Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Creep Who Shouldn't Have Been Fired

A decision by the Regents of the University of Texas system has spawned a lawsuit by a former associate professor of economics at the University of Texas – San Antonio. Ronald Ayers was fired four years ago from a tenured position at UTSA for viewing pornographic material on his office computer. He appealed to a five-member faculty panel, who ruled that whereas Dr. Ayers had indeed accessed “sexually explicit” material, the sites he visited were not “obscene,” which was the standard set by university policy (the university has subsequently changed its standard to “sexually explicit”). The tribunal voted, apparently unanimously, that Ayers had exercised poor judgment but should not have been fired.

Ultimately, however, it fell to the Regents to make the final decision—or, given the lawsuit, the penultimate decision. They argued that Ayers’s visiting of porn websites was neither job-related nor incidental; Regent John Barnhill declared that Ayers had been “dishonest and demonstrated a lack of integrity in responding to the charges.” The Regents voted to overturn the findings of the faculty panel and to support the initial decision of UTSA President Ricardo Romo.

A point of clarification before I continue: whereas I teach at a non-flagship state university in Texas—a place very similar in many ways to UTSA (who is in our athletic conference, for example)—my institution is not affiliated with the University of Texas system. I am not, therefore, answerable to them in any way. So I am neither risking anything in criticizing them nor sucking up in supporting them.

This case is a lot more complicated than it might first appear to be. Whereas Ayers was an award-winning teacher, and was described by his department chair as “one of our prime teaching assets,” he was apparently a real slob: his office was not merely strewn with books and papers (as, I freely admit, is mine), but it smelled of rotting fruit to the point that it was described as “an office that no student should be asked to enter.” Some the details were spelled out in 2008 by Melissa Ludwig of the San Antonio Express-News, who also did the follow-up reporting linked above. [Note: I have been unable to find this article on the Express-News site; it is, however, quoted in its entirety by two separate blogs, so I’m pretty confident of its provenance.]

This whole brouhaha started when a graduate student reported the sound of a woman moaning behind Ayers’s closed office door; “Then she heard Ayers say, ‘Oh, my God. ... Oh, my God!’ The door opened and footsteps made their way toward the bathroom. When Ayers returned, she heard him muttering ‘Bad, bad, you're so bad.’” She contacted the police “a couple weeks later,” suggesting that Ayers had been masturbating in his office. Ayers says the incident never happened.

University officials investigated, however, and a scrub of Ayers’s office computer revealed “‘a number of images and video of explicit sexual material,’ according to the police report. Cached files showed he had been accessing pornography for at least several months, and some of the Internet addresses included the word ‘teen.’” Of course, the implication is that Ayers had accessed child pornography, which is by definition illegal. There appears to be no evidence that he actually committed any crime, however.

Ayers also sent e-mails to a colleague at another university, describing sexual fantasies about students, recounting his ogling of the “huge chest puppies” of one, saying he plans to “get together with” another, declaring yet another an exhibitionist who flashed her thong underwear at him while he was teaching—but “I have sort of ignored her since she stopped the provocative mode of dress.” These may be, as Ayers’s lawyer claims, “boy-talk,” but they’re certainly suggestive of a potential problem if he was in fact granting or withholding extra help to female students based on the way they looked or dressed.

Unlike the other allegations against him, these would seem likely to have a direct bearing on Dr. Ayers’s ability to do his job. Curiously—or perhaps not—these e-mails seem to have played no role in the Regents’ decision. And the fact that there appear to have been literally no complaints by students—even in an environment that would seem to encourage such candidness—does in fact suggest an ability to separate his fantasy world from his life as a professor.

The whole mess is ultimately centered on Ayers’s use of a university computer and their network to engage in clearly personal activity. If there were evidence of child pornography, I’m pretty sure we’d have heard it by now; the distinction between “pornographic” and “obscene” is not merely semantic, and I strongly suspect that the sites visited by Prof. Ayers fell short of the latter description. Which means that the only legitimacy to the university’s case is a violation of a rule against using a “government-owned” computer for his forays into netporn.

You can’t even boot up a computer connected to our university’s system without agreeing to abide by a rule prohibiting the personal use of that computer. This is, to be sure, a regulation more honored in the breach than in the observance. (And yes, I do know that Hamlet meant something different by that phrase.) One should always be suspicious of “everyone is doing it” arguments. Not everyone cheats on their taxes. Not everyone drives 60 in a 55 zone. Not everyone calls in sick when they just want a day off. But everyone, and I do mean everyone, uses a work computer to send personal e-mails, check Facebook, watch movies on Netflix, play solitaire, or see what the weather is going to be like tomorrow. The prohibition exists for one reason only: to have a violation of institutional policy to wave at someone the university wants to get rid of for whatever reason.

Ayers and his lawyer are no doubt correct in claiming that other members of the faculty use university computers, many of them more than “incidentally,” for personal activities, whether or not there’s any legitimacy to the assertion that university officials know (or should know) that other UTSA faculty access porn but Dr. Ayers along has been singled out for prosecution. It is indeed unfair to fire one faculty member for the same thing other are allowed to do without interference. Note: I am not saying that other faculty are watching porn, but I see no compelling evidence that Dr. Ayers did anything illegal. In that sense, his recreational activities “at the end of a long day” are no different from those of his colleague down the hall who watches the replay of last night’s Jon Stewart show.

Let’s review the bidding. Ronald Ayers lied about accessing porn on his office computer. His subsequent claims to have been engaged in a research project, even if true, are irrelevant, given a provision that such use of university computers requires specific advance permission. He has boasted to a friend about behavior that, if he actually did what he says he did, ought to get him fired.

Conversely, the university can’t really prove a violation of university policy (there is indeed a difference between “sexually explicit” and “obscene”), and an ex post facto change in wording doesn’t change that. They smeared one of their own faculty with insinuations of viewing kiddie porn, and probably rendered him unhireable by anyone else. They, meaning the Regents, overturned the findings of a faculty tribunal, which is normally the last step in the process. I’m not suggesting (contrary to, say, the Tony Kushner honorary degree case at CUNY) that the Regents over-reached in doing so. I’m saying they made the wrong call, basing their decision on the “ick” factor rather than on the policies they themselves enacted. There is, in short, enough evidence against Dr. Ayers to deny him tenure, but not to revoke it.

Ronald Ayers is a liar, a slob, and a creep. I wouldn’t vote for him for elective office, and I have no desire to share a pitcher of beer with him. Irrespective of his skill in the classroom, I wouldn’t advise any student, especially an attractive young woman, to enroll in any of his courses. He is indeed an embarrassment in many ways to UTSA.

And he ought to still have a job.


CW said...

Many people work with company computers pre-programmed to block websites such as those described in your piece, as well as political websites - perhaps even your website. Also, there are organizations which do have policies against using company computers to access pornography. Was the penalty harsh? Yes. Was it unusual? Perhaps only in the academic world.

A stern, one-time warning probably would have been the best choice of action. There are professors would have done far worse things who are still on faculty at many schools.


Jack Marshall said...

Exactly, Rick.

Harold said...

If they imply that he accessed child porn simply due to the presence of “teen” in Internet addresses, that seems especially defamatory. The law says that people can appear in porn legally at age 18 (which apparently doesn’t vary by jurisdiction, as the age of consent does). Eighteen includes the word “teen”; it doesn’t imply anything illegal, but it does have huge marketing value. Barely Legal magazine, for instance, calls its centerfold the “Teen Queen of the Month”. Of course, if they found actual underage porn in the guy’s history, that moots the issue.