Protesters hold signs in support of Penn State professor Oliver Baker during a demonstration on March 24, 2022 in front of Old Main. Photo by Nolan Wick | Onward State
A Penn State faculty member will not be fired for his role in a dust-up with a student counter-protestor at a pro-vaccine rally last summer, according to a memo from university President Neeli Bendapudi.
Oliver Baker, an assistant professor of English and African American studies, was accused of “grave misconduct” following the Aug. 27 rally outside of Old Main and the university initiated the process for potentially terminating a tenured faculty member, despite all legal charges being dropped or dismissed.
Bendapudi, who took office on May 9, wrote in a three-page memo to the chair of the University Faculty Senate that she concluded Baker’s actions did not rise to the level of grave misconduct.
“The faculty member was an active antagonist with a student in a free-speech zone,” Bendapudi wrote. “I have determined this is clearly misconduct by the faculty member. I have also determined that there is not clear and compelling evidence that this behavior rises to the level of grave misconduct required to terminate employment and revoke tenure.”
Any discipline faced by Baker is a confidential personnel matter, she added.
During the August rally calling on the university to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, Baker engaged with the counter-protestor, a Penn State student who Baker’s attorney and witnesses described as aggressive and menacing. A criminal complaint accused Baker of grabbing the counter-protestor’s sign, attempting to take it from him, pulling him to the ground and injuring him as a struggle ensued on the ground.
Baker’s attorney and witnesses said the professor was attempting to deescalate the situation at an otherwise peaceful rally and that evidence contradicted the account of the scuffle in the criminal complaint.
In October, the Center County District Attorney’s Office withdrew misdemeanor charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct and in November a district judge dismissed the remaining summary charge of harassment.
The university, however, pressed forward with the AC70 firing process. Over the ensuing months, the case against Baker drew opposition from faculty and student groups, who staged local rallies in support of the professor, as well as national attention.
Penn State’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors condemned the ongoing termination processstating that a faculty member could not have committed grave misconduct when a court determined no misconduct occurred.
The Coalition for a Just University, which organized the August rally, wrote in a letter to Bendapudi earlier this month that Penn State appeared to be punishing a faculty member who was attempting to protect the safety of others.
“This suggests that faculty should be disciplined for trying to defuse potentially dangerous situations on campus,” the coalition wrote. “Faculty have the right to protect themselves and students to the best of their ability when confronted by dangerous persons on campus. Faculty should not have to fear losing their jobs for trying to protect themselves and students from people who threaten and harass them on campus. Professor Baker did nothing wrong when he tried to deescalate a threatening individual at our rally on August 27.”
Bendapudi, who did not become president until well after the incident and the AC70 process began, wrote in her memo that there should be a path for discipline that does not go as far as termination.
“Throughout my career, I have made it a point to model and stand up for appropriate conduct in the workplace. I have said privately to my teams and publicly to news media that I believe culture is what you tolerate,” she wrote. “I take that of misconduct seriously and want to exist in a workplace that does the same. I also believe that we should not be judged by our best or worst moments in life apart from that conduct which is clearly reprehensible or unimpeachably laudable. I believe that systems of discipline must be fair, consistently applied, and built to seriously address behavioral issues without being so punitive that they erode trust in the system by their very application. I believe we have opportunities to these ends as it relates to Penn State’s faculty disciplinary policies.”
Bendapudi expressed concerns about the all-or-nothing AC70 process being the only formal way for the university to handle violations of standards of conduct.
She added that she was “deeply troubled by the personal attacks,” on administrators who were following the process laid out by the university.
“These ad hominem attacks have no place in our intellectual discourse and are not reflective of our stated values,” Bendapudi wrote.
Moving forward, Bendapudi wrote, her memo to the Faculty Senate is intended to begin a dialogue “about how we work together to create an additional policy on Faculty Accountability (similar to policies which exist at our peer and aspirational institutions) that reinforces our standards of conduct in a fair, transparent and responsible manner.”
“The accountability policy for faculty might be thought of as a progressive discipline system akin to that which exists for our staff and indeed in workplaces across the world,” she wrote.