Ethics, Porn, and the Creepy Professor

The Ronald Ayers saga raises the intriguing, Weiner-esque ethical issue of whether a college professor being creepy is sufficient reason to fire him.

The former economics professor was fired by the University of Texas for viewing pornography on an office computer, which the University’s policies forbade. The chain of facts has the ring of Kafka: 1) a student claims he hears “sexual noises” emanating from Ayers’ office, which 2) is considered sufficient provocation (the professor denied the accusation that he was not “master of his domain” at work) for the school to search his computer, which 3) uncovers evidence that he looked at some pornographic sites, and 4) also that he searched for the term “teen,” which 5) the university deems sufficient to indicate that he was searching for child pornography, so 6) they fired him, after three decades and tenure on the faculty.

University records say Ayers at first denied the allegations that he viewed pornography, but when confronted with a printout of his computer records, admitted that it may have happened “at the end of a long work day.” Ayers later told administrators seeing the porn was for “academic research.”

Uh-huh…

Ayers has argued that the university has no right to restrict such activity. Well, it’s the university’s computer, and it has a right to restrict the use of its machinery in any way it chooses. Ayers really is arguing that as a professor, he should be permitted to search for and read anything. “The job description of being a professor says to discover knowledge in all of its forms,” Ayers says. It’s hard to dispute that; it’s also hard to dispute that viewing porn at work is a well-documented form of goofing off.Then again, a lot of what passes for the work of a college professor would be what you or I would call goofing off.

There is also a legal problem with the policy that got Ayers fired. At the time, the policy banned accessing “obscene materials.” “Obscene” is a legal term for material that is not constitutionally protected; pornography is not necessarily legally obscene. Can a government-funded state university legally fire a professor based on what he looks at, if doing so is not illegal and the content is constitutionally protected? I haven’t done the research, but it would seem that it could not. Meanwhile, if what Ayers was looking at was merely porn but not obscene, the he wasn’t really in violation of the policy. (The school has now changed the term for the banned material to “sexually explicit.”

Hence the effort to show that he was looking for child porn looks like a tactic for making sure there was a firing offense. But searching for child porn is not a crime, and searching for the term “teen” is not the same as searching for child porn, either. I just did a Google search for “teen” and there are no child porn results in the first 300 links that came up.

It seems pretty clear that the prof, if anything, likes to look at teenage girls, even if they are on the Tiger Beat or Nickelodeon site. That is a little creepy, but absent inappropriate behavior toward students completely irrelevant to his teaching duties.

Then the University released personal emails—remember, it’s the school’s computer—to the press, which it said showed his state of mind. In a typical example, Ayers talked about a female student who bent over and exposed her “huge chest puppies” as they went over exam questions together. “She has the look I have seen you (and me) go for in certain magazines. I would describe it as the beautiful, dumb, full-figured nude model/pron star look,” Ayers wrote to another professor at a different college. (the theory is that he misspelled “porn” to avoid triggering any university filters on his computer. Ayers swears the emails were not what they appeared to be.“There was satire, self-mockery. A lot of it was grounded in reading evolutionary psychology and feminist thought,” Ayers says.

Okaaaaaay….

As Wilfred Brimley’s character says in the climactic scene of “Absence of Malice,” “I think I know where we’re headed here….”

Spurred by a student accusation that may or may not have had merit, the University discovered material on the professor’s computer that it found distasteful, and over-reacted. As a faculty tribunal found, Ayers was guilty of using poor judgment but should not have been fired. It is likely that several members of that faculty tribunal also employed the same bad judgment, in fact. The University rejected the tribunal’s findings, but it has also refused Ayers’ request that it check other profs’ computers to see if what he did was not an exception, but the rule. No, “everybody does it” is not a defense. But if the university knows or should know that other profs look at porn on-line in their downtime but only disciplines Ayers, that’s unfair.

The e-mails were, it seems clear, “guy talk,” or perhaps creepy middle-aged guy talk, but also merely proof of what every college student knows about their teachers—a lot of them are dirty old men who get a kick out of ogling the co-eds. It has ever been thus. The e-mails, by transforming common knowledge into icky reality, served only to embarrass Ayers. Is this kind of discussion between friends justification for firing someone? Only if it undermines his ability to do his job. A high school teacher’s similar e-mails would have earned a sacking, I think: parents have a good reason not to want to entrust their children to men with sexual fantasies about them. In college? It’s not professional, and it’s not mature, but the conduct is excusable.

