Association critical of LSU

The top national organization of university professors released a report Monday criticizing LSU for its treatment of faculty and its “academic freedom violations.”

The 30-page American Association of University Professors report focuses on the 2009 firing of outspoken LSU coastal researcher Ivor van Heerden and the 2010 removal of biology professor Dominique Homberger from a class for allegedly grading too harshly.

The criticisms could lead to the AAUP placing LSU on its “Censure List” if the university fails to make the necessary corrective actions, said Jordan Kurland, AAUP associate general secretary.

Censure status is generally seen as a black eye against a school that hampers faculty recruitment and retention.

The AAUP is a nearly 50,000-member organization of faculty and other academics focused on ensuring academic freedom.

“They’re two very different cases,” Kurland said. “But both of them involve core issues of academic freedom.”

Van Heerden, who was blistering in his assessments of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina, is suing LSU. U.S. District Judge James J. Brady has thrown out parts of the lawsuit, but he ruled to keep the case open earlier this month.

In the case of Homberger, LSU Faculty Senate President Kevin Cope said the university and faculty are in the process of implementing the proper policies to ensure such actions against faculty are not taken unfairly.

Cope said the problems are less about LSU, and more about the “systemic problems” of higher education budget-cutting issues in Louisiana, and the pressures to increase graduation rates, which are part of the calculation for how much funding a university receives.

Cope said he is concerned more faculty statewide will be influenced to pass students through so-called “grade inflation.”

LSU Chancellor Michael Martin declined interview requests, but LSU released a prepared statement through A.G. Monaco, LSU associate vice chancellor of human resource management.

“While the AAUP is at liberty to discuss the Ivor van Heerden case, LSU is not in a position to comment due to pending litigation,” Monaco stated. “Regarding Dominique Homberger, the university has accepted many of the Faculty Senate’s recommendations on how to address these situations in the future and the Faculty Senate is developing a policy statement that will address procedures for these types of situations.”

Tulane University, the University of New Orleans, Loyola University and Southern University at New Orleans were placed on the AAUP Censure List for actions taken against faculty after Hurricane Katrina, but they have since been removed. Nicholls State University is on the current list.

As for the LSU cases, van Heerden, who was the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center, claims he was wrongly fired because LSU officials feared his criticisms of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would cost the university millions of dollars in federal funds.

Although he is not an engineer, van Heerden led the “Team Louisiana” group of researchers that inspected levees after Katrina and reported that structural engineering failures, not levee overtopping, led to most of the flooding.

The AAUP report largely agrees with van Heerden’s claims that he began being pushed out soon after Katrina by the LSU administration then under former LSU Chancellor Sean O’Keefe.

The report claims van Heerden was wrongly fired “in retaliation for his continuing dissent from the prevailing LSU position - thereby violating his academic freedom.”

The AAUP report quotes a September 2005 email from former LSU Vice Provost Charles Wilson to fellow LSU administrators, stating, “One of the issues will be Ivor; we must get him on the team and have him change his story.”

When van Heerden was ousted, LSU officials described it as a refocusing of the LSU Hurricane Center.

The Homberger case revolved around her sudden removal from teaching an introductory biology class because the midterm grades “strongly skewed to grades D and F,” the report states.

Homberger, who is tenured, mostly focuses on research and graduate-level classes. Homberger does not offer grade curves or extra credit, like some other faculty.

The report states that LSU violated Homberger’s right to assign student grades and that due process was denied. She deserves an apology from LSU, according to the AAUP.

At the time of the incident, Kevin Carman, LSU College of Basic Sciences dean, said he takes academic freedom very seriously.

“But, at the end of the day, I had to balance academic freedom with the need to protect the students,” Carman said last year. Many students were dropping the class, he said.

Carman said his primary regret was not talking to Homberger before removing her from the class.

The AAUP report argued the midterm grade represented only 27 percent of the final grade and that student grades were improving.

“The (AAUP) investigating committee was told that BIOL 1001 had long enjoyed a reputation as the easy option among introductory LSU science classes,” the report states.