The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Merchant Marine Academy scholar of Asian history Gregory F. Sullivan could be fired for a remark he made in class. As he was dimming the lights to show a film to his class, he quipped, "If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit."
His reference was to the orange-haired gunman in Aurora, Colorado who entered a movie theater as a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises was beginning to play. It turns out that one of the students in Sullivan's class was the son of a man killed in the massacre.
The academy's superintendent put Professor Sullivan on academic leave as soon as he learned of the incident. It is unclear how he found out about it and whether the student complained to the administration. The Chronicle does report that Sullivan apologized immediately when he became aware that the student's father was a victim of the shootings.
The Merchant Marine Academy is now conducting an investigation of the matter, interviewing students and faculty members, and it has given Sullivan 10 days to respond before it makes its final decision.
The Chronicle quotes experts weighing in - some say that military academies are governed by stricter policies in these situations, but some, such as the AAUP and the American Council on Education say that academic freedom and due process are owed to all faculty members. One expert
wondered whether the academy's proposed discipline could have a chilling effect. "You won't make any jokes," he said. "You'll sterilize your class right down to nothing."
It was a thoughtless remark, to be sure, especially so soon after the shootings occurred. But it wasn't worth dismissal, and due process does seem to have gone out the door here. As a representative of the AAUP put it, "it should be a judgment rendered by faculty peers."
Doubtless faculty members would defend a peer's right not to fear punishment for such an off-the-cuff remark. Sullivan certainly would not have said that if he knew that a student who lost his father in the shootings was in his class.
This is a case where two of academia's cherished ideals come head to head: the desire never to offend and the desire to protect academic freedom. The Merchant Marine Academy should recognize the context of this situation and choose to defend its loose-tongued but not ill-intentioned faculty member.
Image: U.S. Merchant Marine Academy