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MCCONNELL v. HOWARD UNIV.

October 28, 1985

ALAN McCONNELL, Plaintiff,
v.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY, Defendant



The opinion of the court was delivered by: OBERDORFER

 OBERDORFER, District Judge.

 I.

 Plaintiff was dismissed for "cause" from a tenured professorship at Howard University by its Board of Trustees ("Board") on the ground that he had neglected his professional responsibilities when he refused to continue teaching a mathematics course to which he was assigned. *fn1" It is undisputed that plaintiff refused to teach the class. Rather, plaintiff contends that his refusal was justified by complications growing out of an altercation between plaintiff and a student. *fn2" Having exhausted administrative remedies prescribed by the Faculty Handbook of the University, *fn3" plaintiff filed this suit against the University claiming that his dismissal constituted a breach of his employment contract because the University lacked "adequate cause" to dismiss him. In addition, plaintiff charged defamation. He sought reinstatement and compensatory and punitive damages. Defendant moved for summary judgment on August 9, 1985. Plaintiff filed his opposition to that motion on September 6, 1985, and defendant filed a reply memorandum on September 24, 1985.

 This matter is appropriate for disposition by summary judgment because the facts developed in documents and extensive depositions and summarized in defendant's statement of material facts are not disputed in any material way. In addition, as contemplated by the contract between plaintiff and the University, the dispute has been addressed in a structured, on-the-record grievance proceeding reviewed by a committee of the defendant's Board of Trustees and acted on finally by that Board pursuant to the University's established process for dealing with the dismissal of tenured faculty.

 Upon consideration of the parties' memoranda and the extensive exhibits and affidavits filed in support thereof, the Court by order entered October 4, 1984, granted defendant's motion for summary judgment for reasons to be stated in a memorandum to be filed. This is that memorandum.

 II.

 The parties' pleadings establish the following undisputed facts. Plaintiff is white. He received a Ph.D in mathematics from Cornell University in 1965 and in 1971 was appointed as an associate professor of mathematics at Howard University. In 1975 plaintiff was awarded tenure.

 Early in the fall semester of the 1983-1984 term, plaintiff advised the students (all of whom were black) in his Elementary Function I course that because Howard students historically performed poorly in mathematics they should reduce their course hours. At a later session of the class, plaintiff renewed this suggestion and pursued the matter further with a story about a monkey that caught its hand in a food jar and lacked the sense to drop the food in order to escape. Later in that class, one of the students, apparently in reaction to these remarks, called plaintiff a "condescending patronizing racist." After class the student refused plaintiff's request to meet with him privately. At the next meeting of the class, the student refused plaintiff's request to explain herself and told him to "go on and teach the course." Plaintiff then asked her to leave the class. Upon her refusal to do so, plaintiff called for University security to remove her from the class, whereupon she was taken to the Office of the Dean for Special Student Services.

 In the days that followed these initial events, both plaintiff and the student remained adamant. She refused to apologize for calling him a racist. He refused to resume teaching the class until she either apologized or left the class of her own accord, or the University sustained and enforced his demand that she leave the class. The University apparently made no effort to transfer the student to another section of the course, or otherwise mediate the dispute. It responded to plaintiff's formal complaint *fn4" with a letter indicating that the Office of Special Student Services had "concluded that there exists insufficient evidence of a violation of the code of conduct to warrant the institution of a Judiciary Board hearing." *fn5"

 After several informal and formal requests that plaintiff return to teaching the class, a University official initiated a formal proceeding against plaintiff before a Grievance Committee pursuant to Section VI of the Handbook. *fn6" The Grievance Committee was comprised of senior tenured professors from University departments other than mathematics. The letter providing notice of the grievance proceeding charged plaintiff with neglect of professional responsibilities and indicated that the proceeding was convened "to formally conduct an inquiry as to your fitness to remain as a member of the faculty of the College of Liberal Arts . . . ." *fn7"

 After formal hearings conducted October 22 and 24, 1983, that Grievance Committee found that plaintiff had refused to teach his class but found that he was not guilty of neglecting his professional responsibilities because, among other things, the University had not attempted to mediate. See December 21, 1983 Report of the College of Liberal Arts Grievance Committee at 6-7 (Defendant's Exhibit 16). In addition, a majority of the Grievance Committee pointed to the necessity of "professorial authority inherent in the teacher-student relationship." Id. at 7.

