Controversial prof, a favorite among students, removed from teaching duties

URBANA – A popular and controversial professor won't be teaching or interacting with students this semester, after a series of events that includes the loss of a teaching award, a lawsuit against two students, an e-mail that offended some students, a YouTube video and an appeal for academic freedom.

General engineering Associate Professor Louis Wozniak, 72, has been stripped of his teaching duties in a letter from Engineering Dean Ilesanmi Adesida, who charged him with "a serious and fundamental lack of judgment" for allowing the videotaping of students and making an e-mail statement about sex.

He has also been told his office will be moved this week away from students in engineering. Robin Kaler, the campus' chief spokeswoman, said she could not discuss the case because it was a personnel issue.

The May 12 e-mail in question was a joke, Wozniak said, one that he regretted and offered an apology for the next day in another mass e-mail.

"I only remember the names of GKs (grandkids, his name for his students) I've had sex with," he wrote in a May 12 group e-mail to his students, at the end of a message discussing ethics and offering hopes for the graduates' success.

Wozniak said the context of the e-mail shows he never had sex with students, and that it should be clear that he was joking. He addresses the students as "adorable GKs," short for adorable grandkids. Wozniak has taught at the UI since 1966.

But at least one student objected, and Adesida wrote Wozniak that "in front of her laughing peers, you said, 'You needn't worry. I won't remember your name.'"

Adesida also questioned Wozniak for allowing a student to make a video in this spring's General Engineering 320 class about the controversy without permission from students. The You Tube video, which Wozniak affixes to his e-mails, is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK5Yb56TDxI.

Wozniak said students were aware of the filming because they had to walk around a camera tripod, and they were not identifiable because the backs of their heads are shown.

Adesida also wrote Wozniak about a lawsuit the professor filed in February against two students who were on the selection committees of two honorary societies giving out a teaching award.

Wozniak had won the award in previous years, but did not get the 2009 award, despite, he said, garnering the most votes.

Wozniak asked for between $10,000 and $50,000 in damages. Judge Chase Leonhard dismissed the suit without comment in May.

"You have explained that you filed this lawsuit because you believed it would help you obtain information that would be personally useful to you in your ongoing internal grievances" about the award, Adesida wrote, continuing "as part of that litigation, your lawyer served documents that revealed specific course and grade information regarding one of the named student defendants."

"I find that your conduct violates our expectations regarding appropriate professional interactions by a faculty member with his or her students," Adesida wrote.

Wozniak has filed grievances with his department and college, as well as an academic freedom complaint.

In an Aug. 13 letter to UI President Michael Hogan, Professors Jeffrey O. Dawson and Matthew Finkin of the UI's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure argued that Wozniak's rights had been abridged.

They wrote that, according to the UI's statutes, "a faculty member may be involuntarily reassigned from teaching only if three conditions are met: (1) a dismissal proceeding has been initiated; (2) 'exceptional circumstances' are present rendering such action 'clearly necessary and justified'; and (3) there has been adequate consultation with a representative of the Faculty Advisory Committee on the issue of whether the second condition was met." If the action is taken as a sanction, they write, a hearing must be held first.

Interim Chancellor Robert Easter, in an Aug. 20 letter, referred the matter to a grievance committee because Adesida had not been given sufficient notice.

The professor said he has done extensive research in the past, including the first research and applications of digital control to hydroelectric turbine generators, but that teaching is now his top priority.

"Since early to mid-decade, I decided to focus my efforts to teaching and to make a positive impact on the education of our students. Obviously, they must have appreciated what I have done, having elected me their best professor three of the last six years, 2004 to present," he said.

Wozniak, who at $85,000 a year is the lowest-paid associate professor in his department, contends that his lack of salary increases and his suspension are both the result of a long-standing feud within his department.

It goes back at least to 1995, when Wozniak was ordered to supply documentation for grades he posted. Wozniak sued the university for violating his First Amendment and due process rights.

Chief U.S. District Judge Michael McCuskey dismissed his complaint and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals denied most of his appeal in 2001, saying some of the contentions were "frivolous."

But Wozniak's attorney in that case, Robert Kirchner of Champaign, points out that the court also rejected the university's argument in the 2001 decision that Wozniak still had his position, even if he couldn't teach.

"For an employer that strips an employee of the ordinary incidents of the job, in a way that could lead a reasonable, self-respecting person to resign, has constructively discharged that person even if the employee's title and salary are unaffected," the court wrote.

The bad feeling increased, Wozniak says, in 2005, when the professor said he witnessed a colleague verbally assaulting an academic professional.

Wozniak contends that the university has consistently put its legal muscle against him, supplying attorneys for the professor accused of assault, as well as the two students Wozniak sued.

He said students love him, and former student Alexandra Haser agrees.

"Woz knows his stuff, and he's even better at teaching it. He makes you want to learn. That can't be said of many professors," she said. "Most of my classes don't have that many people show up every day, and Woz's class was at 8 a.m. At office hours, students would stay after all of their questions had been answered just to talk to him. He really is a department favorite; I can't imagine what things would be like without him."

Another student, Kevin Carrin, said he would take more classes from the professor.

"Many students in the department agree that Professor Wozniak is the best professor they've ever had. He is a great teacher, he keeps his classes more than entertaining and above all he is fair. He puts the spin on school that most people need to do well and, quite frankly, is more important than grades; learning the material and being able to apply it to new situations," he said.

Wozniak said students understand he is joking; "recall that those messages were sent to 22/23 years old graduating seniors only, and that since all took my control class, in their signed class contracts none ever included instructor comments with sexual intonations as being objectionable. Sexist, ethnic, etc. – yes, but sexual – never," he said.

The contract that he gives to students asks them to agree to turn cell phones off, follow rules of his class and limit conversation.

The contract says that examples of permissible speech are "May I borrow a pen?", "I love you," and "Woz is hot."

The contract then gives students blanks to fill in:

"I am offended by classroom comments with ____________________ overtones. Please list all.

_________________ , _________________ , ________________ ,_______________ .

(Choices may be added to and/or revoked by written/Coded/dated note to instructor.)

Please list any (all) classroom/instructor pet peeve(s) you might have."

Wozniak showed up at 8 a.m. Monday to teach his customary class. After a few minutes, another teacher showed, a graduate student, he told the Committee on Academic Freedom.

"I acquiesced and left," he said.

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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on August 29, 2010 at 6:08 pm
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An engineering professor who challenges convention, and further challenges students to think unconventionally?

The horror.