Indiana University provost’s statement declares war on its own professor

Eric B. Rasumsen

The Indiana University’s business school has a professor named Eric B. Rasmusen. Lauren Robel, the schools’ provost, just issued a statement that he’s a racist, sexist, homophobe but they can’t fire him. This could only happen in academia.

Go ahead, read the statement:

On the First Amendment

This message was sent to the Kelley School of Business community Nov. 20, 2019.

Professor Eric Rasmusen has, for many years, used his private social media accounts to disseminate his racist, sexist, and homophobic views. When I label his views in this way, let me note that the labels are not a close call, nor do his posts require careful parsing to reach these conclusions. He has posted, among many other things, the following pernicious and false stereotypes:

– That he believes that women do not belong in the workplace, particularly not in academia, and that he believes most women would prefer to have a boss than be one; he has used slurs in his posts about women;

– That gay men should not be permitted in academia either, because he believes they are promiscuous and unable to avoid abusing students;

– That he believes that black students are generally unqualified for attendance at elite institutions, and are generally inferior academically to white students.

Ordinarily, I would not dignify these bigoted statements with repetition, but we need to confront exactly what we are dealing with in Professor Rasmusen’s posts. His expressed views are stunningly ignorant, more consistent with someone who lived in the 18th century than the 21st. Sometimes Professor Rasmusen explains his views as animated by his Christian faith, although Christ was neither a bigot nor did he use slurs; indeed, he counseled avoiding judgments. Rhetorically speaking, Professor Rasmusen has demonstrated no difficulty in casting the first, or the lethal, stone.

His latest posts slurring women were picked up by a person with a heavily followed Twitter account, and various officials at Indiana University have been inundated in the last few days with demands that he be fired. We cannot, nor would we, fire Professor Rasmusen for his posts as a private citizen, as vile and stupid as they are, because the First Amendment of the United States Constitution forbids us to do so. That is not a close call.

Indiana University has a strong nondiscrimination policy, and as an institution adheres to values that are the opposite of Professor Rasmusen’s expressed values. We demand tolerance and respect in the workplace and in the classroom, and if Professor Rasmusen acted upon his expressed views in the workplace to judge his students or colleagues on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, or race to their detriment, such as in promotion and tenure decisions or in grading, he would be acting both illegally and in violation of our policies and we would investigate and address those allegations according to our processes. Moreover, in my view, students who are women, gay, or of color could reasonably be concerned that someone with Professor Rasmusen’s expressed prejudices and biases would not give them a fair shake in his classes, and that his expressed biases would infect his perceptions of their work. Given the strength and longstanding nature of his views, these concerns are reasonable.

Therefore, the Kelley School is taking a number of steps to ensure that students not add the baggage of bigotry to their learning experience:

– No student will be forced to take a class from Professor Rasmusen. The Kelley School will provide alternatives to Professor Rasmusen’s classes;

– Professor Rasmusen will use double-blind grading on assignments; if there are components of grading that cannot be subject to a double-blind procedure, the Kelley School will have another faculty member ensure that the grades are not subject to Professor Rasmusen’s prejudices.

If other steps are needed to protect our students or colleagues from bigoted actions, Indiana University will take them.

The First Amendment is strong medicine, and works both ways. All of us are free to condemn views that we find reprehensible, and to do so as vehemently and publicly as Professor Rasmusen expresses his views. We are free to avoid his classes, and demand that the university ensure that he does not, or has not, acted on those views in ways that violate either the federal and state civil rights laws or IU’s nondiscrimination policies. I condemn, in the strongest terms, Professor Rasmusen’s views on race, gender, and sexuality, and I think others should condemn them. But my strong disagreement with his views—indeed, the fact that I find them loathsome—is not a reason for Indiana University to violate the Constitution of the United States.

This is a lesson, unfortunately, that all of us need to take seriously, even as we support our colleagues and classmates in their perfectly reasonable anger and disgust that someone who is a professor at an elite institution would hold, and publicly proclaim, views that our country, and our university, have long rejected as wrong and immoral.

Lauren Robel
Executive Vice President and Provost

I have questions

Rasumusen has responded to the statement and disputes a lot of the claims. There’s a lot of hair-splitting on his page. The truth lies somewhere between “He’s a racist punk” and “He’s just a conservative expressing himself.” Without doing a lot of reporting, I have no way of knowing where he falls on that spectrum, but it’s clear his views are pretty well outside the norm. (For example, he says “slut” is not a slur and that homosexuals should not teach in high school.)

