Western Kentucky University’s board of trustees voted unanimously on Friday not to fire a professor who students accused of saying in a diversity class that brains are wired differently depending on the race and that African American students learn best by singing and singing.
Jeanine Huss, a tenured professor in the College of Educational and Behavioral Sciences who has worked at the university since 2005, has been accused of incompetence, according to the student newspaper. But his lawyer pleaded on Friday, during a special board meeting where his case was heard, that the university threatened his First Amendment rights and academic freedom, and failed to properly follow the faculty handbook after filing a grievance during his suspension.
The lawyer, Marc Mezibov, said in an interview that Huss’ comments in class and the assignments that some students objected to were misinterpreted and taken out of context.
None of the regents spoke about why they refused to fire Huss, according to faculty member who attended the meeting, Susan Eagle, and tweets from a student reporter who also attended.
Eagle, assistant professor of public health and president of the local chapter of the American Association of University Teachers, said in an emailed statement that the chapter is concerned about “the lack of transparency in how policy and procedure are interpreted and applied”.
“During the hearing,” she wrote, “the WKU parties repeatedly referred to specific sections of the faculty handbook and state law. However, the administrative interpretation of the policy does not clarify the options available to professors when they find themselves in untenable situations involving members of their chain of command.
The reunion was “quite solemn and, at times, tense,” Eagle said in the email. Like many faculty members, she had learned of the special meeting in a campus-wide email on Wednesday, she said. “It was unclear how or why things could have deteriorated to the point that WKU was considering firing a tenured tenured professor.”
It is clear that this professor is titular and that she does not need to try any more.
The decisions of the board, to hold the special meeting and not to fire Huss, were reported for the first time by the student newspaper, the Heights Herald College. The university did not livestream the proceedings or the vote, but a co-editor of the Herald, Jake Moore, provided a run a series of dozens of tweets during the nine o’clock meeting.
The case is the latest in which academics have drawn attention to the way they talk about race in the classroom. Earlier this month, a computer science professor sued the University of Washington for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights and retaliating against him after he included a statement mocking an acknowledgment of Native American land in a lesson plan that an administrator deemed “offensive”.
Western Kentucky administrators said Huss should be fired for incompetence after several negative reviews from students and reprimands from her supervisor.
Student complaints against Huss began in October 2020, according to Moore’s cover. One student said in an evaluation, according to testimony by a university official on Friday, “Clearly this professor is tenured and no longer thinks she needs to try.”
Students said they were given busy assignments, received ‘nasty’ comments on homework and did not receive feedback in a timely manner, the reporter tweeted.
Susan Keesey, acting principal of the School of Teacher Education, a division of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences, met with Huss in June 2021 to show her the negative student assessments and set goals for her improvement. Huss received a reduced workload for the following academic year, according to tweets from the reporter and Huss’ attorney, and this fall semester has gone well.
But then, in February this year, a student filed a new complaint about Huss’ teaching in a diversity education class. According to a university Course Catalogthe class focused on “the range of student diversity and identifying the characteristics of children in an integrated elementary classroom”.
According to the reporter’s tweet thread, students in the class were required to dress in “diverse person and present on his life.” Another assignment was to visit a diverse location, such as “an Asian fish market – but wear a mask, because it smells bad,” Huss reportedly said.
“Some of the comments she made are inappropriate, regardless of race, gender, whatever,” Keesey said at Friday’s meeting, according to the reporter’s account. Huss was later placed on administrative leave.
The real motivation to get rid of her is discrimination, retaliation against free speech and academic freedom.
Mezibov, Huss’ attorney, said he read the transcripts made from the court recordings. The comment about Asian fish markets was made in jest, he said. “Another comment was how African Americans learn differently – they learn through oral history and that kind of stuff – and that they have a different brain than the rest of us or something,” did he declare. “I mean, all of those things were gross misrepresentations.”
The mission to dress up as a diverse person, he said, was a “wax museum mission.” His goal, he said, was to have students “immerse themselves in that person’s life by dressing up, you know, giving a talk or a presentation about that person. And apparently a few students who took on this assignment felt that it was insensitive, that they were being asked to engage in cultural appropriation.
A student filed a complaint about it, and Huss was quickly removed from class and suspended, Mezibov said. She would then be fired for incompetence, despite her tenure and years of experience. “This allegation of incompetence is really a pretext,” Mezibov said. “The real motivation to get rid of her is discrimination, retaliation against free speech and academic freedom.”
When asked if Huss had any regrets about his comments or assignments, Mezibov said no.
A “serious injustice”
Mezibov argued that Huss had been asked to lead classes she was not equipped for and that firing her would be a “serious injustice”.
Corinne Murphy, dean of the College of Educational and Behavioral Sciences, said in questioning Friday by Mezibov that student assessments “were quantifiably the worst… that I have ever read.”
Keesey, Huss’ supervisor, offered that she be fired for cause, the reporter says tweet.
The university’s president, Timothy C. Caboni, then recommended the removal to the board of trustees, following the procedure specified by the manual.
According to Mezibov, during Friday’s proceedings, Huss filed a grievance with the university regarding the dismissal and its treatment. When asked about it by the attorney, Provost Robert Fischer said the grievance could not be pursued while the dismissal itself was still pending, according to the faculty handbook. Mezibov also said the university told him she could not file a complaint without first trying to resolve the issue through informal methods.
Mezibov said he made it clear to the regents that the university would be prosecuted if Huss was fired. “Make no mistake about it,” he said, recounting the encounter in an interview, “if she gets fired, we sue.” It’s possible that legal action could be taken in any case, he said, to recover Huss’s legal fees and lost income.
“This result demonstrates the university’s commitment to following established procedures and participating in shared governance,” said university spokesperson Jace Lux. “As is standard WKU practice, the university will not be discussing further details of this employment action at this time.”