When Forbes wrote that being a professor was one of the least stressful jobs of 2013 they posted an addendum to their website by way of apology, after receiving enormous critical response. Online media, social media and hundreds of professors had something to say about that one. Professors emailed Forbes with detailed breakdowns of their 70+ hour work weeks and the difficulties of maintaining sanity from the stress and pressure that can come with their jobs.
Given the huge syllabus, lesson plan, exam, thesis and marking workload, the expectations for publication and scientific breakthroughs not to mention the demands of shaping young minds, it’s no wonder that some individuals crack under the weight of the academic world. While some may fudge experiment data, others refuse to align their beliefs with those of the university they’re working under. Throw in the odd pervert and hippie, and you got yourself a mixed bag of people entrusted with high profile jobs in which they’re expected to maintain rigorously ethical positions. But the results of their professional choices can sometimes fall in a gray area of “right” and “wrong” depending on who you ask. Aside from the obvious, occasional case of student/teacher scandals, below is a list of professors over the last 60 years who’ve been sacked, some for the better and in other cases for the disappointingly worse. Either way, like many impertinent students before them, they were given the boot for their “bad” behaviour.
10. Professor Stanley Moore – 1954
Stanley W. Moore received his doctorate from Harvard in 1940 and served in the Air Force before settling down in his position with Reed College, where he became a popular tenured Philosophy professor. It was his Marxist beliefs and membership with the Communist Party that got him in trouble during the anti-communist McCarthy era, and made him a target of the House Un-American Activities Committee, who subpoenaed Moore in 1954 for a public hearing in Portland.
Moore pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned on his beliefs, but the incident resulted in his suspension from Reed. Moore appealed to the university in an open letter arguing that academic independence and tenure should protect his job, but it fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until the mid-60s that Moore found a permanent teaching position again with the University of California, San Diego, until his retirement. Recently, a board of trustees at Reed publicly admitted regret in the action of his dismissal.
9. Ram Dass & Timothy Leary – 1963
What’s a little LSD in the name of research? The Department of Psychology at Harvard once housed two leading figures of counterculture in the ’60s, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). Together, the two brilliant young psychologists began to explore the effects of psychotropic substances on the human mind; basically, they got super high as part of their studies. Their rationale was that in order to study the mind and its relationship to the brain and body and environment, they had to see how it was affected by mind-altering substances. Naturally. They called it the “Harvard Psilocybin Project,” and the two set out to document the effects of Psilocybin (naturally occurring in mushrooms) on human consciousness by administering it to volunteer subjects and recording the experience.
Volunteers, unsurprisingly, included many students. Faculty members and administrators at Harvard grew increasingly alarmed regarding the safety of the project as they no doubt peered in, with indignation, on the long-haired, bell-bottomed arm waving chaos of the research lab. Leary and Alpert’s unorthodox methodology was constantly under fire, with the university pointing out that the researchers could not adequately control the environment when the two profs were also tripping out. While Leary and Alpert stood firm on the scientific purpose of their project, they agreed to policies that set out to protect their subjects, but eventually their adherence towards these policies slipped and this – along with what was deemed a total absence of scientific rigor – resulted in both men being given the boot. This didn’t hurt their reputation much, though. Leary became famous for the slogan “Tune in, Turn On, Drop Out” and Alpert, who took a trip to India in 1967 and discovered a dharmic life as Baba Ram Dass, wrote “Be Here Now.” Part psychedelic self-help, part beat-diary, the book was a seminal part of 60s culture and is described as a “modern spiritual classic.”
8. H. Bruce Franklin – 1972
Bruce Franklin was a tenured Stanford professor when he was fired in 1972 for leading a group of students to occupy the campus’ computer center. He urged both students and faculty to strike in protest against the Vietnam war. His movement for revolutionaries was called the Venceremos Brigade and was a Maoist group advocating to overthrow U.S. imperialism. Franklin would go on to become one of the most notoriously popular and feared critics of the war, despite being blacklisted and continually targeted by the FBI who kept trying to “neutralize” him.
