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

The university missed yet another opportunity to hold its most prized employees accountable and foster a much-needed equitable and safe learning environment.

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.

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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.

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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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