Associate Professor Teresa Buchanan liked to keep her students entertained. She wasn't against using humor—and occasionally, profanity—to make sure students were paying attention during the education classes she taught at Louisiana State University.
"If the curriculum is fucking awful, I might say that it is," said Buchanan in an interview with Reason. "I'm not teaching Sunday school."
She also jokingly told some of her female students that that they shouldn't expect their boyfriends to keep helping them out with their coursework after the sex gets stale.
University administrators, unfortunately, are not known for appreciating comedy—or respecting academic freedom.
On December 20, 2013, at the close of the fall semester, Buchanan's dean informed her that she was suspended from teaching pending the results of an investigation. The university kept her in limbo for the next 18 months, during which time she was subjected to hearings, reviews, appeals—and ultimately, termination, on June 19, 2015.
The accusations against Buchanan will be familiar to anyone who has read about the high-profile Title IX investigations of Northwestern University's Laura Kipnis or Drexel University's Lisa McElroy. A student complained about Buchanan's penchant for occasional insensitive humor, and LSU decided that her actions amounted to sexual harassment and the creation of a hostile learning environment, according to The Advocate.
On June 17, 2014, Dean Damon Andrew told Buchanan that her methods were inexcusable:
"In our meeting, you admitted to using profanity and language of a sexual nature, claiming it supported your overall pedagogical strategy when teaching at LSU. Specifically, you noted that such language was often used to "get the attention of students" and "loosen them up." I find this explanation to be unacceptable, and I do not condone any practices where sexual language and profanity are used when educating students, particularly those who are being educated to serve as [pre-kindergarten through third grade] professionals."
In March of 2015, a faculty committee agreed with LSU that Buchanan had violated the university's sexual harassment policy. (Given the kinds of harmless nonsense that university sexual harassment policies typically obligate administrators to prohibit, this is hardly surprising.) Her statements had disturbed some students, and an occasion in which she had used the word "pussy" during an off-campus conversation with a teacher was cited against her.
But the committee specifically ruled out termination as a possible consequence. Instead, faculty members recommended that Buchanan should merely agree to stop using such colorful language, and that would be the end of it. The committee also chided the university for failing to offer Buchanan proper counselling, due process, and sexual harassment training.
LSU President F. King Alexander ignored the committee's suggestions and instead moved to fire Buchanan—eventually succeeding earlier this month.
Upon termination, Buchanan lost all her university emails—as well as some of the research she had been doing while on mandatory teaching hiatus. She has limited financial resources, and is concerned about her future.
But she wants to fight back. If LSU won't let professors run their own classrooms—infrequently sprinkling lectures with adult language—the university is only lazily committed to academic freedom, and no one is safe.
"It's got to stop," she said. "You can't treat people like this."
Kevin Cope, president of LSU's Faculty Senate, told The Advocate that he didn't believe Buchanan had actually violated university sexual harassment policies:
Cope cast doubt on whether Buchanan violated any of the university's policies. He noted the university's sexual harassment policies require behavior that is not only sexual in nature, but that it must clearly hurt the school performance of students and employees.
"Personally, this is nothing that I would consider sexual harassment at all," Cope said.
He added that if using profanity is grounds for dismissal, two-thirds of college administrators should be fired.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's Peter Bonilla wrote in a statement to Reason that LSU's treatment of Buchanan "gives cause for serious concern":
Among the offenses cited against Buchanan are her occasional use of profanity among her adult students as well as occasional sexual jokes and references. Such interchanges are presumptively protected by a faculty member's free speech and academic freedom rights and by themselves seem to fall well short of constituting any kind of actionable sexual harassment.
Unfortunately, this fits with FIRE's recent experiences. FIRE has seen multiple faculty members in recent years investigated, suspended from teaching, removed from campus, and even fired from their positions over similar complaints to those against Buchanan at LSU. Their universities have regularly shown remarkable indifference to their academic freedom rights even when their speech at issue was demonstrably germane to their teaching or were themselves direct applications of the assigned course materials.
Bonilla also noted that LSU has already been censured by the American Association of University Professors for repeatedly violating the academic freedom rights of its faculty. AAUP's Louisiana state chapter has set up a tax-deductible legal defense fund for Buchanan, who would like file a lawsuit against LSU.
That Buchanan got in trouble for cursing and referencing sex is as unfortunate as it is completely unsurprising. The modern university campus is becoming a bizarrely prudish place, where witch hunts against professors who express dissenting views or practice unorthodox methods are commonplace.
Blame thin-skinned students and cowardly university administrators, but most of all, blame the federal government.