I Could Have Been Fired Without Ever Knowing Why—But I Had Tenure

I learned about the charges brought against me only after the findings were reached. My departmental chair called me into her office and at the direction of the college administration told me what I had to do to remedy the apparently awful situation I had known nothing about. I had to change my syllabus.

I teach geology at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY). And luckily I have tenure, an important protection in case of Kafka-like trials at a PC college. What had I done wrong? See for yourself. Here is the offending phrase from the grading portion of my syllabus: “Class deportment, effort etc……. 10% (applied only to select students when appropriate).”

Can you spot the alleged offense? I bet not. For reasons that escape me too, that phrase was perceived as a prelude to sexual harassment. And the phrase was so clearly problematic to the administration that they directed me to change it.

Related: How Students Intimidate Professors and Stymie Learning

As it turns out, my syllabus almost crossed another invisible line of acceptability in the politically correct world at Brooklyn College. Here’s the problematic part:

“This classroom is an ‘unsafe space’ for those uncomfortable with viewpoints with which they may disagree: all constitutionally protected speech is welcome.” I had been using warning triangles sardonically instead of ordinary quote marks when referring to foolish PC terms. All my department chair would say is, “The triangles are the problem.” I never found out what made the triangles a problem. They were ready to act on a problem without saying what the problem was.

My guess is that some administrator thought the warning triangles were reminiscent of the pink triangles that the Nazis made gays wear. I wonder how long the administrators deliberated before deciding that the clip art street signs I’d included in my syllabus weren’t Nazi symbols.

Nothing in Writing

I think it’s fair to conclude that the phrases at issue in my syllabus were neither sexually harassing nor anti-gay. Would anyone not deeply versed in PC culture conjure up the alleged offenses in my syllabus?  Indeed, of all the excesses of the language police I’ve heard about, I can’t think of a more tortured interpretation of words.

Charges involving sexual harassment and anti-gay bias are serious matters that mandate thorough investigation. But because the charges are so serious, they also mandate due process for the accused. That this investigation was concluded, and a course of action recommended without my knowledge and without my having an opportunity for input, fails to meet that standard.

I thought it wise, given the possible damage to my reputation, that I learn what procedures had been used in my case and what records exist. So I started digging, first asking my chair to tell me which department had initially contacted her.

As a result of that inquiry, the college’s Director of Diversity Investigations and Title IX Enforcement —yes, Brooklyn College really has a Director of Diversity Investigations— emailed me and offered to meet. Given the seriousness of the charges, I declined that offer because I wanted all my communications with the administration to be documented.

In a series of emails, I asked the director to provide me with a copy of the complaint with names redacted, the names of the offices involved in the matter, a description of the procedures, and a description of all actions that were recommended as a result of the findings, among other things.

In response, the director claimed that there had been no charges filed against me and that his office had not investigated my syllabus. He again offered to meet in order to “clear up some apparent misconceptions and miscommunications.”

I certainly was confused at this point. If no charge had been filed, why was I directed to change my syllabus? If his office hadn’t investigated the issue, why did he contact me? If his office wasn’t involved, which office was?

To clear things up, I asked my chair for further explanation. What she told me made me realize why the director was so reluctant to put anything in writing or to share pertinent documents: despite his denial, it was the director’s office that had told her to have me change the phrasing in my syllabus.

Confronting the Director

When I confronted the director with my newly discovered information, he immediately shut down communications, saying, “My office considers the matter to be closed.”

I know that my case pales in comparison to others because the charges I faced were bizarre enough to be easily rebutted. But in seeking answers from the college administration over this issue, I revealed the college’s system for investigating charges of sex bias and sexual harassment to be thoroughly dysfunctional.

If the procedures used against me are typical, an accused person at Brooklyn College is 1) denied due process during the investigation and adjudication and 2) denied any documentation of the complaint, procedures, and findings after the fact.

It is also particularly troubling that the administrator in charge of the investigation of my syllabus became the gatekeeper regarding inquiries about the investigation. Who, then, would hold that administrator accountable for improprieties in investigations?

Brooklyn College is now on notice: the college’s system for investigating charges of sex bias and sexual harassment fails to meet requisite standards for due process, transparency, and accountability and needs to be fixed.

19 thoughts on “I Could Have Been Fired Without Ever Knowing Why—But I Had Tenure”

  1. Hi there, Minding The Campus; longtime reader, first-time poster.

    I just had to comment on the absurdity of this. (DISCLAIMER: I’m Jewish, lost some distant relatives in the Holocaust, and I think this is just patently absurd.)

    I also have to wonder: Whoever the complainers were (hey, it could be more than one person), did they really see the pink triangles and make this super-tenuous Holocaust connection, or were they just testing the waters to see what they could get away with?

    I don’t know about the ethics of this or not, but if I was a professor and someone pulled this kind of junk on me, I’d be tempted to test whatever power I had left — maybe threaten to flunk the entire class unless someone ‘fessed up?

