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Question 164: Should a college dismiss a misbehaving professor?

I am academic dean of a Catholic college facing a difficult personnel matter. Professor Russell, as I shall call him, ought to be fired, and I wish to do just that. While the college president seems to understand my point of view, he feels we must give Russell a substantial settlement to get him to go quietly.

Russell was hired not long after both the president and I came here, thirteen years ago. He was then a priest and well-regarded mainstream theologian, and we brought him in to head our religious studies program. Hired as an associate professor, he came on a three-year contract with the agreement that, if all went well, he would make full professor and receive tenure. All did go well until midway in his fourth year. Then it came out that he and the wife of the bright, young chairman of our chemistry department had been having a discreet affair almost from the day Russell stepped on the campus.

At the time the affair surfaced, we looked hard at the possibility of getting rid of Russell. Some of our faculty and staff were outraged, as were the majority of the board, the alumni who made their feelings known, and some important donors. But we reluctantly came to the conclusion that we could not fire him. Our policy, with which the president and I had concurred, was that strictly academic standards should be used in all matters concerning faculty status. Meetings with representatives of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and the faculty association’s lawyer made it clear that Russell’s personal life could not be used as a ground for action against him. Our own lawyer told us that if we fired him and he sued, he almost certainly would win and we might well be ordered to pay his legal bills. So, the chemistry chairman’s wife got a divorce, Russell quit the priesthood, the two civilly married, and the couple became part of our happy college community.

Starting shortly thereafter and increasing little by little, we experienced other reasons for dissatisfaction with Russell.

His formerly excellent rate of publication slowed. Now it is barely a trickle, though he keeps it looking stronger than it really is by various dodges: listing himself as author of a book he merely edited, listing a book as published that nobody ever has seen and that has never appeared in Books in Print, listing as publications with no credit to anyone else an important series of articles of which he was only one of several coauthors, and so forth.

While that was going on, Russell also gradually became less visible on the campus: unavailable for meetings, seldom in his office even during posted office hours, frequently absent from class (though he sometimes had someone stand in for him to screen a film or conduct an informal discussion among the students on a topic of their choice). He sometimes failed to provide syllabi of his courses, which I request from all faculty members. Students also increasingly complained that he did not adhere to the syllabi he gave them, made no comments on their written assignments and papers, and behaved erratically, often spending an entire class period venting his feelings about problems in the Church completely irrelevant to the subject matter of the course and sometimes becoming abusive to students who dared to disagree.

Recently, we discovered the explanation for Russell’s increasingly unsatisfactory performance. Just after he quit the priesthood, he founded a rehabilitation center for ex-priests and religious. Gradually he developed it into a multimillion dollar psychological counseling business. Though the center is about seventy miles from here, he manages that business on a day-to-day basis. We have hard evidence about this operation, supplied by some of its dissatisfied clients. Moreover, we now have discovered that, adding malfeasance to his gross neglect of duty, Russell once made an arrangement with a secretary in the psychology department, now no longer with us, to refer to his center applicants for a somewhat similar program that our psychologists were trying to set up.

This time, both the law and recognized criteria for academic behavior are on our side. Neither Russell’s contractual rights nor the AAUP’s standards can be used to defend his pursuit of his business interests in direct conflict with his responsibilities to the college. In view of the facts, I am convinced we should fire him. We should not pay him and we should tell him to stay off the campus or be treated as a trespasser. I hold that this is a matter of principle, since he has been defrauding the college and our students for ten years, and should not be given a dime for getting out.

The president says he understands my point of view and sympathizes, and I believe he does. Moreover, our lawyers have advised that if it comes to a court battle, we have an excellent chance of winning in the end, even though the fight could be hard and messy.

However, Russell has made it clear that, if we fire him as I propose, he will sue, and, through the faculty association’s lawyer, he has telegraphed his strategy. He will use the media against us, claiming we are waging a vendetta against him because he left the priesthood and married. Despite everything, many of the faculty support him, as faculty always do, partly because they think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The president wants to avoid messy litigation and bad publicity. He is concerned primarily because the college is having mild, but worrisome, problems recruiting students, and we are in the midst of an important fund-raising campaign.

Russell has told us that, if we pay him the equivalent of four years’ salary and benefits in a lump sum at the end of this academic year, he will go quietly. The president has concluded that, all things considered, we should do that. I feel we should not let him get away with what he has done. Reflecting on this as a moral question, do you agree that we must fire Russell? If so, how would you articulate the argument?


This question primarily calls for judgment regarding accepting bad side effects; it also requires application of norms regarding fair procedure and restitution. In my judgment, a college ought to dismiss any professor who behaves as badly as this one has. He has no right to the money he is demanding, and giving it to him would waste funds that should be put to other uses. Even more important, giving in would encourage other faculty members to behave similarly and would set a bad precedent, which would lower the standard of faculty behavior. Still, the college should offer Russell some sort of fair hearing and take care in dismissing him to meet its own institutional standards. Whether the college dismisses him or not, it has been negligent with respect to the students he defrauded and owes them restitution.

