Dismissal case may not be over
From the outside looking in, the case of a fired university professor looks strange.
Last week, University of Illinois trustees took the exceedingly rare step of dismissing a tenured professor from a long-held position as a member of the UI faculty.
It has been more than 50 years since the university terminated Professor Leo Koch after he had the temerity to write a letter to the Daily Illini in which he advocated premarital sex.
Looking back, Koch's sin would appear to be minor. Clearly, he was a victim of the times, and times have changed.
But 75-year-old Louis Wozniak is not a victim of the times. The now-former UI engineering professor has been waging a long-running war with his superiors on the engineering faculty as well as top-ranking administrators. Last week's trustees vote was the end of the battle within the UI and perhaps the initiation of a new one on a different front — the courts.
Wozniak has vowed to challenge his dismissal on legal grounds, and there is no reason not to take him at his word. He has, without success, sought legal remedies in the courts before.
It goes without saying that the kind of management-employee interaction on display in the Wozniak case would be unthinkable in the private sector. It combines the kind of tragedy and farce that only universities would endure.
But the rules are altogether different in the world of academe.
Some may quarrel with the wisdom of tenure — the granting of permanent employment to faculty members absent almost unimaginable misconduct — but it's a fact of life in education. Intended to protect free academic inquiry, tenure frequently serves as a shield used by faculty members who delight in twisting the tails of their bosses.
It's fair to conclude that Wozniak has been twisting his bosses' tails for years, deriving some sort of personal satisfaction by flouting the rules and customs the vast majority of his colleagues follow.
That does not mean, however, that Wozniak may not have a legitimate legal beef with the UI's grounds for his dismissal.
It's important to remember that it's always the outliers — those who won't go with the program — who establish the farthest limits of individual rights — be they speech, criminal or even academic.
The record of Wozniak's case shows that he was upset over being denied a teaching award after he received the most votes from engineering students. One need not be unduly skeptical to wonder if Wozniak's superiors gagged at the thought of recognizing the professional skills of someone who was such a thorn in their sides.
Wozniak relentlessly pursued the issue, raising hackles in the process. He questioned students and faculty, filed a lawsuit and pretty much made a mountain out of what most people would consider to be a molehill.
In pursuit of his crusade, the UI alleges, Wozniak engaged in misconduct by revealing a student's grade, videotaping students in class without their consent, appearing in a classroom after he had been suspended and making a crude joke in an unrelated email to students.
A faculty committee reviewed Wozniak's conduct and concluded that it did not merit dismissal if he refrained from talking to students about the award in the future or publishing student information.
The UI administration contends that Wozniak did not follow those simple strictures and, on that ground, sought his dismissal.
Wozniak denies the UI charges but also complained the faculty committee's guidelines improperly sought to gag him in violation of his right to free speech.
It is, of course, one thing to make public private student information. But it is altogether different for faculty members or administrators to determine who can speak to whom and what they can discuss. Wozniak may have a colorable claim on speech grounds in his quest for redemption and reinstatement.
Most people, of course, don't have the time, interest or resources to pursue this kind of self-defeating gamesmanship. For a tiny minority, it's a form of perverse recreation that can occur only within the ivy-covered halls where most people have more productive things to do.