homberger’s right to assign student grades and, in peremptorily removing her from a course that was in process, violated her academic freedom to teach. The committee concluded further that the administration’s imposing the severe sanction of suspension on her, without opportunity for a faculty hearing, denied her the basic protections of academic due process. A more detailed summary can be found at insert link to media release. (http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/newsroom/2011PRs/LSUreport.htm)

The full report is published on the AAUP website at http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/programs/academicfreedom/investrep.


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