National organization defends LSU professor fired for spicy language, risqué jokes _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU professor Teresa Buchanan says she was dismissed in a 'witchhunt' over her occasional use of profanity in the classroom.

Stepping up its criticism of LSU, a top national organization of university professors on Thursday announced it will publish a report critical of the university’s recent firing of associate professor Teresa Buchanan for alleged sexual harassment and pledged money to help with her legal defense.

The report known as a “supplementary report” will be only the seventh that American Association of University Professors has issued in its 100-year history.

The organization, which conducted its own review of the case, rejects LSU’s contention that Buchanan’s treatment of her students, including the use of curse words and telling the occasional sexually themed joke, in any way constituted sexual harassment.

“Maybe to a few people it’s unsettling, but we have a case where the worst things she is accused of doing are, at regular, secular universities, run-of-the-mill stuff these days,” said Jordan E. Kurland, the AAUP’s associate general secretary. “Nobody would bat an eye.”

A faculty review committee cited three “notable” instances of vulgarity on Buchanan’s part: saying “F*** no” repeatedly in the presence of students, using a slang term for vagina that implies cowardice and telling a joke that the quality of sex gets worse the longer a relationship lasts.

The AAUP approved the preparation of the report after LSU failed to reinstate Buchanan or otherwise substantively respond to a June 30 letter the organization issued objecting to Buchanan’s termination. The supplementary report is expected to be complete later this summer and will be posted online as a “supplement to the public record.”

“Every once in a while, something happens that is in our judgment truly egregious and warrants further treatment,” Kurland said.

Supplementary reports are rare because they are reserved for universities like LSU that are under censure from the AAUP, which has more than 47,000 members nationwide. In February, LSU President F. King Alexander informed the AAUP that LSU was taking no more action “at this time” to get its name taken off the organization’s censure list, on which it has sat for more than two years.

LSU’s Baton Rouge campus has the distinction of being the only public flagship university on that censure list. Censure status is generally seen as a blemish on a school’s reputation that can hamper faculty recruitment and retention.

Buchanan was a tenured professor who specialized in early childhood education and trained elementary school teachers during her 20 years at LSU. She maintains that she never sexually harassed anyone and that in firing her, the university violated her rights to due process and academic freedom.

She said in an email Thursday that she’s gratified by the AAUP defense of her as well as its contribution to her legal defense fund; neither Buchanan or AAUP would specify the amount of the contribution. Buchanan, however, says her legal costs even with the contribution remain high and that she has no savings.

“Their instrumental support will help us move forward with the lawsuit,” she said. “LSU seems determined to ignore the very basic AAUP expectations for fair treatment of professors.”

The LSU Board of Supervisors approved Buchanan’s termination on June 19. It was preceded by an 11-hour dismissal review hearing held March 9.

University administrators faulted Buchanan for creating what university administrators describe as a “hostile learning environment” that amounted to sexual harassment.

The university was initially silent about the firing. But on July 1, as public criticism mounted, LSU finally issued a statement. It asserted that Buchanan was fired not only for isolated incidents of using curse words and making sexually themed jokes but also because of “documented evidence of a history of inappropriate behavior that included verbal abuse, intimidation and harassment of our students.”

Kurland said the record of the case lacks anything he would consider sexual harassment or even non-sexual abuse of students.

“I plowed through the transcript of that whole hearing, everything that’s available, and there is nothing in there that says anything about that kind of abuse,” he said.

In pursuing Buchanan’s termination, LSU Chancellor and President F. King Alexander dismissed the recommendations of a committee of five faculty members, who suggested the education professor keep her job but receive a letter of censure.

LSU administrators accused Buchanan of a pattern of abusive, though usually not sexual, behavior. However, in their report issued March 20, the faculty members excluded much of this evidence, describing it as third-party statements and “matters outside the purview of the specific charges raised.”

The committee concluded Buchanan had created a “hostile learning environment” that amounted to sexual harassment but focused only on her “use of profanity, poorly worded jokes, and sometimes sexually explicit jokes in her teaching methodologies.” It also concluded that none of her comments were “systematically directed at any one individual.”