The year was 1996. Bill Clinton was serving his first term as president. Barack Obama was a civil-rights attorney in Chicago who had yet to hold any public office. It was that long ago. According to J. Patrick Kelly, vice dean of the Widener University School of Law, 1996 was the year that Professor Lawrence J. Connell embarked upon an alleged “ongoing pattern of behavior” involving “statements and characterizations about minorities and women” that might have not only violated the school’s Discrimination and Harassment Code but raise “issues of safety and your fitness to teach,” as Kelly put it in a Dec. 10 letter to Connell.
That sounds ominous and very serious. Connell, a tenured professor with 20 years at Widener, has been on administrative leave and barred from campus since Dec. 20 pending a law school investigation that could result in his firing. Let’s look at what he is supposed to have done way back when. According to Kelly’s letter, Connell had admitted in 1996 to having “made inappropriate statements about the dress and appearance” of a female student in one of his classes. Then-dean Arthur Frakt had apologized to the student on behalf of the law school. There was a second allegation that Connell had made “demeaning remarks” about the same student that year while drinking in a bar, but according to Kelly’s letter, Connell had disputed that charge.
Those were Incidents #1 and #2 in Connell’s “ongoing pattern of behavior,” as hinted at in Kelly’s letter. So what was Incident #3? It was a series of 2010 classroom hypotheticals involving a supposed shooting of Widener Law School Dean Linda Ammons—a full fourteen years later! In short, Connell is being asked to defend himself against allegations that are now more than a decade and a half old (and that at the time were not viewed as warranting disciplinary action), but is obliged to disprove a “pattern” consisting of incidents widely separated in time whose only resemblance to each other is that their supposed victims were female (the “minorities” thrust of Kelly’s letter apparently stemmed from the fact that Ammons in black and Connell is white). To fill in the yawning gap between then and now, Kelly wrote that he had looked at Connell’s student evaluations over several years and “found similar complaints” about “the violent scenarios of last spring.” Student evaluations are by their very nature anonymous (and often motivated by dissatisfaction with grades), and are thus impossible to defend against.
“Taken together,” Kelly wrote, “these alleged incidents appear to establish a pattern” of…”[c]ursing and coarse unprofessional behavior that include demeaning language and depictions of people and groups…[r]acist and sexist statements and characterizations directed at minorities and women…[v]iolent, personal scenarios that demean and threaten9 your colleagues, administrative officials, and students.” That’s quite an ambitious “pattern” to derive from a mere three allegations, one of which Connell had vociferously denied when it was made long ago. As for the hypotheticals involving Ammons—apparently about ten of them–only two students had complained about their supposed racism and sexism.
Indeed the notion of punishing a law professor for creating “scenarios of violence” in classroom hypotheticals has provoked quite a bit of blogging mirth among law professors themselves. Orin Kerr, a criminal-law professor at George Washington University, explained it this way in a post on “The Volokh Conspiracy”: “One of the common ways that law professors keep students mildly entertained in class is by posing hypotheticals involving their professors and the Dean. I’m not sure why this is so funny, but students just love it. If you teach first-year criminal law, which typically focuses heavily on homicide crimes, that means you spend a lot of time imagining your colleagues meeting horrible fates. If A kills B out of revenge, that’s just a boring hypothetical. But if the hypo involves the students’ Torts Professor killing the Dean out of revenge—or better yet, a conspiracy in which the Dean and the students’ Torts and Contract Professors agree to kill their Criminal law Professor for beer money—well, that’s serious entertainment.”
Several Harvard Law School graduates, commenting about a write-up on the Connell imbroglio on the blog “Above the Law, ” pointed out that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was frequently murdered in their criminal classes during her years as Harvard’s law dean. “Putting real names in the hypos might be funny or attention-getting or just stupid, but let’s not get hysterical,” blogged Ann Althouse, professor of constitutional law at the University of Wisconsin. “Was [Connell] advocating that somebody shoot the dean? Obviously not. Are the students so confused they don’t get that? Impossible.”
In an interview last week with Ashley Thorne of the National Association of Scholars, Connell outlined how one of his hypotheticals involving Ammons worked to stimulate several spirited class discussions on why society chooses to punish an unsuccessful attempt to commit a crime. “The dean has threatened to fire me if she comes to school one more time and finds that I have parked my car in her designated parking space,” Connell began. Upset about possibly losing his job, Connell—all in his hypothetical, of course—brings a .357 magnum to Ammons’s office and shoots her in the head, except that the figure at her desk isn’t the dean but a pumpkin painted to look just like her. Should Connell be punished as a murderer because only luck prevented him from carrying out his evil intention? Or should he get off lightly because no one was harmed?