If you’re wondering whether it’s hard to fire a tenured Ivy League professor, the answer is: yes, very. Stanford’s rules provided for due process so a tenure-review committee was selected among colleagues outside of Franklin’s department. The Physics Department lecture hall became a makeshift courtroom, with the usual furniture and paraphernalia. A Los Angeles attorney, Paul Valentine, was retained to plead the University’s case. Franklin defended himself, with advice from a law student and a well-known constitutional lawyer. Evidence was heard for each side, witnesses were cross-examined, and summations given, and the panel left the room to consider its verdict, which was guilty of violating the university’s Disruption Policy, punishable by revocation of tenure and termination with prejudice. Franklin was a force to be reckoned with, and in 1975 he was hired again as a tenured full professor at Rutgers, and in the years that followed he received a number of high profile awards for teaching and scholarship.
7. Dr Spautz, University of Newcastle – 1980
One of the stranger stories – if you can believe it – comes from Newcastle, Australia where Dr. Michael Spautz lost his position as Senior Lecturer in the Department of Commerce. Spautz apparently had quite an issue with one of his department colleagues, by the name of Alan Williams. In 1977 Spautz, who had studied Williams Ph.D. thesis, questioned the methods Williams used, claiming his colleague had conducted several cases of plagiarism with unacknowledged secondary sources. He informed Williams that he would make his evidence public if Williams didn’t step down. Williams didn’t step down, so Spautz took it up the ladder, demanding the administration get rid of the other professor. He threatened them as well, saying he would pursue the case publicly if they did not fire Williams.
The Vice-Chancellor decided it wasn’t his job to investigate Williams – rather, it was the purview of the university from whence he’d received his doctorate. Spautz, essentially, lost it. In his own bulletin and in the media, he attacked senior University administrators and Council members and in late 1979, an investigative committee at Newcastle expressed their confidence in Williams and demanded Spautz reel it in. Spautz did not stop.
The consequent committee that was developed to determine a right of dismissal against Spautz was not unbiased; some of the individuals involved in his dismissal proceedings were the subject of his public diatribes. But the professor made a mess of his dismissal suit and upon refusal to pay legal costs ended in a Maitland high security prison. Many years later, in 1996, it was admitted he was wrongfully imprisoned, and he was awarded $75,000 damages in compensation. The bottom line was that Spautz misconducted himself, despite what began as a reasonable concern: It is said that at one point he stood outside Williams’ classroom yelling at students to stop wasting their time. Why it was more important for the university to get rid of Spautz, rather than investigate Williams, is still up for debate.
6. Herbert Richardson -1994
Herbert Richardson was a University of Toronto academic who was the founder of a scholastic publishing service and tenured for 25 years with the University’s affiliate St. Michael’s College. In 1994 he was fired for gross misconduct by an academic tribunal. Prof. Richardson, who was a 62-year-old Presbyterian minister and teacher of religious studies, was under investigation for four years before his termination. It began when he lost his temper in class, frightening students and firing a TA.
His career ended with a conflict of interest and abuse of a four month paid medical leave in 1993. Richardson was so heavily under suspicion that the university actually hired a PI to build a case against him, and once they had evidence he was barred from teaching. Apparently those four months “medical leave” were being used for financial gain and outside activities that caused him to be deemed a “dishonest and untrustworthy employee.” This was a blow for his students, too, thanks to the decision that his courses would not be considered for credit. Ouch
5. Denis Rancourt – 2009
Professor of physics, Denis Rancourt, may have been fired from his University of Ottawa position but he has the association that represents University of Ottawa professors on his side. The association came out to say that the decision upholding the university’s firing undermines academic freedom. Regardless, Rancourt was sent packing after he awarded A+ marks to all his 23 students who completed his advanced physics course. His reasoning? He had come to his own conclusion that traditional teaching methods of evaluating physics students were no longer effective.