    Thank you for sharing your story, Professor Seidemann.

  2. “This classroom is an ‘unsafe space’ for those uncomfortable with viewpoints with which they may disagree: all constitutionally protected speech is welcome.”

    Why do you need to put this in a geology class? Rocks aren’t controversial. Sounds like you were mouthing off alt-right tropes like “PC culture” and “white genocide” and expected no consequences. Teach people about geology, little Eichmann!

  3. “Class deportment, effort etc……. 10% (applied only to select students when appropriate).” – You cannot apply this “only to select students”, that right there is a huge problem in any classroom. Your syllabus is a contract, and you are stating that not all students will be graded in the same way or with the same methodology. Sexual harassment or not (I’m assuming there are some who interpreted the “select students” as those who would be providing “favors”), that portion alone merits a rewrite of your syllabus.

  4. Don’t know why my original comment wasn’t allowed through the moderation machine. What I said is hardly controversial. But I’ll repeat in nuce.

    The people who staff these diversity offices are in no doubt that all the isms not only exist but are endemic in their jurisdictions. They are not there to decide whether isms are rampant but to actively root them out and punish the wrongdoers. What happened to the professor here is known simply as “it’s your turn.” Sooner or later every professor and every student who is not ostentatiously engaged in the diversity propaganda and witch hunt will be “investigated,” “reported,” found” to have committed an act of heresy, er, bias, and rebuked, disciplined, punished in some fashion. The punishment will be harsher if you don’t sign the confession they put in front of you and publicly perform the prescribed auto da fe.

    These diversity police are not your colleagues, not your friends, not your co-workers. They are Stasi. They have quotas to fill or else they’ll be frowned upon and suspected of not being “diverse” enough themselves.

    It really is just that simple.

  5. Well shucks…if you didn’t screw your own union (assuming your claims are true) they would have leapt to your defense.

    How does it feel to be wrongly and unfairly accused of something?

    With no due respect, you’re awfully good at doling it out.

  6. “Charges involving sexual harassment and anti-gay bias are serious matters that mandate thorough investigation.”

    No. They’re not.

    Perhaps at one time they were. Perhaps, in some bygone era of rational thought in which fully-grown, experienced, adult administrators dealt with the trivial and inconsequential as trivial & inconsequential — easily separated from the serious & significant… maybe then being accused of Sexual Harassment or Bias could have been treated as world-shaking. Maybe. But those days are long past. Today — charges involving sexual harassment and anti-gay bias (and let’s add racism, too, since that’s clearly one of the Big Three Most PC Sins) have become nothing more than entirely unserious, high-pitched shrieks of the Perpetually HyperSensitive . Symptomatic only of the inevitable collision between a Snowflake & Real Life, the reflexive regurgitation of Sin Accusation tells us only that the Accused has not demonstrated the appropriate obeisance before the New Gods of Diversity, Inclusion, MultiCulturalism, and Outcome Equality. He or she has not bowed & scraped appropriately — perhaps even using words, a tone of voice, or mini-triangles that indicate sacrilegious common sense.

    If the words used meant anything….if they were applied only to the truly sinful, the horribly egregious — then yes the accusations would be serious and would, indeed, merit a full-scale investigation. But they don’t mean anything.

    Well, that’s not quite true. They don’t mean anything or stand for anything but they are, indeed, the official face of The New Intolerance. They bear the imprimatur of the Grand Inquisitor who rules as whim & social fashion dictate. As such, as Prof. Seidemann came to know, they can be quite scary — even career ending. But, in the end, they are nothing but the screeching of the ten-thousand ‘chicken littles’ for whom the racist, sexist, cisgendered, colonialist, ableist, heterosexist sky is always falling, falling, and falling some more.

    “Oh, Dean Penny, the sky is falling and I am going to the Chancellor to tell him about it.”
    “How do you know it?” – asks Dean Penny.
    “It hit me on the head, so I know it must be so,” – says Chicken Little…and so the Title IX Office of the OCR was duly informed & the Shaming Stool assembled.

  7. This is what happens when SJW do-gooders, instead of actual lawyers and judges, adjudicate findings of fact and law. Notice and due process are key features of this statutory and procedural method, not archaic formalities to be relegated to the dustbin.

    Oh well, who cares about facts or best practices when there is an axe to grind? History teaches time and again that Kangaroo Courts convict the innocent at worst, and only add to mistrust and confusion at best – one would certainly expect more from the administrators at an institution of higher learning.

  8. Political correctness can go overboard but am I the only one who thinks that “This classroom is an ‘unsafe space’ for those uncomfortable with viewpoints with which they may disagree: all constitutionally protected speech is welcome” is a weird thing to put in the syllabus for a geology class?

