Jim Dey: A 'rebel' with no discernible cause

When the University of Illinois trustees this past week fired a tenured professor, it set the stage for a legal fight.

Engineering Professor Louis Wozniak has indicated he's considering a challenge to his dismissal, and history shows that he knows the way to the federal courthouse in Urbana. But history also shows that the last time the 75-year-old Wozniak took his employers to court for stripping him of his teaching duties, he sustained a decisive defeat.

The issue then — refusing to follow university requirements to turn in student grading materials to his bosses — is different than the issue now — whether under university rules his actions justified dismissal from a tenured position.

The Peck's bad boy of the UI's engineering faculty, Wozniak has a long history of butting heads with his superiors. Or, as Chicago federal appeals court judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in a 2001 opinion: "After 28 years of teaching at the University of Illinois, Louis Wozniak became a rebel."

The dispute then went back to the fall semester of 1994 when Wozniak "turned in grades for his two undergraduate sections but refused to submit the required materials for review."

According to the three-judge appeals court panel's unanimous decision, which affirmed U.S. Judge Michael McCuskey's decision to dismiss Wozniak's claim, engineering faculty members were required to grade on a prescribed curve and submit their grading materials to ensure "consistency in grading" across the multiple sections of the same class.

The College of Engineering's dispute with Wozniak over the grading materials consumed time and attention as it steadily moved up the UI's chain of command. Despite repeated requests to comply, Wozniak refused. So in mid-to-late 1995, the engineering dean barred Wozniak from teaching, canceled his research funds and reassigned him to manage the faculty website.

Wozniak's title (associate professor) and salary remained. Nonetheless, represented by the late lawyer Robert Kirchner, Wozniak filed a federal lawsuit that alleged the UI violated his First Amendment and due process civil rights by "stripping him of professional responsibilities and privileges."

His claims, to put it politely, were legally insufficient. Most of them, the appeals court concluded, were "frivolous." Wozniak's one serious argument — that the lack of a hearing violated his right to due process of law — wasn't all that serious.

The court conceded Wozniak's assertion that his professional status was severely damaged by the penalties the UI imposed for his insubordination.

"If Wozniak is describing events correctly, he lost more than his dignity and the opportunity to influence students," Easterbrook wrote for the unanimous panel.

Chances for promotion, research and recognition within his profession "all bit the dust." But, the court ruled, those were the consequences of behavior the UI alleged and that Wozniak acknowledged.

"Here, there is no material dispute: Wozniak refused to follow the university's grading rules, and in this suit he trumpets a claim of right to defy them. Why hold a hearing when the insubordination is conceded?" Easterbrook wrote.

The court said it was not as if the UI hadn't invited Wozniak to explain himself.

"He had that chance many times, through multiple levels of review within the university, and one who has spurned an invitation to explain himself can't complain that he has been deprived of an opportunity to be heard," Easterbrook wrote.

In finding against Wozniak, the appeals court chastised him for his claims that he was essentially a free agent able to act as he pleased with respect to student grades.

"By insisting on a right to grade as he pleased, Wozniak devalues his students' right to grades that accurately reflect their achievements."

"It is the university's name, not Wozniak's, that appears on the diploma."

"Universities are entitled to assure themselves that their evaluation systems have been followed; otherwise their credentials are meaningless."

His claims defeated across the board, Wozniak acquiesced, made peace with the UI and returned to the classroom. Whereupon, he got into the trouble he's in now.

This time, he's accused of violating a series of UI rules with respect to his interactions with students. He has denied some allegations and apologized for one other (making a coarse joke in an email to students).

He has defenders, of course. A faculty committee reviewed the charges against Wozniak, conceded he may have acted inappropriately and concluded Wozniak's conduct did not merit dismissal if he modified his future conduct.

"Being a self-righteous, obsessed and insensitive person is not cause to dismiss," the faculty committee stated.

UI officials, however, said Wozniak continued to misbehave, leading President Robert Easter to recommended dismissal. This week, UI trustees gave their stamp of approval to Easter's recommendation, a decision that will stand unless and until a court rules otherwise.

Jim's Pseudo-Intellectual Book Club

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22, 1963) approaches, the news media is filled with stories retelling the life and death of the nation's 35th chief executive.

But 50 years is a long time, so there are many, many millions of Americans who don't know either the story of JFK's life or death.

So here are a few recommendations for the curious.

Robert Dallek's "An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963" provides an excellent account of this political golden boy's life and times.

Two other books have a sharper tone, exploring JFK's less attractive attributes and behavior. They are "The Dark Side of Camelot" by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh and "A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy" by Thomas Reeves.

Outstanding histories of the assassination include "Four Days in November" by Vincent Bugliosi. The book has been retitled "Parkland" to be consistent with a new movie by the same name that is based on Bugliosi's book. Another interesting account of the assassination is "Case Closed" by Gerald Posner. "Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald" is a fascinating account of the mysterious life of the alleged assassin.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

Sections (2):Columns, Opinion

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