By Ülvi Gitaliyev and Lily Barnette
Firing a tenured professor is an extraordinarily rare occurrence at any college. In 2018 though, Berea College did just that. Dr. Dave Porter was the Academic Vice President and Provost of Berea College from 2001 to 2005 then became a professor of Psychology and General Studies. The official reason for him being fired, and the only reason for firing a tenured professor in the Faculty Handbook, was incompetence. So, what caused Berea College to fire a professor who had worked for them for 17 years?
In February 2018, as part of the Industrial/Organizational Psychology Laboratory class, Porter and his students sent out a voluntary survey titled “Academic Freedom & Hostile Environments – Attitudes and Opinions,” on February 19th, 2018 to faculty and students. The goal of the survey was to measure “respondents’ perceptions about hostile environments and judgments about academic freedom protections” specifically at Berea College which was “relevant to the challenges students were experiencing on campus,” as stated in a video on Porter’s website.
Porter identified eight categories in which the survey’s questions could be separated: “Demographics 12%, Pure opinion 8%, Long Ago Scenarios 11%, Far Away Scenarios 6%, Fabrications 18%, Altered race/gender 14%, Actual campus behaviors 24%, [and] Behaviors during proceedings 5%.” Furthermore, the survey was vetted by six other senior faculty members. Porter said, “The survey is about 30% different from what it was when we started; items were deleted, modified, or added to create the version sent to students and faculty.”
What was concluded from the survey is that there was cognitive dissonance within beliefs (i.e., activism and academic freedom) and dissonance between explicit endorsement of First Amendment rights and judgments about Academic Freedom. Cognitive dissonance is defined as the mental conflict that occurs when a person’s behaviors and beliefs do not align. Not only that but academic freedom judgments were predicted by hostility perception. This means that people who felt a situation was more hostile, were less inclined to grant academic freedom. You can read more details about the survey, the questions asked, procedures, and results here.
Here are a few of the most interesting questions presented on survey:
“A staff member suggests that academic freedom only relates to language and behavior that occurs in ‘the classroom, laboratory, or public lecture hall’ and does not protect speech at the water cooler, in the copy room, faculty offices, or other locations on (or off) campus. Please express your agreement with the following statement: Academic freedom depends on one’s geographic location.”Question 7 of the survey
“Whether in classroom discussions or casual, ‘water-cooler’, conversations, I, personally, have withheld expressing my own viewpoint or perspective, out of concern that it might be judged as being offensive or ‘hostile’ by others.”Question 61 of the survey
Our favorite question of the survey is the one about the similarity between Bud Light and making love in a canoe:
“A faculty member overhears students talking outside her office about another professor. The students recount a riddle he told in class asking what Bud Light and making love in a canoe had in common. She finds the punchline, (‘They are both F***ing close to water.’) offensive and includes this as part of a hostile environment grievance several months later. Please express your relative agreement that the professor who told the inappropriate joke has violated college policy by creating a hostile environment even though no one present when he told the joke indicated offense or objection.”Question 22 of the survey
So what about this survey constituted incompetence? In the words of Psychology Professor Dr. Rob Smith, “The specific concerns that I raised to Dr. Porter were centered around the likely breach of confidentiality regarding actual Title IX cases to which his survey items were referring, the people involved in those cases, and the potential for students who are in his I/O class to be negatively impacted by a possible backlash (real or perceived) from others.”
In simpler terms, some professors argued that some of the survey questions, especially those about incidents on campus, were too specific and revealed the identity of those originally involved in the incidents and put them at risk for ridicule and harassment. One of the main proponents of this view was Wendy Williams, a now-former psychology professor. She argued that by using Title IX cases, Porter was targeting people specifically and thereby acting incompetently.
Another complaint was that Porter did not go through the appropriate channels before releasing the survey. According to Chad Berry, then Academic Vice-President, he did not receive an email about the survey until after its publication, but Porter disputes this, which we will discuss later. Robert Smith said that he did receive the survey and “urged him [Porter] to reconsider.”
As a result of these complaints, in September 2018, Dave Porter was fired from Berea College. For the previous six months, he was not allowed to come to campus since he posed a risk to the health and well-being of the students and staff. Furthermore, he was not allowed to communicate with students.
Soon afterward, he sued Berea College over his firing in a case that if the college loses, could cost millions of dollars. To get more on the Porter v. Berea College case and his lawsuit, The Berea Torch interviewed him in April.
Dave Porter has a different perspective on what happened. In his view, he was not acting incompetently in his capacity as a professor and so, the college was wrong in firing him. Some of the people complaining about the survey had originally vetted, claims Porter. He has written prolifically about his firing and his lawsuit against the college on his website. The National Association of Scholars had sent a first private and then public letter to Berea College President Roelofs which heavily criticized the college’s handling of the Porter case.
Porter said that ever since March 2018, new facts have come out about the survey supporting his case. He stated that he responded to the most concerns raised before the survey was posted and 30% of the survey had been changed based on the recommendations of faculty and students. People also spread lies about the purpose and mission of the survey as well, Porter added. He is confident that when the trial starts, the accusations made against him in 2018 will be shown to be untrue.
Porter also commented on the psychology department after his firing. “My biggest regret is what happened to the psychology department in the last five years,” said Porter. He added, “Before, I could say without any doubt that psychology was the best program offered by the college; now though, that is no longer the case.” He also commented on how during his time as provost, the graduation rate in Berea College increased from 45% to over 60%.
Considering the litigious nature of the issue, the professors willing to talk about the lawsuit were few and far between. Still, three faculty members were willing to anonymously give us their thoughts:
“Personally, I think that Dave is arrogant but I support him on principle. What the college did to him was more than wrong.”
“Professors were in the hallway looking over the questions of the survey and saying ‘This one is about me!’ And at first, I thought that he was in the wrong, but if what he is saying [about sending an email to Chad Berry beforehand and it is approved to be sent to the public] is true, then the college is in the wrong in this situation.”
“What Dave is doing is very honorable. The college probably has insurance, so they will likely not lose any money from this lawsuit even if they lose. Dave is losing a lot of money to go forward with it.”
The trial will be in October 2022 and when a final verdict is reached, The Berea Torch will write a follow-up.