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Faculty Chapters Concerned As Penn State Advances Firing Process Against Professor

As Penn State seemingly moves forward with terminating a University Park professor, some students and faculty members are trying to bring attention to what they believe is a troubling dismissal process.

On Thursday, Penn State’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement condemning the university for continuing a dismissal procedure against Oliver Baker, an assistant professor of English and African American studies. Back in November, he was found not guilty on one summary count of harassment for his involvement in a scuffle with a student counterprotester at a pro-vaccine rally organized by Penn State faculty in August.

To date, Penn State has declined to comment on the AC70 firing process, which is used to dismiss tenured and tenure-eligible faculty members. Instead, the university has only confirmed Baker remains on administrative leave.

“This decision [to look past Baker’s dropped charges] threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of the AC70 process,” Penn State’s chapter of the AAUP wrote in a statement. “A faculty member cannot be guilty of grave misconduct if he has committed no misconduct of any kind.”

The faculty chapter also argued that Baker’s continuing termination process sets a dangerous precedent for the university moving forward.

“This decision sends a chilling message to all university faculty: that they can be brought up for dismissal by an unaccountable Human Resources office that has ignored a faculty member’s exoneration by a court of law,” Penn State’s AAUP chapter continued.

Penn State’s AC70 process is ultimately influenced by the Standing Joint Committee on Tenure, which, at the end of the road, determines if faculty must face discipline or return to work. The university’s own guidelines, available to the public online, say an official dismissal would require “clear and convincing” evidence. For now, it’s unclear what evidence Penn State would use to support a dismissal procedure, especially considering all charges levied toward Baker were dropped.

Dismissal proceedings are largely kept behind closed doors, leaving an unclear picture for Baker’s immediate future. In the meantime, some of his fellow faculty argue Penn State can’t afford to let the termination process continue.

“Should the AC70 process go forward, the insult to justice — and the harm to the university’s reputation — would be incalculable, Penn State’s AAUP chapter argued. “Such a misuse of our dismissal procedures would surely draw national attention, the repercussions of which would resonate for years. In the interest of justice…and in the best interest of the university, we ask that the AC70 process be stopped before irreparable damage is done.”

The Coalition for a Just University, the faculty-led group that organized the pro-vaccination mandate rally in August, issued a statement in December supporting Baker and opposing the dismissal process against him.

“These legal decisions reinforce what those of us at the rally already knew: Professor Baker did nothing wrong when he was attempting to peacefully deescalate a menacing and threatening provocateur,” the coalition’s statement said. “He should be applauded for his effort to ensure the safety of all rally attendees, most notably undergraduate and graduate students who were in peaceful attendance.”

Baker has received supports from students, too. An online petition urging the university to retain Baker’s services has gained more than 800 signatures from students, alumni, community members, and more. Nearly 400 undergraduate students added their names to it.

“We are committed to defending such outstanding and supportive faculty like Dr. Baker from unjust persecution,” the petition reads.

On Friday, January 14, Penn State’s Students Against Sexist Violence organization will host a rally to support Baker’s retainment. It’ll begin at 6 p.m. in front of the Allen Street Gates. editor Geoff Rushton contributed to this report.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State with distinction in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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