URBANA — A controversial University of Illinois professor might be seen by some as "self-righteous" and "insensitive," but he should not be fired from the university, concluded a faculty committee in a unanimous decision, The News-Gazette has learned.
The future of engineering Professor Louis Wozniak's employment at the university now is in the hands of UI President Bob Easter and the UI Board of Trustees.
After a year-long review into the professor's case, the faculty group submitted a report to Easter last month that said the teaching suspension imposed on Wozniak was commensurate with the misconduct the committee found.
And that suspension should be lifted if he meets certain conditions.
But the university has lobbied hard for dismissal of Wozniak, a UI graduate and faculty member since 1966, according to documents obtained by The News-Gazette.
In a summary presented last year to the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the body that heard Wozniak's case, university lawyers argued for removal of Wozniak from the classroom and said that any recommendation other than dismissal would raise concerns among critics of tenure about whether faculty are capable of self-regulation and governance.
University spokesman Tom Hardy said he would not comment on the status of the case "as it's a personnel issue."
UI law Professor Matt Finkin, who chaired the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, also declined to discuss Wozniak's situation but did acknowledge "dismissal of tenured professor is a very serious manner."
It is rare for the university to terminate a professor's tenure or move to fire him or her for cause. The last time such a hearing was held before the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure is believed to have occurred in the 1970s.
"If a faculty member has engaged in such serious conduct that justify dismissal, the facts usually are not in dispute. The individual usually tenders resignation" or there's a settlement between the faculty member and the university, said Finkin, who is no longer on the committee.
The College of Engineering has prohibited Wozniak, an associate professor in the Department of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, from teaching since August 2010 following several allegations of misconduct.
University administrators have claimed that Wozniak, after learning he received the most student votes for a teaching award in 2009 but was not given the award, disclosed a student's grade to others and sought student support for his grievance; videotaped students without written consent; appeared before a class after he was suspended from teaching; and violated university policy by sending an email message to students in which he said students, upon returning to campus, should remind him of their names because "I only remember the names of GKs I've had sex with," referring to the students as "grandkids."
Wozniak later said the joke was in bad taste and sent a follow-up message to students apologizing for it, according to hearing documents.
In regard to being barred from teaching students, Wozniak claimed he was not given due process, and a faculty committee agreed.
In 2011, then-President Michael Hogan initiated the process, as outlined under Article X of the university statutes, to terminate a faculty member's tenure and dismiss someone for cause. At the time he delegated responsibility to then-interim Chancellor Bob Easter.
Tenure is "not a guarantee of lifetime employment, but a guarantee of procedural protections," said Greg Scholtz, director of the Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance Department with the American Association of University Professors. For example, a hearing before a faculty member's peers is required. The administration has to bear the burden of proof, Scholtz said.
As in Wozniak's case, the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure last year conducted interviews, collected evidence and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents. The report was submitted last month.
In its conclusion, the committee stated that the proceeding was the consequence of Wozniak's reaction to the denial of the student award in 2009.
"He persistently pursued the perceived wrong with single-minded self-righteousness, oblivious to the feelings of others and in a manner grossly disproportionate to what was at stake." His "widespread" disclosure of a meeting with a student about the award process and what happened in that meeting was a breach of faculty-student confidentiality, and the committee said that called for sanction. The email, while "a stupid effort at a joke," did not give cause to discharge, according to the committee.
"Being a self-righteous, obsessed, and insensitive person is not cause to dismiss," the committee wrote.
The majority of the committee agreed that the teaching suspension imposed on Wozniak should be lifted if he meets certain conditions, such as removing any public references to his conversation with a student regarding the award and that he have no contact with students regarding his eligibility for any award in the future.
His failure to comply with the conditions can be cause to dismiss him, according to the report.
In its report, the committee did urge Wozniak to move on and "refocus his energies during the remainder of his academic career on meeting the needs of his students, the duties required of him by his colleagues, students, staff and administrators, and the standards expected of him by the university and professional bodies of which he is a member."
Wozniak, according to some documents obtained by The News-Gazette, has spent more than $70,000 on legal bills in his fight with the university.
Wozniak declined to respond to questions from The News-Gazette, as did his attorney.
Even though he is suspended from teaching, he has continued to be paid his annual salary of $85,124, according to the university.
"He is not teaching, but tenured faculty are expected to also participate in public service and research," Hardy said.
This was not the first time Wozniak has had a run-in with administration. In 1994, he refused to turn in some student grade books, claiming it violated his academic freedom and students' privacy rights, and administrators also suspended him from his teaching duties then. He did return to his post and has won awards for his teaching in the department.
Now that the faculty committee has submitted its report, it is the president's call on whether to follow the committee's recommendations or take another position.
Under the statutes, Wozniak also has the right to appeal decisions to the UI Board of Trustees.