Provost Robel’s statement is the oddest public statement I’ve read in a long time. Here are a few things I wonder:

  • Why is this a First Amendment issue? The question is whether Prof. Rasumusen should have a job, not whether he should be allowed to speak. No one attempting to stop him from speaking. Indiana University is a public university — that is, funded by the state of Indiana — so I guess this “First Amendment” issue is a question of whether the state will punish someone for their speech. If this were in an non-academic setting, say, in the military or in a company, and his behavior was this out there, he’d be gone.
  • Is it actually productive to declare rhetorical war on somebody without firing them? “You still have a job but we hate you,” is a strange message for a public statement.
  • So you’re allowed to be a bigot so long as there is no evidence that you’re being bigoted at work? Is that it?

The ROAM analysis of this statement is revealing

When I’m confused about a statement, I fall back on ROAM, to analyze it, because it’s often revealing.

  • Readers. Who is the audience? In this case, it’s clearly the university community and those who are scrutinizing the business school as it responds to accusations about Prof. Rasumusen.
  • Objective. What change is the statement trying to make in the reader? This statement wants to make it clear that the leaders of the business school see Prof. Rasmusen’s statements and do not condone them, but feel they can take no action.
  • Action. What will the reader do? The purpose of this statement is to get students and other faculty to shun or protest Prof. Rasmusen.
  • iMpression. What will the reader think of the writer? Provost Robel wants you to know she isn’t taking things lightly, even if she can’t fire Prof. Rasmusen.

In other words, Provost Robel is attempting to rouse the campus to make life impossible for Professor Rasmusen, in hopes that he’ll move on. And she wants to catch him doing something bad enough that it’s grounds for dismissing him.

I’m sure you, my reader, have a perspective here. And I’m happy to hear it. Just please, don’t call each other names. There’s clearly enough of that to go around at Indiana University.

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  1. Fascinating turn of events. A few things come to mind.

    First, there’s no way that IU would let a non-tenured professor get away with this. Not even close.

    Second, if I were his colleague, I’d be furious—especially at a state school. The cash-strapped state university will have to burden additional faculty with extra grading and responsibilities because of this clown.

  2. It’s BS to label this a First Amendment issue. It’s a tenure problem. If Rasmussen were just a lecturer, the university could (and should) fire his ass.

    Will the extra cost of double-blind grading be deducted from Rasmusen’s salary? Because otherwise IU is causing damage to others in the department.

  3. I find the provost’s stand refreshingly honest. We’ve all been in situations where some dick is beaking off and there’s nothing to do about it, usually not even call them on it.

  4. I agree with Richard that this is a tenure issue and not a First Amendment one, but speaking as someone who worked in academia (though as a staff member, not faculty, but in PR, which is relevant) for 15 years, I can tell you that the two sort of overlap. IU needed to answer its critics and its community’s call-to-action to fire Rasmussen. Silence here would be nothing short of endorsing his views.

    It cannot fire him because of tenure. But saying so publicly would incite the faculty to revolt against the administration as it would likely open a dialogue around ridding the school of tenure altogether. Hell hath no fury like a college professor who thinks their easier-than-real-world job is in jeopardy.

    So hiding behind the First Amendment is the only reasonable approach to A) Address the issue and condemn Rasmussen’s point of view and B) Not get sued by him for civil rights violations … which is hysterically ironic.

    Frankly, I was surprised and, like Dan above, kind of delighted at the statement. I understand how the university’s hands are cuffed. I also understand that declaring war on a professor is an unpopular path to walk down. But it’s the kind of bold that will eventually solve the problem. He’ll likely be alienated to the point of having to resign. Or at least turn to writing or research to stay employed as I doubt many students will sign up for his classes. I’m sure there’s something in his contract about “no class, no pass.” Or similar.

  5. Defamation is the area of law that provides for a civil remedy when someone’s words end up causing harm to another’s reputation or your livelihood. Libel is a written or published defamatory statement. Slander is a spoken defamatory statement.
    I see provost Robel’s statement as defamatory in that it will likely cause harm to Rasmusen’s reputation or livelihood.
    CAUTION: Slippery slope ahead!

  6. The man has been teaching for over thirty years. The provost’s statement says there’s no indication that Rasmusen’s public personal views affected his students in the classroom or in grading. So the issue is what? Does the school check the social media accounts of every employee and then judge them as well? And the standard for acceptable beliefs is what?

  7. If he’s been teaching for 30 years, then it seems the provost is also saying that either:

    a) the university could not find a single incident in his history that clearly demonstrates he acted in a discriminitory way at work, or

    b) the university could not be bothered to investigate whether he had clearly demonstrated his discrimination at work

    I find it hard to believe that someone with such views never once in 30 years acted in a way that betrayed those views.