Update: I’ve posted a further discussion of Chopra’s actions here.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has its first major article up this morning on the Southwestern College faculty suspensions, and it, along with a couple other new stories, clears up some of yesterday’s unanswered questions.

None of those answers make the situation any less bizarre.

To recap: last Thursday a few hundred students and faculty carried out a peaceful protest against budget cuts at SWC, a southern California community college. That night four professors, including the president of the SWC faculty union, were suspended from their positions and barred from campus. The next morning the college’s president and HR director both left on extended vacations, leaving a low-level administrator behind to insist that the suspensions were “unrelated to the student rally.”

That’s what I had gleaned last night. Here’s what I’ve learned this morning…

The claim that the suspensions had nothing to do with “the student rally” can most charitably be described as deceptive. Yesterday the university clarified its previous statement, declaring that the suspensions came about because of an incident that took place during the protest, but after the officially sanctioned rally had formally ended.

SWC, like far too many American colleges, has a designated “free speech zone” in an isolated corner of the campus, and permission for the rally was limited to that area. At the end of the rally, however, a group of students and faculty marched on the offices of college president Raj K. Chopra, where they were stopped by a line of campus police officers.

SWC campus police chief Brent Chartier told the Chronicle that some of the protesters engaged in “illegal activity” at that point, that the incident is currently under investigation, and that criminal charges against protesters are under consideration. In a letter to the campus community yesterday, the president of SWC’s college district board said that “no formal charges or allegations” had yet “been made against any college faculty member or employee.”

Suspended prof Philip Lopez, the president of the faculty union at SWC, reacted with disbelief to the new statements. “If there are no charges,” he asked, “why were we placed on leave? Rumor? Reputation? Union-busting? Poor personal hygiene?”

It should be noted, by the way, that Thursday’s rally was not just a generic response statewide budget cuts. It was a protest against specific policies and tactics of Chopra’s, most notably a plan to balance SWC’s budget by cutting the number of classes the college offers each semester by 25%.

President Chopra has long been a controversial figure at SWC, and was the subject of a no-confidence vote by the campus chapter of CSEA, the faculty union, in May of this year. In that resolution, the CSEA chapter declared that a campus reorganization plan undertaken by Chopra had been conducted “with a complete lack of regard for Southwestern College’sstanding commitment to its own Shared Governance Guidelines.” As noted above and in yesterday’s post, the current president of CSEA’s SWC chapter, and one of the chapter’s former presidents, were among the four professors suspended on Thursday.

One last bit of background: The section of the California state code that allowed Chopra to kick the faculty members off campus empowers him to bar an individual from campus grounds “whenever there is reasonable cause to believe that such person has willfully disrupted the orderly operation of such campus.” It allows him to ban such an individual for no more than fourteen days, and requires that he hold a hearing on such a ban within seven days of receiving a request for one from a banned individual. If any of the three suspended faculty return to the campus before their suspensions are lifted, they are liable to arrest on misdemeanor charges that carry a maximum penalty of six months in jail.