University of Oklahoma Administration Plots to Punish Professor for Political Beliefs, Whistleblowing
December 8, 2004
NORMAN, Okla., December 7, 2004—The University of Oklahoma (OU) School of Geology and Geophysics has taken academic infighting to a new low in its efforts to silence Professor David Deming, a frequent critic of administrative policy and a politically outspoken faculty member. Professor Deming has filed a federal lawsuit after OU removed him from his department, stripped him of most of his classes, and moved his office to a converted basement lab, all while claiming to respect the principles of academic freedom. Public records requests have uncovered damning evidence that OU administrators schemed to marginalize and isolate him for his attempts at whistleblowing and for his political expression.
“OU’s conduct in this case has been shameful,” remarked David French, president of FIRE. “University e-mails and documents illustrate a conspiracy to silence a colleague whose outspoken views challenge the norm at OU. This is a naked attempt to subvert academic freedom,” he continued.
Professor Deming’s troubles began in February 2000, when OU threatened to punish him for a letter he wrote to the Oklahoma Daily newspaper protesting a column advocating gun control. Read more about this case here. After FIRE wrote in protest and Deming threatened a First Amendment lawsuit, the university dropped the charges in May 2000. Soon thereafter, Roger Slatt, Director of the School of Geology and Geophysics, began to unconstitutionally monitor Deming’s letters to the newspaper and include them in three professional evaluations, until directed to stop by OU President David L. Boren. In June 2003, Boren wrote to Deming, saying, “I fully agree with you that your political views should not be included as a factor in your post-tenure review.”
OU administrators did not confine their persecution of Professor Deming to his political views, however. Deming drew administrative ire when he accused School of Geology officials of a conflict of interest and possible ethical lapses in their decision to hire a new professor who had a close business relationship with Director Slatt and other professors in the department.
Documents obtained through a public records request paint a disturbing story of administrative scheming to eliminate Deming. Read the original documents in PDF format linked from FIRE’s case page. In a July 24, 2003, e-mail to William Clopine, chair of the Geology Alumni Advisory Council, Dean John Snow of the College of Geosciences wrote, “it is doubly frustrating that President Boren ... has shown such sympathy for Deming.... Somehow I have to convince Roger [Slatt] that he needs to basically ignore and then marginalize Deming.… As long as we keep our i’s dotted and our t’s crossed, all Deming can really do is make noise and cause a bit more paperwork.” He went on, “I firmly believe Deming will finally annoy the President with his whining – it may take a while but it will happen and I want to be here to watch.” He suggested that Clopine have supportive alumni call Slatt with their support, telling him that Slatt should know that “all [Deming] really is a bump on the road [sic].”
Officials at the University proceeded to instigate a campaign by alumni to remove Deming. On July 31, 2003, William Clopine e-mailed OU Geoscience Development Director John Ritz, saying that he had “several big name Alums calling me to ask about meetings with Boren, getting State Representatives involved, and other independent high-level meetings demanding immediate action to support Roger [Slatt],” the administrator most at odds with Deming.
One such “big name Alum” was apparently Bob Stephenson, an Oklahoma City oil executive and major donor to the university. On November 4, 2003, his lawyer wrote to OU Provost Nancy Mergler condemning Deming for “pursuing academic and personal interests outside of and not supportive of the school’s mission,” and supporting “Dr. Slatt and his leadership.” Stephenson, who had never even met Deming, threatened to end his donations to the school if his concerns were not addressed.
This letter from a major donor apparently inspired OU to do what, in a July 3, 2003 letter to Deming, Dean Snow said it could not do—transfer a professor against his will. On December 18, 2003, Snow transferred Deming out of the School of Geology and Geophysics and into a “dean direct” position in the College of Geosciences, making him the only geology professor in the College who was not part of the school. Deming was evicted from his office and forced to obtain permission to teach classes, yet was still responsible for the same teaching, research, service, and recruitment requirements. As these requirements would now be next to impossible to fill, Deming’s job was placed at risk, regardless of tenure.
“OU’s scheming to evade tenure protections and rid itself of a consistent critic of the administration’s policies and politics threatens any professor who relies on tenure as a guarantee of academic freedom,” remarked FIRE Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Greg Lukianoff. “It is distressing that President Boren—after initially protecting Professor Deming’s academic freedom—has allowed these reprisals to occur.”
On July 20, 2004, Professor Deming filed suit against Dean Snow, Director Slatt, and other OU personnel to restore his position in the School of Geology and Geosciences. OU has filed a motion to dismiss, and a ruling on the motion is expected at any time. Deming is represented by attorney Andrew Lester of Lester, Loving & Davies in Edmond, Oklahoma.
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at the University of Oklahoma and on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; email@example.com
David French, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Lester, Lester, Loving & Davies, P.C.: 405-844-9900; email@example.com
University of Oklahoma:
David L. Boren, President: 405-325-3916; firstname.lastname@example.org
Nancy Mergler, Provost: 405-325-3221; email@example.com
Roger Slatt, Director, School of Geology and Geophysics: 405-325-4424; firstname.lastname@example.org
John Snow, Dean, College of Geosciences: (405) 325-3101; email@example.com