On June 5, President Bendapudi released a statement to the Chair of the University Faculty Senate communicating her intention to reinstate Professor Oliver Baker to his professional duties and end the AC70 academic misconduct proceedings against him. President Bendapudi contended that while Professor Baker did commit professional misconduct during a pro-vaccine rally on August 17, 2021, his actions did not rise to the level of “grave misconduct” meriting termination.
We, the Organizing Committee of the Coalition for a Just University at Penn State, are overjoyed that the nine-month ordeal Professor Baker endured has finally come to an end and that we can welcome our respected colleague back to campus. We continue to insist, however, that Professor Baker did not engage in misconduct. President Bendapudi’s letter states that “the faculty member was an active antagonist with a student in a free-speech zone,” but we believe—and a court of law has determined—that in fact Professor Baker was trying to defend students and faculty from a sexist and racist provocateur. This individual, who carried a sign threatening to shoot political opponents who did not “shut the f… up,” sought to use violence and intimidation to prevent peaceful protesters from exercising their right to free speech. The Penn State administration’s repeated attempts to twist the meaning of free speech are deeply disturbing, particularly given our current political climate, and we invite our leaders to reflect on the signal they are sending to other right-wing provocateurs—as well as to those who find themselves the target of their violence.
Once again, we appreciate President Bendapudi’s decision to start off her administration on the right foot by making the correct decision in this case. But lest anyone take this salutary decision as a sign that justice has now been served, we remind everyone that Oliver Baker has paid an enormous price and has lost a year of his life and his career. He has had to pay over $30,000 in legal expenses, nearly all of which were due to the university’s decision to pursue the AC70 termination process. Does the Penn State administration plan to reimburse him for these costs? Assuming the answer is “no,” we once again ask our colleagues to contribute to this collective fund to help defray his costs.
In closing, we too have concerns with the AC70 procedures, yet we are wary of President Bendapudi’s call for an “additional policy on Faculty Accountability” and a “progressive discipline system.” In Professor Baker’s case, the Penn State administration violated its own policies by prolonging the process long past the stipulated time limit and showed its willingness to use the disciplinary system unjustly as a weapon against a faculty member who was participating in an event critical of official university policy. Given this, now is hardly the moment for the administration to be speaking of “faculty accountability.” Rather, it is an opportunity to ask how we, collectively, can ensure administrative accountability and protect all faculty from experiences such as the one endured by Professor Baker and his family.
The Faculty of the Coalition for a Just University