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A professor convicted of domestic assault resigned from his tenured position at the U — and that’s a bad thing 

Aaron Doering
Aaron Doering
It’s time for tenured professors to face expulsion, just like the students they teach. Aaron Doering’s recent resignation from the University of Minnesota following a conviction of domestic assault is yet another example of the university’s unwillingness to fire tenured faculty under the guise of academic freedom.

While Hennepin County sentenced Doering to 185 days at a workhouse, the university bestowed upon him paid leave after the December incident, during which he continued to receive paychecks from his six-figure annual salary despite pleading guilty last April. What’s more, the university began an investigation into Doering’s misappropriation of taxpayer funds prior to the incident, setting up a convenient media narrative to let Doering go over something entirely unrelated to domestic violence, effectively trying to “Minnesota Nice” him out of a job.

A double standard 

Every student at the University of Minnesota must adhere to the Student Conduct Code for infractions such as plagiarism, bullying, harm to a person or disrupting the academic environment. Included in punishable violations are state, local or federal laws – even if the incident occurs off-campus. When the university learns of a student who has committed a crime, a report is filed with the Office of Community Standards and the accused must face the school’s disciplinary procedures in addition to criminal ones.

Students receive sanctions like probation, expulsion or even revocation of their degree depending on what a panel of students, staff and faculty decides. In their sanctioning decisions, the “the impact on other students or members of the University community” is taken into account. No such code or consideration exists for tenured faculty with this sort of clarity, and if #MeToo has taught us anything, that’s a problem for the U of M.

There’s a double standard when it comes to policing the academic community: Whereas students are expected to uphold a “safe, secure, and healthy environment” at the school to which they dole out $15,000+ a year to attend, those lucky few on higher floors of the ivory tower are immune to reprimand, even when they choke their girlfriend. Worse, as in Doering’s case, they are rewarded with continued pay and benefits, and the opportunity to “resign” rather than be fired.

As a person in a position of power and with a repeated history of violence against women, Doering, and the countless other professors with dusty personnel files containing sexist, racist and other threatening behavior, surely pose more of a threat to the campus community than a student who starts a food fight in the dining hall.

The perks of tenure

Nonetheless, the university doubles down on vague and drawn-out reporting structures, shielding faculty from repercussions and keeping students and the wider community in the dark.

Joy Hamilton
Joy Hamilton
According to the Faculty Tenure policy that gives the university upwards of 150 work days (more than an academic semester) to take action, the only people who can request a professor be disciplined for harm against the academic community are the dean of the collegiate unit or a specially appointed administrator. Considering both tenured faculty and deans often have a mutually beneficial relationship and shared interest in preserving the tenure system and potentially their own problematic conduct, this biased echo chamber encourages silence, underreporting and nepotism.

Whereas students have 21 subdivisions of disciplinary offenses to adhere to in the Board of Regents’ Student Conduct Code, faculty have five vaguely worded causes for termination, none of which relate to offenses outside of the academic community. By and large, the policy addresses issues related to academic freedom, tenure qualifications and research ethics, leaving too much to chance for behavioral matters.

We can have both. Let’s protect academic freedom and subject tenured faculty to the same Conduct Code as the students who sit 5 feet from them in the classroom.

Time’s up 

If I have learned anything during my six years as a doctoral student and instructor, it’s this: Faculty protect faculty. This is often at the expense of women, people of color, and international students and staff – minority populations who are frequently the targets of harmful behavior.

The university missed yet another opportunity to hold its most prized employees accountable and foster a much-needed equitable and safe learning environment. Instead, it chose to wager its reputation and the safety of its students and employees on allowing the Aaron Doerings of the University to silently exit. After all, “faculty will be faculty.”

Joy Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate instructor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/21/2019 - 03:31 pm.

    Its hard to fire people without getting sued.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/22/2019 - 08:44 am.

    I find it a little disingenuous to compare undergrads to tenured professors and expect the same kind of disciplinary structure for both. And truth be told, colleges and universities aren’t exactly more enthusiastic about expelling tuition paying students than they are faculty, regardless of the disciplinary structure.

    No student is an established and credentialed academic, and the reasons tenured positions exist are a matter of historical record. There have been instances of regimes that fabricate charges against academics, arrest them, and get them fired from their positions. Nor can we foreclose the possibility of wrongful convictions. I’m not suggesting that this is the case here, but we can’t assume that the political environment will always be as sanguine as it is now. Nor can we assume that our criminal justice system is flawless.

