FIRE — the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — is on the right side of the issues a fair chunk of the time. Their (right-wing) politics aren’t mine, by any stretch, but when they’re beating the drums for freedom of expression and due process on campus, they’re doing important work.
I just wish they could do that important work better.
Here’s the latest example. Back in early August, Professor Thomas Thibeault of East Georgia College was called to the office of EGC president John Bryant Black. By Thibeault’s account, Black demanded that he resign from the college that morning, and threatened to make public Thibeault’s “long history of sexual harassment” if he did not.
Thibeault refused to resign and was escorted from the campus, under threat of arrest if he ever returned. In the two months since, Thibeault says, he has not been given a hearing, been permitted to defend himself against the sexual harassment charges, or even been told what exactly he’s being charged with, despite the fact that Black convened a faculty committee to investigate him.
This is seriously screwed up. If Thibeault’s version of events is true (and neither Black nor EGC have publicly disputed it), the EGC administration has behaved shamefully — attempting to bully him into resigning with vague and ominous threats, then refusing to allow him a timely opportunity to be informed of, and respond to, the charges that have led to his removal from the classroom. Bravo to FIRE for shining a light on this situation.
…And that’s where I stop praising them. Here’s why.
Two days before Thibeault was brought into Black’s office, he attended a faculty training session on sexual harassment, where he made some remarks from the floor. In FIRE’s gloss, “he presented a scenario regarding a different professor and asked, ‘what provision is there in the Sexual Harassment policy to protect the accused against complaints which are malicious or, in this case, ridiculous?’ “
FIRE sees this as “Kafkaesque irony,” saying that “Thibeault made the mistake of pointing out — at a sexual harassment training seminar — that the school’s sexual harassment policy contained no protection for the falsely accused.” But Thibeault’s own account of his remarks makes it clear that FIRE’s summary of his comments is woefully inadequate.
Here’s how Thibeault himself describes the “scenario” he presented at the sexual harassment training:
Last week two students were talking to me in the hallway after class. One student said that she didn’t want to go to a professor’s office because he looked down her cleavage. The woman was wearing clothing that was specifically designed to draw attention to her cleavage. She even sported a tattoo on her chest, but I didn’t get close enough to read it. The cleavage was also decorated in some sort of sparkly material, glitter or dried barbecue sauce. I couldn’t tell. I told the student that she shouldn’t complain, if she drew such attention to herself. The other female student then said, and I hope you’re not offended by her actual words, ‘if you don’t want anyone looking at your titties, I’ll lend you a T-shirt. I have one in the truck.’ The first student then said, ‘No. I’m proud of the way I look.’ I left the conversation at that point.
Let’s break this down, shall we?
- A female student told Thibeault that another professor’s habit of staring at her breasts made her uncomfortable.
- Thibeault told her, in front of another student, that she had no right to complain because she was dressed provocatively.
- A week later, Thibeault recounted this story to a large group of faculty members at a public meeting, complete with identifying details of, and gratuitously offensive comments about, the student’s appearance.
- To top it all off, he presented the student’s complaint about the other professor as an example of a “ridiculous” sexual harassment charge.
According to the EGC faculty handbook, by the way, “conduct of a sexual nature” that “has the purpose or effect of … creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive academic environment” is sexual harassment.
FIRE has all this background. But they chose not to mention it.
And this is why I find FIRE so frustrating. It’s not “Kafkaesque irony” that Thibeault was hauled in to the president’s office on a sexual harassment complaint two days after the training. It’s not ironic at all. It’s not even surprising. By Thibeault’s own account, he made wildly inappropriate sexualized comments to a female student, told that student that it was her own fault if a professor leered at her while she was wearing a low-cut top, and then shared this anecdote at a faculty meeting in a bizarrely insulting way. (Barbecue sauce? Come on.)
I don’t know whether any of this is actionable as sexual harassment. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know what Thibeault’s history is, or whether the university’s claims that he has a “long history” of misbehavior have any merit at all. As I said at the top of this post, I’m inclined to believe that Thibeault has been treated unfairly, and that EGC has violated his right to academic due process.
But this whole incident serves as yet another reminder to me that when I see a piece on FIRE’s site, I can’t just take their analysis and run with it. I can’t even assume that they’re presenting the basic outline of the story in a fair and complete way. I have to research and fact-check the whole thing from the beginning. And because they break so much news — because they are out there digging these cases up — I have to ignore their stuff if I can’t find independent corroboration of their claims.
Because they just can’t be trusted to tell a story straight.
And that sucks.
Note: As I indicated above by linking to Thibeault’s statement at FIRE’s website, and again by saying that “FIRE has all this background,” FIRE did post that statement as a PDF document, and link to it from other documents. I never intended to suggest otherwise, and I’m happy to make that clear.