The Widener School of Law Ethics Train Wreck: Political Correctness and Its Carnage

I have posted twice this year about the persecution of  Prof. Lawrence Connell, a tenured associate professor at Widener University School of Law in Delaware, but let me summarize the story for you, lets you missed the original post.

Connell is a criminal law professor, and is adept at concocting memorable hypotheticals to illustrate principles of law, often using celebrities and other people well-known to the students as characters. In one class, he illustrated the dilemmas in determining the crime of attempted murder with this hypothetical:

“The Dean has threatened to fire me if she comes to school one more time and finds that I have parked in her designated parking space. Upset about the possibility of losing both my job and the parking space, I bring my .357 to school, get out of my car, put the .357 into my waistband, walk to the top floor where her office is located, open the door to her office, see her seated at her desk, draw my weapon, aim my weapon, and fire my weapon directly into what I believe to be her head. To my surprise, it’s not the Dean at all, but an ingeniously painted pumpkin — a pumpkin that has been intricately painted to look like the Dean. Dick Tracy rushes in and immediately wrestles me to the ground. I am charged with the attempted murder of the Dean.”

Good hypothetical. But some of Connell’s students complained that the hypo communicated violent attitudes towards women and blacks, since the Dean, Linda Ammons, is both female and black. She is also, unfortunately for both Connell and the school, incompetent, without humor or perspective, cruel, paranoid, and a fool. Dean Ammons allowed the complaint to go forward, resulting in Connell having to go on administrative leave as he aggressively fought the allegations, both for his own sake and for the sake of academic freedom.

Connell sued, and endured a university disciplinary hearing process which recently cleared him of engaging in racist and sexist conduct.  The faculty committee report is nonetheless nauseating and cowardly, replete with words about how professors need to be careful about offending hypersensitive, ignorant, politically biased students with agendas. The committee also found that Connell’s vigorous defense against the unfounded and damaging accusations against him constituted “retaliation” against the students who had complained about him. By initiating legal action and sending an e-mail to the student body denying that he had engaged in racist or sexist conduct, the committee said, Connell violated Widener policy, which has no definition of what constitutes “retaliation.”

Dean Ammons, rather than showing herself to have regained her sanity and common sense by dropping the whole matter and apologizing profusely to Connell, instead browbeat the committee into demanding this of Connell for too-vigorously defending himself against a bogus charge designed to destroy his career and reputation:

1. “Professor Connell will acknowledge, in writing, his violation of the Discrimination and Harassment Code and will agree to comply fully with his contractual obligations and all policies of Widener University and Widener University School of Law in the future. Professor Connell’s acknowledgement shall be placed in his personnel file.”

2. “Professor Connell will undergo a psychological evaluation by a psychiatrist or psychologist of his choice selected from a list of four individuals provided to him by the University. The purpose of this evaluation will be to determine his fitness for his teaching position, particularly in view of his retaliatory response to the student complaints lodged against him…. Professor Connell will comply with all conditions and recommendations issued by the psychiatrist/psychologist, including, without limitation, appropriate counseling and anger management, prior to the lifting of the suspension and his return to teaching duties. Not earlier than sixty (60) days prior to the end of the term of Professor Connell’s one year suspension, his psychiatrist/psychologist must send to the Dean and Vice Dean an evaluation assessing Professor Connell’s fitness to return to duties, completion of courses or training, if applicable, and a follow-up treatment plan. if any.”

 3. “Professor Connell must issue a written apology to the students against whom he has been found to have retaliated. The form and content of that apology must be provided to the Dean of the Law School for approval and will be distributed to the affected students by the Dean’s office.

Yes, that’s right: “You aren’t a racist, but you should be suspended, sent to have your head shrunk and apologize for having the insensitivity to deny it.”

Needless to say, this Orwell/Stalin/ Bizarro World solution is utterly bats, unfair, unjust and worse. Connell isn’t going to do any of it, nor should he. Nonetheless, the harm is done. Prof. Connell is the central figure in an ethics train wreck that is on the way to destroying Widener Law School, but he has absolutely no accountability for it.

The villains:

  • First and foremost, Dean Ammons. Her initial conduct in not dismissing the complaint was incompetent and dumb. Her continuing a vendetta against Connell after he has been cleared shows her to be malicious and deranged as well.
  • The  complaining students. This is what political correctness will do to the mind: cause its victims to regard open communication and debate as offensive and worthy of censorship and to treat anyone with varying views as an enemy to be destroyed. The students abused the school’s policies. Of course, if they had done this in a law school run by rational adults, little harm would have been done. Unfortunately, Widener is run by Linda Ammons, a race-obsessed bully whose brain has also been liquefied by political correctness.
  • The faculty, which hasn’t had the integrity to stand up for one of its own while he is being abused, insulted, and ostracized for nothing more than being a good teacher and not caving to the demands of political correctness thugs.
  • Widener’s governing board.  They hired an incompetent Dean, and they are standing by as she embarrasses and destroys the law school. Good work!

As Prof. David Bernstein wrote on the Volokh Conspiracy,

“If any of our readers are considering attending Widener, I recommend looking elsewhere–anywhere else. If Connell can be abused in this way, so can you.”

The only way Widener Law School’s reputation can be salvaged, after a highly visible debacle like this has exposed the school’s culture and leadership as having warped ethics, terrible judgment, and a lack of respect for academic freedom and intellectual diversity, is to clear out everyone—the Dean, the faculty, and the leadership.

Except Prof. Connell. He deserves to stay.

But why would he want to?

8 thoughts on “The Widener School of Law Ethics Train Wreck: Political Correctness and Its Carnage

  1. You’re right; it’s even worse than I originally thought. And Dean Ammons is some combination of hypersensitive fool, vindictive virago, and garden-variety idiot.

