Letter to the Editor

This letter was written by several organizations at Penn State and in State College including Coalition for a Just University, Students Against Sexist Violence, American Association of University Professors, Schreyer Gender Equity Coalition, NAACP State College Chapter, Coalition of Graduate Employees at Penn State University, Centre County Democratic Socialists of America, Alleghenies Abolition, Central Pennsylvania United, Liberal Arts Collective at Penn State.

The undersigned faculty, student and community organizations believe that the Penn State administration is currently in violation of its own AC70 procedures in the case of Oliver Baker, assistant professor of English and African American studies.

We are demanding administrative transparency, accountability and rectification. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “The Professor and The Protester” states that on Jan. 10, 2022, “Lang notified Baker that, after consulting with Nicholas P. Jones, the provost, he would refer his case to the joint committee on tenure if Baker did not submit a letter of resignation by the close of business on Jan. 18, Baker said in an email. Baker declined to do so."

Given Baker’s refusal to resign, we can only assume that, per the AC70 process, Dean Lang and Provost Jones referred Baker's case to the joint committee on tenure on or near Jan. 18. The AC70 process states that the committee serving as a university jury has 60 days from this date to hold a hearing and provide a verdict as a recommendation to President Eric Barron. At the time of this letter writing, April 14, university spokespersons say that Baker continues to be on leave pending university processes. It has been well over 60 days.

This leaves us to assume that what is happening in Baker's case is a procedural violation. This violation comes after administrators disregarded the judgement of the legal proceedings that cleared Baker of any wrongdoing. We can only assume that what administrators consider grave misconduct in Baker's case is the accusation of assaulting or hurting a student. The DA's office withdrew this charge after an investigation determined there was no evidence whatsoever to support this allegation.

We believe it is a misuse of AC70 policy to subject a faculty member to termination proceedings for the same allegation that a DA's office determined was completely baseless. Now, administrators appear to be violating AC70 timeline procedures in Baker's case.

Judging by these misapplications and procedural violations, the Penn State administration appears to be manipulating the AC70 process to fire Baker, destroying the career of an innocent professor who peacefully helped ensure the safety of students and faculty from a violent provocateur at a campus rally.

This misuse and violation of university rules is an infringement on the rights of the Penn State faculty and student bodies, and threatens to undermine the democratic values of our university and the rights of students and faculty.

Faculty have a right to voice criticism of Penn State administrators. Baker was supporting faculty speech that criticized administrative policies. The Penn State administration's apparent misuse and now manipulation of AC70 procedures against Baker for his actions supporting such speech have infringed upon and chilled the faculty’s right to voice criticism of the administration.

Marginalized students have a right to equal educational opportunities and to secure academic and cultural spaces that represent them; these violations by Penn State administrators have undermined the spaces and safety of marginalized students and damaged the African American studies department. 

Women students have a right to feel safe on campus and have confidence that conduct violations and restorative justice processes regarding abusers are not empty and meaningless in practice. The violent provocateur used sexist slurs against rally-goers.

Misogyny motivated his aggressive actions. Administrators have treated the provocateur as a victim rather than as a perpetrator of sexist abuse. These violations by Penn State administrators have made women students feel unsafe and undermined their confidence that abusers will be held accountable or be prevented from committing abuse.

Students have a right to focus on their studies without spending undue time defending their rights on campus. These violations by Penn State administrators have required students to take time away from their studies and spend enormous amounts of labor protesting these abuses while advocating for justice on campus. 

Students and faculty have a right to be reasonably safe from far-right extremism; these violations have led to the support for far-right extremism on Penn State campuses. Administrators' failure to hold accountable the provocateur while subjecting Baker to AC70 procedures is a tacit endorsement of the provocateur’s violent actions over the speech of students and faculty during the campus rally that was criticizing administrators.

This tacit support emboldens the far-right extremist movements on campus that the provocateur was promoting at the rally. These far-right movements intensify rape culture and give rise to hate speech and crimes, specifically endangering the safety of marginalized students and faculty, and have made university employees feel unsafe and powerless in their workplace.

The Penn State community has a right to democratic norms being upheld on campus including the right to be free from persecution and retaliation for free speech that criticizes administrative policies. These violations have led to the undemocratic persecution of a faculty member who nonviolently protected the speech and safety of students and faculty from a threatening provocateur who disrupted a campus rally.

As shown in court, this aggressive provocateur's actions — not his speech — created dangerous conditions in which the provocateur engaged in physical altercations with peaceful rally-goers who had been exercising their right to protected speech in an orderly, safe manner before this provocateur violently disrupted the rally. As explained in court, Baker and other rally attendees were unaware that this provocateur had any relationship to Penn State.

Through the provocateur’s own actions and his repeated, flagrant violations of Penn State’s values and norms, this provocateur singlehandedly initiated a dangerous situation for all involved including himself. Despite numerous rally attendees asking the provocateur to express his views peacefully and inviting him to join other peaceful counter demonstrators, the provocateur continued to physically disrupt the rally, shoving and eventually attacking rally-goers, injuring himself as he did so.

Photographic evidence included in the Chronicle of Higher Education article demonstrate conclusively that Baker did not assault or hurt this provocateur, nor did Baker commit any irresponsible actions that put anyone in danger of harm. Baker did the opposite. His actions increased the safety on campus in the face of the dangerous conditions the provocateur had created — all these points were argued in court and Baker was exonerated of all charges against him.

We demand transparency and accountability by asking that Penn State administrators explain their processes and reasons for what we believe is a manipulation of the AC70 process in the case of Baker. As shown by numerous letters, petitions, statements, rallies and demonstrations, students and faculty want Baker here and recognize that he did not commit any action nearing “grave misconduct” while protecting the rights of students and faculty to protected speech.

In contrast to the overwhelming majority of people who recognize Baker's innocence and who want Baker to remain at Penn State, only a small handful of administrators want Baker removed from Penn State and contend that the wildly misapplied charge of “grave misconduct” matched this faculty member’s purported offense.

We also call upon Barron to rectify what we believe is an administrative misapplication and now manipulation of the AC70 process. We ask Barron to uphold his institutional commitment to the safety, expression, and rights of the students and faculty of this university by reinstating Baker to his full duties as soon as possible.

We ask that Barron follow the judgement of the Centre County District Attorney's Office that Baker did not commit assault. We ask that Barron follow the judgement of Honorable Steven F. Lachman's that Baker did not harass an aggressive provocateur at the campus rally. These are the only allegations for which the charge of grave misconduct could possibly apply. 

In case Barron does not resolve this problem and reinstate Baker, we call upon incoming President Neeli Bendapudi to uphold the judgement of the DA's Office and the court of law in Baker's case, and repair the faculty, staff, and students' trust in Penn State administrators by fully reinstating Baker to his full duties as soon as possible.

This open letter has rolling signatures. Please email studentfacultyrights@gmail.com to add your organization's name to the signatories.

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