 Pursuant to the procedure prescribed by Section VI of the Faculty Handbook, the Grievance Committee report was transmitted to the University President, who then presented the case to the University Board of Trustees. The Board, in turn, referred the case to a three person Special Committee. That committee requested, received, and reviewed, inter alia,8 a report from the Grievance Committee which summarized its findings and recommendations. *fn9" The Special Committee concluded, after "a thorough and exhaustive review of the record of the case," that plaintiff was guilty of neglect of his professional responsibility and recommended that he be dismissed. *fn10" The Board approved the recommendation apparently without discussion, and plaintiff was so notified by a letter dated June 8, 1984. *fn11" That letter informed plaintiff that:

 
the Board of Trustees of Howard University, at a duly constituted meeting held on June 2, 1984, pursuant to a review of the record of your grievance hearing, found you to be guilty of having neglected your professional responsibilities. The Board voted therefore, by virtue of its authority, that you be terminated from service at the University as of June 2, 1984.

 III.

 The contract allegedly breached by defendant is embodied in the Howard University Faculty Handbook. The parties agree that it provides for dismissal of a tenured professor for cause and includes as one cause, "Neglect of professional responsibilities." Constituting the contract on which plaintiff relies, the Handbook also establishes a formal administrative process (including a hearing) for dismissals of faculty members. Section VI-E. of the Handbook provides that after a hearing by a Grievance Committee:

 
E. CONSIDERATION BY THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES
 
The Dean shall transmit the full report of the Grievance Committee and its recommendation to the President for presentation to the Board of Trustees or its Executive Committee. If the Board of Trustees or its Executive Committee chooses to review the case, its review shall be based on the record of the hearing. The decision of the Board of Trustees shall be final.

 Plaintiff contends that the court should treat this as a breach of contract case and that "neglect of professional responsibilities" is an ambiguous, undefined term. Plaintiff thus contends that the Court should give no weight to the University's administrative process prescribed by the Handbook/contract and should conduct a trial de novo to resolve whether plaintiff did neglect his professional responsibilities or, as the Grievance Committee apparently viewed the matter, professionally defended professorial authority.

 Defendant, by contrast, emphasized the University's well-developed grievance process in which the Grievance Committee holds hearings, makes a record and renders decisions, which decisions are subject to (1) review on the administrative record and (2) the ultimate decision of the Board of Trustees. *fn12" See Faculty Handbook Section VI (attached as an Appendix to this memorandum). Defendant suggests that the Court should treat the Board as it would treat an administrative agency and defer to the University's decision unless it was arbitrary and capricious, pointing out that courts have often adopted such a deferential attitude toward similar college or university decisions. *fn13"

 There are obviously two (or more) sides to the controversy between the plaintiff, the student, and the University. There is nothing ambiguous, however, about the obligation of a professor to teach assigned classes and plaintiff's failure to teach his class is undisputed. Defendant cites persuasive authority (albeit from other jurisdictions) for the proposition that a refusal to perform a prescribed duty, such as teaching a class, is a valid ground for the dismissal of a tenured professor. See Smith v. Kent State University, 696 F.2d 476 (6th Cir. 1983); Stastny v. Board of Trustees of Central Washington University, 32 Wash. App. 239, 647 P.2d 496, 502, 506-07 (1982), cert. denied, 460 U.S. 1071, 103 S. Ct. 1528, 75 L. Ed. 2d 950 (1983).


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