Arthur Gilbert Case at DU: Postmortem
Last week The University of Denver’s Provost responded to the DU Faculty Senate’s motion, previously reported on this blog, urging that the finding of sexual harassment against Professor Arthur Gilbert be vacated. The Provost said that he “could no more vacate the finding of sexual harassment than he could change the score of a hockey game.” He expressed surprise that the Faculty Senate would even vote on the matter, given the “complexities” of the case and the fact that the Senate had such “limited information” with which to work. At the same time, the Provost acknowledged that DU has some problems to remedy regarding its internal due process procedures, specifically the need for greater faculty involvement in cases where student complaints are about an instructor’s classroom speech.
Although Professor Gilbert doesn’t get the official name-clearing justice that he sought, by supporting Professor Gilbert DU’s AAUP chapter succeeded in throwing light on some serious procedural inadequacies as they relate to shared governance at DU. It also succeeded in demonstrating to the Faculty Senate that it was important to speak out on Professor Gilbert’s behalf. It’s regrettable that DU’s Provost would be so critical of the Senate taking a stand on a case that raised such fundamental issues of shared governance and academic freedom.
These other observations are also worth making by way of conclusion:
1. The original student complaints against Professor Gilbert that triggered and focused the proceedings against him did not specifically allege sexual harassment, and the evidence that was compiled in a subsequent investigation of Professor Gilbert’s classroom behavior did not substantiate that harassment occurred.
2. Despite an early assurance from DU’s administration, Professor Gilbert’s rights to due process were not respected on the run-up to his being pulled from his classroom and suspended from campus. Three internal DU faculty groups (the campus AAUP chapter, the all-campus Faculty Review Committee, and a decisive majority of the Faculty Senate) plus two National organizations (the AAUP and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE) agreed that there was enough information available to make this an easy call.
3. Although the Gilbert case is officially closed at DU, FIRE is likely to keep the pressure on. FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff, in his recently published Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate, describes (page 51) the Gilbert case thusly:
In 2011 the University of Denver provided another example of how far the concept of harassment has morphed from its legal origins when Professor Arthur Gilbert was declared guilty of sexual harassment and sentenced to mandatory “sensitivity training” because the content of his class The Domestic and International Consequences of the Drug War was considered too racy. According to the syllabus, one of the themes in the course was “Drugs and Sin in American Life: From Masturbation and Prostitution to Alcohol and Drugs.” How precisely, you can have a meaningful discussion of these topics without offending anybody is beyond me.
4. As indicated above, the way that this case played out exposed more than just some problems with an institution’s internal policies and procedures. It also raised fundamental concerns about the state of academic freedom and shared governance at DU. It’s one thing for institutional leaders to profess commitments to these values. It’s another thing to consistently demonstrate that they’re respected.
Update November 6: The University of Denver’s student newspaper The Clarion has a story about the Gilbert case here.