Professor-in-Exile: How a Former Provost and Professor at Berea College was Fired for “Incompetence”

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.

20 responses to “Professor-in-Exile: How a Former Provost and Professor at Berea College was Fired for “Incompetence””

  1. The firing of Dr. Porter was justified, period. He published an objectively low quality survey in which the primary goal was not scientific in nature. Questions on the survey were glaringly obvious that they were about other faculty/students (as a psychology student at the time of the incident). Not only is this a breach of confidentially, but its not done in the spirit of high-quality science which can arguably be his most grievous offense. His intentions lacked good-faith and it impacted the rigor of his research methods. He states that the psychology department was the best, yet, his actions reflected nothing but incompetence towards the field. What could have been an interesting scientific inquiry, amounted to nothing but a petty attempt by Dr. Porter to “prove” he was right about squabbles he had with collogues. He made the active choice to include specific, identifiable events that had happened on campus. In this moment, he showed not only incompetence to produce high-quality, even decent quality, research but seeing that it was part of an official class he was instructing at the time, it also showcased his incompetence in teaching science generally. If an academic is demonstrating negligent regard towards both constructing research and teaching, then they need to be relieved of their position. This was the best course of action for the college, the field of psychology, and the overall reputation of social sciences. In regards to Chad Berry, if he did approve the survey that does not mean that what Dr. Porter did was okay, it means that Chad was *also* negligent. This could mean, if true, that Dave was fired prematurely after being told the survey was good to go. This is a shame to see a him fired wrongly, especially if since he has given multiple *valid* reasons to be fired at the end of his tenure.

    • There was a good reason for the survey even if you cannot see it. The problem he is addressing is still a problem at Berea today. That is the lack of freedom of speech and freedom in general that the administration and public safety continues to take away.

      • Dumbass Freedom of speech means you can’t get arrested for saying shit, it’s not freedom of social consequences for shoving your head up your ass

    • It appears all Porter is entitled to are royalties from fucking around and finding out before that became a meme on the internet. And since a Spotify podcast is linked to the top of the comments here, why not settle for their reimbursement rate for artists?

    • 1) You cannot discern Dr. Porter’s motives for publication. This is obvious to me considering how many vehemently disagree with your characterization of them.

      2) If you are predisposed to be anti-speech, then perhaps the survey seems objectively low-quality. Fact is, prior to outrage, nobody consulted felt similarly. The results were also insightful enough reach publication despite your opinion.

      3) Since you were with the Psychology program, you already know that not every kind of research needs the same level of anonymity protections.

      Dr. Porter published good research on a topic that is incredibly unpopular in university settings because it reveals the shortcomings of modern academia. I can’t wait for the trial.

    • I’m not that familiar with the incident, but it seems like a bunch of academics feel stupid for some of their actions being called into question so they acted even worse and got a guy fired. Never tell a professor they aren’t the model of virtue, or do so at your peril. I suppose people forgot the Socratic dialogues, and the actual trial of Socrates haha

  2. Having been at Berea during the time of this survey’s release, and having been able to personally identify more than one person/case used in the scenarios, it’s clear that Dr. Porter acted out of spite. It was written in a way that purposely called individuals out just short of using their names. This article leaves out all of the inappropriate questions (and rightly so, since those mentioned could again be identifiable). It was extremely unprofessional. It was also, in my opinion, horrible to put his students in a position where they also had to sign off on this, and I’m pretty sure working on this was for a grade.

  3. Having researched this case a bit myself, this article comes off as incredibly biased. You fail to include a lot of the context for what Porter’s survey was in response to, which let’s you portray Porter’s actions as more justifiable then they were. I get thinking the college hinders freedom of speech, but defending Porter as a case for this isn’t the right move in my opinion.

  4. I think this is bullshit. Dave was a great professor. I truly hope he comes back to Berea. We now more than ever need unorthodox beliefs, believe it or not Berea has a orthodox method of “politically correct” thought. Dave was a rebel because he went against the grain. Dave, we got your back.

  5. Be careful about posting this one, guys. The college disappears people who bring up the Porter fiasco.

    In all seriousness – I was there in 2018 and happy to see the response to this article. Back then very, very few people were on Dave’s side. It was essentially Dave and the students who made the survey against everybody. Fun fact: shortly after his banishment from campus (and I use “banishment” literally, as he isn’t allowed to step foot there), a group of students started a reading group with Dave. We would go to his house once weekly to read “Coddling of the American Mind” and discuss the evolution of academia. I wasn’t in his class personally, but I wanted his side of the story (99 percent of the campus immediately sided with the administration), so I sought out an invite. I think that, as the event becomes less sensationalized, there’s a chance for more people to see the merit of his research.

  6. Tell us more about this curious fellow. I’m interested in hearing more firsthand accounts from people who were there.

  7. I went to Berea College but I never met Dr. Porter. However, I did know the culture of the college very well. I am not sure what Dr. Porter’s motives were, but based on the survey questions, to me, it looked like he was trying DEFEND students’ rights to dissent and express dissatisfaction against biased professors. In this regard, Berea was never a great environment. I never felt you could openly dissent there against faculty and ESPECIALLY administration. It seems Dr. Porter was trying to prove, scientifically, that it is dangerous for students to oppose faculty and administration, and that students know this.

    Read the survey for yourself.

    So my question is, is this faculty member that this was supposedly directed toward still employed? It seems to me Berea fired the wrong person: the WHISTLEBLOWER.

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