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As Penn State seemingly moves forward with the termination process for a University Park professor, students and faculty members are growing concerned.
On Thursday, Penn State’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement condemning the university for continuing a dismissal procedure against Oliver Baker, an assistant professor of English and African American studies.
In November, Centre County District Judge Steven Lachman found Baker not guilty on one summary count of harassment stemming from a scuffle with a student counterprotester at a rally organized by Penn State faculty in August to urge the university to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. The district attorney’s office previously withdrew misdemeanor charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct after a review of evidence in the case.
To date, Penn State has declined to comment on the AC70 firing process, which is used to dismiss tenured and tenure-eligible faculty members. Instead, the university has only confirmed Baker remains on administrative leave.
Policy AC70 states that adequate cause for dismissal of a tenured or tenure-eligible faculty member can be lack of competence or failure to perform required functions of the job, excessive absenteeism, moral turpitude or grave misconduct.
“This decision [to look past Baker’s dropped charges and not guilty verdict] threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of the AC70 process,” Penn State’s chapter of the AAUP wrote in a statement. “A faculty member cannot be guilty of grave misconduct if he has committed no misconduct of any kind.”
The faculty chapter also argued that continuing the termination process against sets a dangerous precedent for the university moving forward.
“This decision sends a chilling message to all university faculty: that they can be brought up for dismissal by an unaccountable Human Resources office that has ignored a faculty member’s exoneration by a court of law,” Penn State’s AAUP chapter continued.
Penn State’s AC70 process is ultimately influenced by the Standing Joint Committee on Tenure, which, at the end of the road, determines if faculty must face discipline or return to work. The university’s own guidelines, available to the public online, say an official dismissal would require “clear and convincing” evidence. For now, it’s not clear what evidence Penn State would use to support a dismissal procedure, especially considering Baker was found not guilty on one summary charge and had two other charges dropped.
Dismissal proceedings are largely kept behind closed doors, leaving an unclear picture for Baker’s immediate future. In the meantime, some of his fellow faculty argue Penn State can’t afford to let the termination process continue.
“Should the AC70 process go forward, the insult to justice — and the harm to the university’s reputation — would be incalculable, Penn State’s AAUP chapter argued. “Such a misuse of our dismissal procedures would surely draw national attention, the repercussions of which would resonate for years. In the interest of justice…and in the best interest of the university, we ask that the AC70 process be stopped before irreparable damage is done.”
The Coalition for a Just University, the faculty-led group that organized the pro-vaccination mandate rally in August, issued a statement in December supporting Baker and opposing the dismissal process against him.
“These legal decisions reinforce what those of us at the rally already knew: Professor Baker did nothing wrong when he was attempting to peacefully deescalate a menacing and threatening provocateur,” the coalition’s statement said. “He should be applauded for his effort to ensure the safety of all rally attendees, most notably undergraduate and graduate students who were in peaceful attendance.”
Baker’s attorney, Julian Allatt, said in October when the misdemeanor charges were dismissed that video and photo evidence made clear that Baker was attempting to defuse the situation peacefully when the counter-protestor was yelling at and “intimidating” people while “barreling through the crowd.” Baker made no effort to prevent the counter-protestor from expressing himself, Allatt said.
Baker was initially accused of grabbing the counter-protestor’s sign, attempting to take it from him, pulling him to the ground and injuring him as a struggle ensued on the ground.
The counter-protestor had a bloody nose when police arrived and said he may have struck his head when he was taken to the ground. He was taken to Mount Nittany Medical Center for evaluation.
Allatt said evidence showed that the altercation did not occur as described.
“There’s absolutely no evidence — in fact there’s photographic evidence that it did not happen — that Oliver ended up on the ground in some sort of prolonged struggle with [the counter-protestor],” he said.
Baker has received support from students, as well. An online petition urging the university to retain Baker’s services has gained more than 800 signatures from students, alumni, community members, and more. Nearly 400 undergraduate students added their names to it.
“We are committed to defending such outstanding and supportive faculty like Dr. Baker from unjust persecution,” the petition reads.
Penn State’s Students Against Sexist Violence organization will host a rally to support Baker’s retainment at 6 p.m. on Friday in front of the Allen Street Gates.
StateCollege.com’s Geoff Rushton contributed to this report.
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