He argued that a “student-centred” method would allow students to learn without the burden of grades. The association maintained that Rancourt’s methods were protected by the concept of academic freedom, along with the protection that comes with his tenured professor status. The argument went nowhere, and Rancourt’s dismissal was upheld by the arbitrator of the case. It seems the university hoped to make an example of this professor, indicating that academic freedom did not also include behaviour by professors that would excuse them of their grading responsibilities.
4. Luk Van Parijs – 2011
One of the most universally shocking cases of a professor’s “bad” behaviour on this list comes from Luk Van Parijs, an associate professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. Van Parijs was confronted by his lab mates with evidence they’d accumulated of his data falsification. Cracking immediately, he confessed to a number of acts of data fabrication and agreed to cooperate with an investigation into his work by MIT.
After a year of investigation his position was terminated, and additional investigations popped up by Harvard Medical School and the California Institute of Technology, where he’d been a grad student and obtained a postdoc, respectively. And even that wasn’t enough, as the US government’s Office of Research Integrity wanted a piece of Van Parijs with their own investigation. The reports indicate that Van Parijs was solely responsible for over 10 incidents of data fabrication for grant applications and in his research papers published between 1997 and 2004. The data is pretty insanely complicated but it has to do with his study of disease related genes with virus-based techniques.
In 2011, US authorities hit Van Parijs with criminal charges, citing his faked data in a $2 million grant application. Van Parijs was at least clear-minded enough to know he had no case and entered a guilty plea, and the government asked for a 6-month jail sentence due to the seriousness of the fraud (which was later reduced to 6 months of home detention plus restitution payments and community service). This prof sacrificed his reputation, and the sanctity of scientific accuracy for grant money and notoriety. His current situation is no doubt proving to be a bitter pill for him to swallow.
3. Prof. Zhang Xuezhong – 2013
Outspoken legal scholar Zhang Xuezhong, a Law and Political Science professor with the East China University, received a dismissal after his refusal to apologize for his beliefs. His publications, which champions the protections guaranteed by China’s Constitution, and detail the Communist Party’s growing hostility towards the nation’s legal system, have put Xuezhong in the hot seat with officials at one of China’s most respected post secondary institutions.
Like a true activist, the professor declines to back down, having told the media that he is a faculty member unafraid of expressing his opinion, which he considers to be his basic human right. University officials are also referencing an e-book he wrote, “New Common Sense: The Nature and Consequences of One-Party Dictatorship,” maintaining that it violates university rules by “forcibly disseminating his political views among the faculty and using his status as a teacher to spread his political views among students.” It’s doubtful his dismissal will be the last we (or the students) hear from the professor. Rock on, Xuezhong.
2. Don Samuelson – Feb 2014
On a much more unsavory note, 65-year-old Florida college professor Don Samuelson was caught filming down cleavage and up the skirt of two female students with a camera pen. His explanation to police was that he “wanted to see whether they had failed to wear undergarments.” The College of Veterinary Medicine professor entered a ‘no contest’ plea to felony counts of video voyeurism and has been sentenced to just three years probation with a $672 fine. While that seems like not much more than a slap on the wrist, the University of Florida has issued Samuelson with a notice of “intent to dismiss” following his arrest. In this case, the dismissal isn’t shocking at all, but the professor’s behaviour certainly was.
1. Andrey Zubov – March 2014
Russian philosophy professor and liberal historian Andrey Zubov has been fired from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), after referencing a fairly popular comparison of Putin to Hitler. Specifically, Zubov wrote a paper earlier in the year calling out Moscow’s actions in Ukraine with Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. On the day that Russia voted to give Putin permission to move into Ukraine, Zubov warned against the move saying, in more sophisticated terms, that he didn’t believe they ought to behave like the Germans. In response, MGIMO, which has ties to the foreign ministry, and where Zubov has worked since 2001, said outright that it dismissed him for badmouthing Russia’s decisions. Apparently, they handed him his notice the day after his writing was published in a daily newspaper. The whole debacle suggests that freedom of speech leaves much to be desired in Russian academic institutions.