Dr. Clanton Dawson, professor of religion and philosophy at Bethune-Cookman University, was in the middle of giving a lecture in the school’s Mary McLeod Bethune Fine Arts building more than a year ago when a student suddenly broke down and started crying.
“I go to her. I ask if she’s OK,” Dawson recalled during an interview Tuesday. “She said ‘yeah,’ but asked to speak with me after class.”
The conversation that Dawson says followed that fateful day is one of several that set off a chain of events that would ultimately lead to the controversial dismissal in spring 2009 of four faculty members who allegedly coerced female students into trading sex for grades.
Dawson said he never doubted the student’s story that she was being sexually harassed by one of her professors in the university’s School of Social Sciences, so he reported the allegations to university administrators.
“When a student tells me face-to-face that they’re having a problem and that they are being harassed in the classroom and that the instructor made it impossible for her to do her work and she breaks down in my class, yeah,” Dawson said. “Generally, when someone does that, I go directly to the dean.”
But in investigating the allegations, says Dr. Cary Nelson, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Bethune-Cookman administrators trampled over the professors’ due process rights.
AAUP recently released a scathing and painstakingly detailed report that criticizes the administration at Bethune-Cookman for dismissing the professors without evidence and based on anonymous complaints and essentially denying their rights under what the organization says was tantamount to tenured status.
The university “offered no conclusion on the accuracy of any of the allegations but stated ‘the perception of guilt of the accused is insurmountable,’” states the AAUP report, innocuously titled Academic Freedom and Tenure: Bethune-Cookman University (Florida).
“These people didn’t get due process,” Nelson said.
But university officials defended the decision to dismiss the accused professors and said student safety trumps due process. They also released a statement that calls the AAUP report “flawed.”
“I take full responsibility for what happened here, and, if I had to do it again, I would protect my students,” said Bethune-Cookman University President Trudie Kibbe Reed. “When you lay down side-by-side one group talking about due process versus the safety of students and adhering to federal guidelines on sexual harassment … it’s a no-brainer.”
The AAUP released the Bethune-Cookman report last week to highlight the dismissals of the four professors over sexual misconduct charges, as well as the dismissals of three other professors fired for reasons AAUP says were disingenuous and retaliatory. Nelson said the way the cases were handled puts professors at risk of being dismissed based on spurious claims that could be spurred by retaliatory motives.
The AAUP report names the professors accused of sexual misconduct as: Dr. Russell Mootry, who before his dismissal served as dean of the School of Social Sciences; Professor Trebor Negron; Dr. Smart Uhakheme; and Dr. John Ukawuilulu.
A different report commissioned by Bethune-Cookman did not name the professors but said the four accused professors publicly identified themselves as the “Nigerian Mafia” and had an off-campus apartment where they took female students to have sex. The report says the men occasionally took nude pictures of the students and threatened to put the photographs on Facebook if the students reported them to the university administration.
Reed said one of the things that convinced her to take swift action in getting rid of the professors is the fact that allegations were unsolicited and came from multiple sources.
In one case, she said, the allegations that the professors were coercing female students into giving them sex for grades surfaced from an unexpected source: a consultant who had been brought to the university to conduct a survey on what kind of characteristics faculty members wanted in a new administrator.
“He said he had a very serious problem to present,” Reed said of the consultant. “He said many faculty members didn’t want to give their opinion on what they were looking for in the new administrator because they didn’t think they’d be taken seriously.”
“He also said students were dealing with sexual harassment and didn’t think she would listen because I was closely aligned with these people,” Reed said, referring to the professors accused of sexual harassment.
As it turns out, three of the accused professors were actually her “ambassadors” on campus—a designation she says should refute any notion that the professors were terminated in retaliation for being critical of her administration.
The AAUP report says retaliation is commonplace at the university.
“A pervasive atmosphere currently exists at Bethune-Cookman University in which the administration supports favorites and ignores or punishes those who fall out of favor or who question, contend, or appeal,” the AAUP report states. “What may be valid grounds for an action becomes so clouded by persuasive claims of administration animus that the truth cannot be determined.”
“The resulting climate of doubt leaves faculty members wondering which claims or rumors to believe and what might happen to them if they are not careful,” the report continues. “The chilling effect on academic freedom is evident.”
The AAUP’s Nelson said the take-home point for prospective faculty members is that Bethune-Cookman is an institution that devalues academic freedom and tramples on faculty members’ due process rights.
“They cannot expect the administration at Bethune-Cookman to guarantee them that any complaint against them will be handled in a fair and equitable manner,” Nelson said. “They could be vulnerable to arbitrary dismissal.”