The reply could be along the following lines:

In my judgment, you and the president made a major mistake when you concurred in the policy that all matters regarding faculty should be decided by “strictly academic standards.” What that really means is the systematic but arbitrary exclusion of other considerations equally vital for an authentically Catholic faculty: whether someone rejects what the Catholic Church proposes as revealed truth, or systematically and publicly follows a lifestyle at odds with Catholic moral teaching, or carries out all of his or her academic responsibilities just as if he or she were a nonbeliever rather than a Catholic. With these considerations excluded, you are bound to have a faculty no different from any secular college. But no college is more Catholic than its faculty. So, you have collaborated in secularizing what once was a Catholic institution, even if you have managed to keep up some appearance of Catholicism for the benefit of those parents, alumni, and donors who care.

I am not saying that academic standards are less essential than Catholicism in matters bearing on faculty status. No Catholic college will be good unless it has an academically well-qualified faculty. But standards of Catholicism are equally essential. No college can be a good Catholic college unless the preponderant part of its faculty is well-formed in Catholic faith and devout in practicing it. Had you insisted on this necessary condition for a Catholic college, you would have included in your contracts with Russell and every other faculty member provisions permitting the dismissal of anyone who publicly violated the college’s Catholic character. Acting on those provisions, you would have got rid of Russell years ago. Lacking them, you could neither dismiss him nor, I suppose, do anything about many other less egregious cases.

But you still have your problem, and it requires a sound solution, just as it would if the question came from the academic dean of any other secular college. Though the president’s view of the issue plainly is based on practical considerations that cannot be ignored, I believe yours is substantially correct. As you requested, I shall concentrate on articulating the argument for your view, only incidentally responding to the president’s concerns, which I assume you will deal with more adequately.

Your argument seems to me sound so far as it goes. Russell’s actions and negligence, as you describe them, clearly have defrauded the college and its students, and he has no reason for a lawsuit except its nuisance value. In other words, he has no right to the money he is demanding, and the college has no reason to give it except getting him to go away quietly without causing the harm he unjustly threatens. Sometimes it is reasonable to forestall an unjust lawsuit in order to avoid the costs and other bad consequences of litigation, but Russell’s threat seems to me morally indistinguishable from extortion, to which it would be wrong for the college to surrender. Meeting Russell’s unjust demand not only would waste college funds that should be used to bring about other benefits to which various people are entitled, but also would encourage other faculty members to engage in similar tactics.

Another consideration offers an additional reason for resisting his demand. Since the college has a policy of adhering strictly to academic standards in dealing with matters affecting faculty status, the president at least should do that in this case. Russell’s behavior has fallen below the very lowest tolerable level. If the college tolerates it, you will further lower a standard, prevailing in virtually all universities and colleges, that already accommodates a certain number of tenured people who somewhere along the way have stopped working hard and developing their talents. Think what it will be like if the college in the future is dragged down by as many Russells, brazenly acting on their conflicting interests and defrauding the college and its students, as it now is by lazy people. The college would be doing itself a tremendous, long-term injury in accepting such a development. Then too, the college would be likely to fare less well in litigation involving Russell’s imitators, other things being equal, if it gives in to him, than it will fare if it resists and finds itself involved in litigation against him. What your college does in this matter also could set a new low standard for more or less similar cases in many other colleges. Therefore, you owe it to them as well as to your own college’s future members not to do that.

So, I would urge the president to dismiss Russell. However, the college must first offer him a fair hearing. It must at least meet your own institution’s standards in dealing with employees generally; it need not necessarily meet the standards of the AAUP, unless the college has committed itself to doing that even in a case like this. When the hearing reaches its predictable outcome, dismiss Russell, and let him sue. Be prepared to file a countersuit for breach of contract to recover the portion of his salary he has not earned during the past ten years. He owes the college that money in strict justice as restitution, and the college has a good case, inasmuch as his performance fell below what hitherto was the lowest tolerated level, set by lazy professors. You might also try to recover the income Russell’s counseling program diverted from the college, damages for the injury he has done the college’s reputation, and punitive damages both to make clear the outrageous injustice Russell has done and to deter others from following his bad example.

If the president properly lays out the case to members of the board and potential donors, they may well be glad to see him acting decisively and getting rid of someone who is not carrying his weight. Many people who might donate to the college are convinced that academic institutions suffer very heavily from dead weight. They are right. Making it clear to faculty members just how far Russell has fallen below the level of the worst of them, and how gross his wrongdoing has been, will help them realize that they are not threatened. Moreover, as academic dean, you can tell them that very straightforwardly.

Those concerned about the Catholic character of the college very likely have reason to despair of it. I am not advising you or the president to deceive them. Yet even they will feel better if you get rid of Russell, and their support will help the college weather the storm.

Finally, though the evidence you present about Russell’s misbehavior constitutes a strong case against him, it also points to serious negligence by the college toward its students. Much of Russell’s decade-long failure to fulfill his obligations toward his students has been known to you and/or other administrators, but little has been done to rectify the situation and vindicate students’ rights. Therefore, no matter what the college does about Russell, it owes fair restitution to the defrauded students. The amount owed and the manner of paying can be determined only by considering all the relevant facts, putting yourself in the place of Russell’s students, and applying the Golden Rule.