“A group of sociologists did a poll in Arizona about the new immigration law. Sixty percent said they were in favor, and 40 percent said, ‘No habla English.’”
That joke in class has Robert Engler, a 12-year sociology professor at Roosevelt University, fighting for his career.
It elicited two written complaints in the spring of 2010 as ethnically offensive, and what followed was a protracted argument that eventually included the termination of his employment from the fall semester.
Administrators have also discontinued his course “City and Citizenship,” previously a requirement for graduation.
Now his attorney, Doug Ibendahl, is about to file suit. Ibendahl believes university administrators are dragging their feet over a “harmless joke that would not be considered offensive by any reasonable standard.”
“Litigation shouldn’t be necessary in a case like this where the wrong is so obvious,” he said, “but the university may give us no choice but to move forward.”
Officially, Engler’s termination was for noncooperation with the harassment investigation, since he repeatedly chose not to attend meetings that would address the allegation.
Engler said he was willing to cooperate but the department refused to put the allegation in writing. When he brought legal counsel to an appeal meeting, university administrators immediately canceled it.
It wasn’t until the student newspaper wrote about the case months after his dismissal that he learned of the origin of the allegations, he said.
“I didn’t want to come to a meeting and be charged and not even know what it was,” he said.
He said “university representatives insisted in meeting over the summer when I could not gather a defense, while I was engaged in other projects and not in Chicago.”
Now he worries that the unresolved harassment dispute will dissuade alternative employers.
In the termination letter, the department chairman, Michael Maly, expressed disappointment with the drawn-out process. However, he asserted that Engler brought the situation upon himself.
“Obviously we would have preferred to meet with you … we were very clear that you had an obligation to participate … we also explicitly advised you of the consequences for failing to fulfill your responsibility,” he said.
One student that filed a complaint, Cristina Solis, has spoken out, describing the outcome as fair and saying that she does not regret her decision to complain.
“If that is what it took to give him a reality check, and to make sure that no other student has to go through that, maybe it’s for the best,” she said.
She believes the remarks were inappropriate for “a school like Roosevelt University, which is based on social justice.”
Engler is unapologetic and countered that “by definition that course contains controversial material.”
Ibendahl added that Engler has an unblemished record, and the joke was directly related to the day’s topic of discussion.
“Humor is used by many professors to better engage students. … We can expect a substantial chilling effect on academic freedom and our First Amendment Rights. That hurts all of us, and possibly other students most of all,” he said.
Adam Kissel, vice president of programs with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is investigating and also has expressed concern about the freedom-of-speech ramifications.
The Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization, Engler’s union representatives, has filed a supporting grievance claim that remains unresolved.