Pacific University is the latest focus of an intense struggle over academic freedom after it suspended Professor Richard Paxton. Dr. Paxton was accused of violating the “civil rights” of students under Title IX after he shared an experience of unwittingly walking into a drag bar in New Orleans. The story was a story shared for a pedagogical purpose. While that story appears to have been the impetus for the initial action against Dr. Paxton, he was also accused of saying that “every person has a gender” and other references. He has alleged that Jennifer Yruegas (who is not just the university’s but associate vice president of human resources and associate dean of the business school, and Title IX coordinator) pushed Paxton to resign. The investigation has now dragged on for months and, to its credit, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has filed its own letter of concern in the matter. The case is similar to other recent controversies where professors were suspended and subject to long investigations without a clear basis for such action.
The main complaint against Dr. Paxton was the story that he shared in a class on cognitive development and specifically Jean Piaget’s “schema theory.” The theory has been described the following way:
Schemas are categories of information stored in long-term memory. A schema contains groups of linked memories, concepts or words. This grouping of things acts as a cognitive shortcut, making storing new things in your long-term memory and retrieval of them much quicker and more efficient.
The theory suggests that human conduct and behavior is based on these groupings of patterns and concepts from our life experiences. Paxton shared his response to the bar as an example. He and his friends entered what they thought was a typical bar when they gradually realized that it was a bar featuring the “World’s Best Female Impersonators.” They left.
When there was a complaint, Paxton recounts an alleged confrontational call with Yruegas and another official. The letter to Fox New’s John Roberts was reprinted on the site the College Fix.
The letters from counsel and the university indication that four students also cited his remarks about race, including that Jews funded the Revolutionary War, and an observation that women don’t wear purses “like they used to.”
The AAUP raised serious concerns over the handling of the dispute and the length of time of this ongoing investigation. He is a tenured professor who was allegedly pressured by Yruegas to resign. He says that he has been subject to an unrelenting campaign and public humiliation, causing him to sell his house and deal with depression. He is now preparing a lawsuit. He also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for age discrimination.
The suspension contravenes his status as a tenured professor as well as principles of academic freedom, according to the AAUP letter.
The response from the University seems little more than a shrug and a type of “these things take time” defense. There is notably no response to the claims that Paxton was pushed to resign or he would be subjected to a Title IX investigation.
As we have previously discussed, these long and public suspensions (like the one involving a John Marshall law professor recently) do not have to succeed in termination to have a chilling effect on other academics. Few professors would risk what is now approaching six months of suspension and public humiliation. Instead, many will yield to what the perceive are the demands of the majority in their teaching and research.
These controversies raise questions over how speech regulations are being enforced either in controversies involving speech on or off campus. We have previously discussed the concern that academics are allowed (correctly) to voice extreme views on social justice and police misconduct, but that there is less tolerance for the voicing of opposing views on such subjects. There were analogous controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of such a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. There were also such an incident at the University of London involving Bahar Mustafa as well as one involving a University of Pennsylvania professor. Some intolerant statements against students are deemed free speech while others are deemed hate speech or the basis for university action. There is a lack of consistency or uniformity in these actions which turn on the specific groups left aggrieved by out-of-school comments. There is also a tolerance of faculty and students tearing down fliers and stopping the speech of conservatives. Indeed, even faculty who assaulted pro-life advocates was supported by faculty and lionized for her activism.
Professors have a right to express themselves even when they espouse offensive or disgraceful positions. As we have previously discussed, one professor called for more Trump supporters to be killed. Another called for strangling police. Rhode Island Professor Erik Loomis, who writes for the site Lawyers, Guns, and Money, said he saw “nothing wrong” with the killing of a conservative protester — a view defended by other academics. While sites like Lawyers, Guns, and Money feature writers law professor Paul Campus who call for the firing of those with opposing views (including myself), they continue to feature a writer who has justified actually killing those with opposing views. I have opposed calls that extremist figures like Loomis should be terminated at their universities for speaking publicly on such issues. However, there remains a sharp contrast in how such controversial statements are treated by universities depending on their content or conclusions.
One distinguishing feature here with some of these cases is that the statements were made in class though the university letter stresses that such investigations would apply to comment on or off campus. Yet, faculty have been criticized for extreme statements on race or gender in classrooms. Some of us have defended them on the basis of academic freedom despite our personal disagreement with the statements. Putting aside the content of the statements made by Paxton, there remains the response. If such a comment constitutes a Title IX violation and warrants months of suspension, the protections of tenure could be eviscerated by universities. I do not fault the university for investigating. If students complained, it has an obligation to address those complaints to be sure that a professor is not abusing students. In this case, that may warrant a broader inquiry. The question is the need for a suspension that is now approaching half a year.
There is also a concern with the university’s response recently to the AAUP. It is basically and “cut and paste” of the Title IX procedures and no specific response to the allegations of abusive process and statements contained in the letter from Dr. Paxton’s lawyer. At a minimum, the University could have promised to separately look into how this matter was handled and whether such abuses occurred. That is not necessarily germane to a Title IX investigation of Dr. Paxton’s statements in class. For example, if Yruegas did push Paxton to resign or face a Title IX investigation, there are serious concerns over due process. This was a meeting allegedly called with very little notice and an alleged demand for immediate resignation. If true, that would be an outrageous violation of principles of due process under the faculty handbook and AAUP guidelines. The University does not acknowledge such specific allegations in its letter, let alone promise to investigate them.