ASU faculty, administrators clash over outspoken professor

jstancill@newsobserver.comNovember 28, 2012 

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Jammie Price, professor of sociology at Appalachian State University, talks with supporters after meeting with university administration on Monday.

JEFF WILLHELM — jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

  • The story so far Two female students at Appalachian State University in Boone accused five students, four of them athletes, of sexual assault in separate incidents in 2011. A student conduct board found two of the athletes responsible and suspended them from campus. No criminal charges were ever filed. The university later changed the way it handles sexual-assault cases, no longer allowing students to hear those cases. As the campus was embroiled in controversy over the allegations, Jammie Price, a professor of sociology, was placed on administrative leave with pay in March after a student complained that she made disparaging comments about athletes and remarks that the student construed as racist. Other students complained after Price showed her class a film about the pornography industry without any context or discussion. In addition to the leave, the university imposed a professional development plan on Price to address her teaching effectiveness. She filed a grievance petition in June. In a report released in October, a faculty panel made up of six professors backed Price, saying the university violated her academic freedom and due process rights. But it also said Price had made a “serious lapse in judgment” in showing the film. The faculty panel said Price should not have to complete the professional development plan. But ASU Chancellor Ken Peacock said he planned to uphold that requirement.

A battle over academic freedom and the power of athletics is pitting faculty against top leaders at Appalachian State University.

A faculty committee recently found that university administrators violated the academic freedom of a tenured sociology professor. The professor, Jammie Price, was disciplined after students complained that she had made disparaging remarks about athletes and had shown a film about the pornography industry. At the time of the complaints last spring, the campus was embroiled in controversy over allegations of sexual assault by ASU athletes.

Price was placed on administrative leave with pay in March. The university in Boone, part of the University of North Carolina system, also imposed a professional development plan on her to address her teaching effectiveness, despite a satisfactory five-year review just weeks earlier.

Price filed a grievance, and after 24 hours of hearings and the review of more than 100 exhibits, a faculty committee concluded in October that the ASU administration had violated Price’s rights to due process and academic freedom by removing her from the classroom.

Price, who returned to the classroom this fall, said she was ostracized while an investigation was conducted.

“I was removed not just from teaching but also from campus,” she said in an interview this week. “They labeled me a threat to campus. I was basically treated like I was a terrorist.”

The faculty panel recommended setting aside the professional development plan, writing that such a plan “constitutes an unwarranted intrusion on Prof. Price’s academic freedom to teach her subject as she sees fit.”

But in a Nov. 21 letter to Price, ASU Chancellor Ken Peacock said he is rejecting the faculty panel’s recommendation. “I find no persuasive evidence in the record to indicate how the professional development plan will ‘unreasonably restrict your academic endeavors,’ ” he wrote.

ASU officials declined to answer questions about the case Wednesday.

“The university correspondence which Dr. Jammie Price has circulated is part of a confidential personnel matter, the details of which the university is prohibited under state law from discussing,” said a statement by Hank Foreman, associate vice chancellor for university communications and cultural affairs. “Appalachian has policies in place to ensure employees have a process by which their grievances may be heard and their rights protected.”

Racism and porn

The chain of events started on March 2 in Price’s introductory sociology class. She wore a T-shirt with a slogan related to a silent protest on campus about the recent sexual assaults.

Price recalls that she answered some students’ questions about the T-shirt at the beginning of class. Then, during a lecture on institutional racism, she said, she talked about how college athletes who are predominantly black are treated by the system. Though they may have scholarships, they are not really having the same college experience as other students, she said she told the class.

“All I was doing was straight sociology,” Price said.

A female student athlete in the class was offended and went to an associate athletics director with a complaint about Price. She told university officials that Price had ranted about student athletes and made remarks that she perceived as racist. Another student expressed similar concerns.

An investigation was launched, and Price was told not to do anything to retaliate or intimidate the student.

Price said she wasn’t sure what she could teach for her next class, which was to be focused on gender. She chose to show a film called “The Price of Pleasure.” She described it as an anti-porn documentary that explores how mainstream businesses such as hotels and financial funds are tied up with pornography. The film includes blurred images of porn.

Two more students complained.

‘Consistently confrontational’

Administrators found fault with Price’s classroom conduct. Linda Foulsham, director of equity, diversity and compliance, wrote in her investigative findings about Price: “Her pedagogy appears to be consistently confrontational, belittling, angry, critical, and destructive of the potential for a valuable educational experience for her students. Whether or not students felt demeaned or harassed based on their race, sex, political affiliation, status as an athlete or status as an Appalachian student, there is a consistent pattern of Dr. Price making students feel uncomfortable.”

A faculty panel sided with Price on most issues of the case, though the group criticized the professor for “a serious lapse in judgment” in showing a video about the porn industry with no contextual background or class discussion. The panel rejected the administration’s claim that the video viewing constituted a retaliatory act by the professor that created a hostile classroom environment.

The faculty review also found that the subjects discussed in class were not off-limits, even though they might have been unsettling to some students.

“In teaching race and ethnicity, Prof. Price discusses race in the context of higher education and student athletics. In doing so, she does not paint a pretty picture, and it intentionally hits home with many students,” the faculty report said. “Even if her illustrations are critical of Appalachian, that is legitimate sociology. ... It is a legitimate argument in the field and at the university that others perceive athletes as receiving special privileges. In fact, ASU student athletes do receive special privileges.”

The faculty review committee said the whole issue could have been resolved if the academic department had facilitated a dialogue between Price and the first student who complained. The panel called the lack of such a meeting “a missed opportunity.”

Men’s poker game

The panel also pointed out that the student had complained to athletics officials, who took the issue to the university’s equity office and a swift investigation was launched.

“It is ironic that a case – initiated at least in part by Prof. Price’s assertion that student athletes get preferential treatment – became an object demonstration that student athletes do, in fact, get preferential treatment,” the faculty panel wrote.

Price, who has made several complaints against ASU to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said she’s worried about her future at the Boone university.

She has been outspoken on a number of campus issues, including a poker club she says is dominated by male faculty and administrators.

“The whole experience here at App State has been, it’s like going back in time,” said Price, who describes herself as a feminist whose sociological expertise is men and masculinity. “It’s like it’s 1950 here. ... It’s a club. They do whatever they want to do. If a woman says that’s not how it should be or expresses discontent, they put her in her place.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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