    I skimmed through the committee report. My favorite line: “Yet, other than teaching the course himself [my emphasis], Professor Herr [who submitted an affidavit on Connell’s behalf] does not appear to have any expertise regarding the accepted norms of teaching criminal law.” He has “impressive educational and professional credentials” and he teaches the same course, but he doesn’t have “any expertise”? I think I’m glad that when I came up for promotion this year, the “outside examiners,” people who teach what I teach, were treated as if they knew what they were talking about.

    Wow.

  2. Dean Ammons must be fired, if not for her behavior, but in an attempt to save the school. You characterized her as “incompetent and dumb… malicious and deranged.” What you left out was “sociopathic egotist.” I suppose being dean of a basically unknown and unprestigious law school may foster this kind of behavior, based basically on insecurity I think (what has she done to actually enhance the reputation and effectiveness of the school?), but that is no excuse.

    Professor Connell and others should keep this public; he should resign “noisily;” continue his law suit, and get a teaching job at a better law school.

    As for the “politically correct” students, get to a school that allows them to understand teaching by hypothetical: or better yet, get a damn dictionary and look up the word.

    Other students, transfer. Potential students: RUN! RUN AWAY!!

    As for Connell’s cowardly colleagues, they deserve to be where they are, and one can only hope that soon they will have too few students to teach to support their salaries.

    Too bad the school is named “Widener,” apparently funded by the same family who endowed the Widener Library at Harvard in memory of their son who died on the Titanic. As we near the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking, it would be wonderfully ironic if it marked the sinking of Widener Law School as well.

    • They can’t fire her. No one wants to touch that potential mess. If she took a thought experiment this far, what do you think Ammons would do if she was fired over something relating to it? It’s not right, but realistically, absolutely no one is going to even suggest reprimanding her.

      • Then they’re all cowards. If it’s race-based, even worse. I just wonder how long it’s been since she’s be evaluated in her job. That’s pro forma in most organizations.

        If the Board is afraid to evaluate her as their employee, an outside evaluator would be called for, considering her recent behavior. After all, she created the mess with her diatribe and her “requirements” of Connell, the bad press the school is receiving, and (I hope) the second thoughts applicants may be experiencing about attending Widener. And it wouldn’t have to be just her behavior toward Connell: put her through a bunch of interviews, etc,; look at the financials, the school’s growth (or not), its standing among other law schools, etc. Like it or not, if she hasn’t been evaluated in a while, her diatribe is reason enough to take a good hard look at her abilities as an administrator — both emotionally and professionally.

        If she isn’t evaluated only because she’s black, it’s reverse racism of course and all that will do is reinforce the continuing and all-too-common belief that no matter what one does, pulling the race card will work to get you off the hook every time. Good God, it’s 2011 and we have a black president elected by an overwhelmingly white electorate! So much for equality.

  3. A second comment. I just spent about an hour reading the report from the Widener Disciplinary Committee. Two students, who made complaints that the Committee itself found unprovable, created a ridiculous process that took months, I don’t know how much money, and ended up in a 56-page report that found him “guilty” of “retaliatory” activity against UNNAMED CLAIMANTS because he sent an e-mail to the student body defending himself, saying he was going to file defamation suits, etc. This is just a great use of everyone’s time.

    PLUS, based on the 56-page report, who gives Dean Ammons the right to suspend him, and make demands for formal apologies TO HER and others, undergo psychological examinations, etc.? The Board? The Committee? Is no one at Widener rational? Did no one mention to Ammons that she was overreacting? Taking this personally? The report itself says the Ammons hypothetical was within the bounds of the college’s teaching code, and was NOT racially motivated. No one on the Committee or the Board has the guts to point out that she made it ALL ABOUT HER, and that this was inappropriate?

    She needs the psych exam, not Connell. And the Board and Committee should hang their heads in shame for being bullied by a Dean who has obvious psychological problems herself.

  4. You forget that the faculty committee is walking a tightrope. If they cross the administration too egregiously, their jobs and careers are over. What they did is the absolute most a faculty committee could do. They may have tenure, but that just means that the administration will have to do a little more work to fire them, and it will be more damaging when they do (almost guaranteed to permanently destroy their career).

    • Their not walking a tightrope, Michael—they just lack a leader and guts. If they stood up en mass for their colleague, as they should, she would have to go. You don’t become complicit in outright injustice, especially when it will destroy your institution, to keep your job. Their loyalty isn’t to her. It’s a tough situation, but when ethics is easy, anyone can do the right thing.

      If I have to change careers to maintain my integrity, I do it. I’ve done it more than once, and never looked back.

  5. Jack,
    I’m fear you’ve done irrevocable damage to my sanity by commenting on this case not once, but TWICE, and then putting it through the added strain of having to read the disciplinary board’s final report. What a tremendous clusterfrak.

    What’s most interesting is that it made a point of noting, several times, this was the first complaint he’d received during his tenure and, moreover, there was no corroborating evidence outside the testimony of the two students. It would also seem the administration further proved it’s ignorance of criminal law by apparently allowing the girls to compose their complaints in tandem, giving them a chance to compare notes ahead of time. Moreover, none of the other students interviewed were able to confirm the girls’ accounting of events and, in fact, a number of them would seem to directly contradict their it. Thus, the entire case rests on the argument that his actions afterward were “retaliatory” (someone’s going to have to explain that one to me) as he was apparently too aggressive in defending his reputation after the fact.

    Has Ammons herself had anything publicly to say on the matter, or has she mostly been letting her influence be felt behind the scenes? Either way, this is beyond deplorable. What’s even more frightening are the potential lessons Widener students (i.e. future lawyers) might take away from the whole debacle. Apparently, violence really does start at home.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a bullet that desperately needs to fired into my skull ..

    -Neil

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