I am troubled by Ayers’ disingenuous denials and excuses. I would be more enthusiastically in his corner if he just admitted that he looked at porn, admitted that he had a fetish about teenage girls, admitted that he appreciated his students’ pulchritude and expressed his appreciation in crude ways, and agreed that he exercised poor judgment engaging in conduct related to these things on university property. Nonetheless, the University of Texas treated him unfairly, and has probably done lasting harm to his reputation and career.

The  ethical verdict on this messy recipe of bad judgment, bad luck, dubious motives, and ickiness:

Regarding Prof Ayers’ conduct:

  • Did his conduct undermine his authority and the respect of his students? No. The Naked Teacher Principle only applies to secondary school. The personal habits of college professors, if they do not range well beyond social norms, are not the legitimate concern of either the universities or the students.
  • Does the lack of judgment his conduct displayed interfere with his official duties? No. He’s an economics teacher, not an elected leader. His job is to confer knowledge, not make policy decisions.
  • Are his denials, disingenuous explanations and various deceits sufficient to justify dismissal?  No. Again, economics professor is not a pursuit requiring exemplary character; just read Paul Krugman’s column in the Times.
  • Is his conduct a firing offense?   It shouldn’t be. Using a company computer for legal, if forbidden, activities like surfing porn should only lead to dismissal if there are other factors involved. Though Ayers’ free academic inquiry argument strikes me as disingenuous, but it is also true: a professor in an institution of high learning should be able to look at anything at all, even if its sole purpose is to get his neurons firing.

Regarding the University of Texas’s Handling of the Episode:

  • Was it fair for the University to investigate the allegation that the professor was pleasuring himself in his office?  Sure. Any employer would do the same. Not cool.
  • Was it fair to search his computer? Again, sure. An employee places embarrassing material on a workplace computer at his or her peril. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • Was the discovery that he visited porn sites a matter for discipline?  It depends, doesn’t it? Was it one site, or 100? Was it once, or habitually? Did it represent an hour, or many hours? Violating the school policy by itself is automatically grounds for discipline. To justify firing, his porn surfing would have to involve either illegal material or so much time that he was failing to meet his academic duties.
  • Was the “teen” search sufficient to trigger an assumption of child porn? No. That was horribly unfair.
  • Should his private e-mails have been publicly released, and were they relevant to the claimed offense? No and no. This seems to have been nothing more or less than a mean-spirited effort to embarrass Prof Ayers.

Professor Ayers seems to be creepy guy, who put thoughts and actions that creepy guys need to keep private in a place where he couldn’t keep them private. But the fact that the university had a right to examine the evidence of his creepiness did not mean that it was fair or necessary to use this information to persecute and embarrass him….which it did.

In the end, Prof. Ayers was the wronged party, even if he made it needlessly easy for someone to wrong him. A tenured professor for nearly three decades deserves more compassion and consideration.

5 thoughts on “Ethics, Porn, and the Creepy Professor

  1. I’m not a lawyer, so this may have no standing in law whatsoever, but it seems to me that the University is only two words away from justifying their firing of Ayers: “What research?”

    If his defense (after the previous denials as written) is that it is for academic purposes, it seems to me that he should be able to answer exactly what research he was doing. He should be as detailed as possible.

    This will demonstrate his continued pattern of lies. The lies, I expect, will provide a legal justification for his firing. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was not demonstrating his mastery of putting bait on a fishhook, but if I’m your boss and you repeatedly lie to me, you’re out.

    –Dwayne

  2. Very interesting, well written reasoned and bold. But I think it inadequately addresses masturbation in the office. Not cool doesn’t cut it. Nor the lying, as Dwayne mentioned.

    Although I agree that lying is a sufficient reason to fire, by that standard our entire political system and most media employees, well almost everyone, should get the axe. Its a societal problem that may be unfair to single out people. It needs to be handled on an broader scale. We might ask if religion for example doesn’t encourage lying and avoiding obviously true conclusions, which is what Ayers did. I don’t know a single Christian who is ready to admit the Bible promotes killing children “until confronted with the passages/printout”. Religion creates denialism routinely, there are thousands of examples. This creates a pattern for how we deal with other issues.

    There is also no mentioned of how he treated his students: were they made to feel uncomfortable?

    • I can’t find the answer to your last question, Steve,

      For about ten years, I’ve been trying to get someone to help me sponsor a symposium on lying, for which your thoughts on religion would be a hell of a paper/seminar. I’ll keep trying. I think it would be successful, useful, and important.

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