    I’ll be honest, I would not be thrilled attending such a class and having a student jump up to say “The Holocaust is a myth!” and the professor reply “Fascinating! Let’s talk about that.”

    1. On the contrary, it would indeed be fascinating to hear the reasoning and evidence of a Holocaust denier, just as it is fascinating to observe someone prove algebraically that 1 = 2. You have to pay attention in order to spot the flaw, but it is an excellent way to train oneself in reasoning and argument.

    2. SusanD, indeed you are the only one who believes ‘All constitutionally protected speech is welcome’ is a weird thing to be written on a college syllabus, it does not matter what topic the class covers.

      In a discussion of past geologists and current geologists, the topic can broach the lack of female geologists and that geology can be a dangerous line of work. If you are working in an area digging and getting rocks from a substrate and it should suddenly move while you are there, you can be killed… Maybe that is why females didn’t flock to be geologists before? I’d personally like to see more female geologists and have them haul up the pails full of samples for a change since it’s always the men doing that! And women in the military on the front lines so that there is a more equal distribution of the risk between men and women in the military.

      Studying rocks isn’t just picking up a rock on the ground and looking at it with a magnifying glass and saying ‘hmm….’ Yet you want to jump to some fictitious and ludicrous ‘oh my, what if someone says the Holocaust is a myth’. Well, go boycott the new movie called “Denial” that talks about that. I’m pretty sure if someone were to say such a thing in Prof. Seidmann’s class he would handle it appropriately and immediately and any students offended by that other student’s comments could report that student to the Director of Diversity Investigations and Title IX Enforcement and have that student disciplined and (most likely) expelled.

    3. This article needs a link to the full text in question . Judging snippets doesn’t cut it .

      That said , a competent geology class seems more likely to offend creationists or Al Gore Warming eKoStatists .

    4. It leaves it open to all possibilities. By opening up to all possibilities you may get input you never thought about. It also doesn’t mean that those discussions would automatically stop the planned lesson longer than simply hearing the initial statement. Things completely off-topic may be shut down or relegated to another time/venue, but there are plenty of things out there that may come up in geology. How about “The Earth is really only 6000 years old” or “Climate Change isn’t effected by humans”? Who knows what other people may come up with? As a general practice, it seems a reasonable disclaimer to cut & paste into any syllabus.

    5. Susan D….. I understand your concerns, but let us say, for the sake of argument, that the students made uncomfortable were biblical literalists who believed that the earth was only thousands of year old? Would you pose the same question in the same way? Further, in a campus climate in which restrictions of speech inhibit honest discussion, might it not be refreshing to find a professors who reminds their students at a public university that “constitutionally protected speech” is not prohibited. If the subjects turn to other than geology, then the students have a right to complain (though such complaints appear to be a one-way street in the academy).

    6. Susan, I suspect that mocking of safe spaces was “triggering” and the “trigger” for the star chamber investigation.

  9. This has “Behavioral Intervention Team” written all over it; at Brooklyn College it’s called B.E.S.T.

    “Behavioral Intervention Teams” are “Star Chambers” in which students (and, increasingly, faculty) are tried in absentia without any knowledge of the proceedings. Top level administrators (e.g. “Associate Provost”) make a decision as to what will be done, and then tell their subordinates to do it. Standard procedure is to send the aggrieved person to other offices in a Byzantine-bit-moot runaround as all the offices are subordinate to someone who was present in the initial meeting.

    The inability to find out exactly what you are accused of, let alone by whom, is the classic indication that a BIT is involved. Likewise the “come over and discuss your concerns” and “the matter is closed” described above — what Dr. Seidemann doesn’t realize is that that “the administrator in charge of the investigation of [his] syllabus” had (a) been instructed as to what her findings/decision would be and (b) not to tell Dr. Seidemann where the decision had actually been made or by whom.

    In other words, “the gatekeeper regarding inquiries about the investigation” is ordered not to be one by the very upper-level administrators whom one would reasonably expect to hold an errant administrator accountable — or to “fix” the mistakes that any human administrator will inevitably make.

    In other words, “and who will guard the Guardians?”

  10. This is East German level stuff in America, more than 25 years after East Germany ceased to be. And I will bet it is just the tip of the iceberg.

  11. The professor appears to believe that the apparatchiks of the surreally titled offices operate in good faith. In fact, they already know–they already knew when they accepted the job, they already know each and every evening when they go to bed and they already know each and every morning when they awake–that sexual harassment, racism and LGTBQXYZ-phobia exist at the College. Not just exist–the College is permeated, infested, overrun with them. They already know this. Their job is simply to identify likely malefactors and correct them. Or punish them. Mostly punish them. But people like you are clever, disguising your hate and harassment under layers of seemingly neutral, unobjectionable words. But you’re not clever enough. They found you out. A good day’s work, all in all. Isn’t it fortunate that we now have these trained cadres on duty. Hate and harassment can’t hide from them!

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