Connell’s problem was that Linda Ammons isn’t just any law school dean, but one whose scholarship has consistently displayed an ideologically driven hypersensitivity to the real or imagined victim status of “women of color,” as she phrased it in a 2003 paper. During a stint during the 1980s working for former Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste she had headed a clemency project for female prisoners who claimed to be victims of domestic violence. Her published scholarly articles, most of which contain domestic-violence motifs, bear such arty and ponderous titles as “Dealing with the Nastiness: Mixing Feminism and Criminal Law in the Review of Cases of Battered Incarcerated Women” and “Mules, Madonnas, Babies, Bathwater, Racial Imagery and Stereotypes: The African-American Woman and the Battered Woman Syndrome.” Connell’s entanglement with Ammons was his pumpkin hypothetical played backwards: He thought he was shooting a pumpkin—crafting a merry classroom tale at the expense of an authority figure—whereas in truth his target turned out to be a thin-skinned feminist with a “women of color” fixation. It is probably not wise to joke in public about people who believe that being a “battered woman” should excuse you from the consequences of committing a serious crime.
According to Connell’s lawyer, Thomas S. Neuberger of Wilmington, Widener’s “preposterous” charges against a tenured faculty member with a 26-year teaching record seem to be retaliation for his client’s conservative political views. During his interview for the National Association of Scholars, Connell said that he had defended the George W. Bush administration’s domestic policies in a 2002 debate at the law school over the Bush-Gore presidential race where he was shouted down by Gore supporters. Afterwards, Connell said, the Student Bar Association asked Connell to apologize to the student body for calling Gore’s policy ideas “naive,” and he was never invited again to debate political issues on campus. Widener seems to be that kind of school. Although the Delaware campus hosts a chapter of the Federalist Society, it was also the campus where students hooted down the invited guest speaker, Christine O’Donnell, last year’s unsuccessful GOP Senate candidate in Delaware. O’Donnell had irritated some ill-informed Democrats by correctly remarking that the U.S. Constitution contains no language calling for separation of church and state.
According to Neuberger, Widener essentially adopted what might be called the “Juan Williams approach” (after the NPR commentator fired and also implicitly called mentally ill by his boss for making a negative remark about Muslims on airplanes), offering to bypass disciplinary proceedings against Connell if he recanted his classroom statements and sought psychiatric counseling. Connell turned down the offer, refused to meet informally with Kelly and Ammons. He demanded a public hearing, complete with such procedural rights as notice of the precise charges against him and freedom to cross-examine witnesses. That prompted a Dec. 20 e-mail to Connell from Kelly accusing Connell of being non-cooperative and placing him on leave if he did not agree to an informal resolution.
Connell was particularly incensed by the charges of “racism” in Kelly’s letter, since he had devoted fifteen years of his spare time to winning a new trial for James Riley, a black Delaware man sentenced to death after being convicted of murder in 1982 by an all-white jury from which the prosecutor had excluded blacks. “It sickens me to think that after my nearly 26 years at Widener, university administrators are suddenly able to divine from the baseless claims of a couple disgruntled students that I am a bigoted racist with violent tendencies,” he wrote in a Dec. 22 letter to Kelly.
Widener’s stance to date has been to cite its privacy policies respecting personnel matters (neither Kelly nor Widener’s attorney, Rocco P. Imperatrice III, responded to my phone phone calls) along with delicate hints that there may be more to the case against Connell than classroom hypotheticals coupled with something he said in class fifteen years ago. In an e-mail to Widener students, the university’s president, James T. Harris wrote, “As you may have gleaned from the news coverage, you have heard only Professor Connell’s attorney’s side of the story.” The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which normally regards free speech inside college classrooms as sacrosanct, has reacted skittishly. “Given our modern culture and the violence that exists, you’re really asking for trouble when you talk about killing people,” the AAUP’s associate secretary, Gregory F. Scholtz, told the press. That prompted legal commentator Jonathan Turley, hardly a conservative, to riposte on his blog, “Really? That is news to those of us who teach torts and criminal law.”
Perhaps this sort of ridicule from fellow law professors of every political stripe may coax Ammons and Kelly into backing down rather than trying to spin a “pattern” of racism and misogyny out of Ammons’ s ruffled feelings plus something that supposedly happened nearly a generation ago But it’s just as likely that many law professors will take a look at what happened to Connell and shy away from a favorite and harmless classroom technique for making dry legal principles entertaining—at least where the alleged victim is a black woman. As Elie Mystal of “Above the Law “ put it, “If you ask me, I’d rather not live in a world where only white people can be hypothetically murdered in law school exams.”