    I’m not saying the tenure system shouldn’t be changed or examined, but it doesn’t make sense to conform it the model applied to students. I wish the author had spent more time describing what a different tenure system would look like instead of comparing it to the student’s system. There’s a difference between a “different” standard and a “double” standard, one is not necessarily the other. Tell us what you want the new standard to look like.

    It might also be of note to observe that the over-all trend in academia is away from tenured positions all together. In fact, the number professors is declining in university classrooms where instructors and grad students are replacing professors. This is part of a business model that seeks to reduce the costs of tenured faculty and professors.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/22/2019 - 09:33 am.

    Another problem with THIS and others like him is the tenure track system itself and how tenure is awarded. This guys academic credential are extremely weak. Apparently he got a PhD in learning technologies from the U of M at some point, but good luck finding out when he got that and what if any thesis he had to produce to get it. He’s been a TED talker, and a “Fellow” in a few places, but he doesn’t list any faculty positions other than the U. Furthermore, his faculty page at the U. lists him as an associate professor. At tenured associate professor?

    The guy’s made movies and stuff but what’s he doing as a tenured faculty at the U. in the first place? When did he get tenure, and how and why?

  4. Submitted by Constance Sullivan on 11/22/2019 - 03:33 pm.

    This article betrays more than a little naivete on the author’s part. Does she really think that this professor resigned completely of his own free will? Just after his conviction of a domestic violence assault and after a period of public “probation” between when formal charges were filed and his conviction?


    We live in an enlightened age when more and more perpetrators of power differential-based abuse get called out and punished. It’s not perfect yet. But having served on the faculty of the U of MN for forty years and seen a number of cases not dissimilar to this one, I would wager my whole faculty retirement account that the U “persuaded” this guy to resign, not letting up until they had him facing “an offer he could not refuse.”

    Trust me: The University of Minnesota cares more for its institutional integrity and reputation than it does for any single individual on its faculty or staff, incuding administrators. No matter who she or he is, the U is ever ready to throw them under the bus, after a cold hard look at the person and case. They got rid of this guy because he was not good for the brand, and doing anything but such “persuasion” would have cost the university a mint they didn’t want to spend. They do that all the time. Even when as here, the case has nothing to do with academic tenure on campus or abuse of students or colleagues on campus.

    He’s gone, my indignant young friend.

    And a final note: There was prudence in the U’s waiting until he was convicted. It’s very easy, probably too easy, and thickly precedented, to accuse someone of heinous stuff and ruin their reputations. Truth or no, tenure or no.

    • Submitted by Megan Yahnke on 11/23/2019 - 02:34 pm.

      Given that the author is part of the U of M community I’d assume she’d bet all her earnings that this man convicted of a violent crime was pressured to leave. But that misses the point: the system is inadequate! In fact, it is not a system at all. It disregards the fact that we need to have a serious and DYNAMIC conversations about this. Jumping to the “ruining reputations” argument is a lazy and over-used escape hatch from a conversation that is desperately needed. At the end of the day it is not about this ONE MAN leaving, so your “he’s gone, indignant young woman” comment doesn’t come off as charming and wise as you might have hoped. It comes off as shortsighted and insensitive. It should absolutely be concerning that students are held to extensive conduct standards and procedures while other faculty, staff, and admin have to cleverly “push” or “pressure” out faculty who engage in violent crimes. We need to acknowledge that there are systems, procedure, and standards in place (or not in place) that need to be reevaluated and constructed with multiple concerns in mind. Trying to shut down the conversation is certainly not admirable or helpful.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 11/24/2019 - 11:13 am.

        I agree, we don’t want to shut down the conversation. But goofy comparisons to the Student Code don’t get us anywhere.

        If you want to make to changes to the faculty codes, and the tenured code, great.. what changes to you want to make? What exactly do you want to be different? How would like to see a case like this handled differently?

  5. Submitted by Johann Sebb on 11/25/2019 - 06:27 am.

    Most likely what happened is that c9llege administration gave the professor a clear message that if he didn’t resign he would be fired. Additionally, the professor also probably received a golden parachute of sorts. The professor has much more to worry about I would imagine- his health and wellness. Unless sued civilly, he is probably sitting pretty well financially.

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