What Is Going On At Dickinson College? (updated)


Crispin Sartwell, who up until recently was associate professor of philosophy at Dickinson Collegesays: “i have been officially terminated by dickinson college, as of march 31, without appeals process or compensation.” Dickinson College Provost Neil Weissman says that Sartwell’s “characterization of events, including his claim that the college terminated his employment, is false.” What’s going on?

Sartwell, readers may recall, had, in several blog posts, publicly accused some other philosophers of plagiarizing or neglecting his work, and then had been placed on temporary leave by Dickinson. He had maintained that the leave was required of him by the college administration owing to his including in one of those posts a music video for Miranda Lambert’s “Time to Get a Gun,” which, he claims, was interpreted as a threat by one of the accused philosophers. Sartwell also claims that he was told by Provost Weissman and the college’s general counsel, Dana Scaduto, that he would be required to undergo a psychiatric examination as a condition of his reinstatement.

Sartwell refused to undergo the compulsory psychiatric examination. He wrote to the provost:

there are many people and things i’ll miss about working at dickinson. i actually don’t blame myself, but i feel awful about the way this went down: dropping my classes in the middle of the semester. i am finished insulting you, and i want to reconnect with people. but i am not coming back. i really tried, in my own way, to make a contribution while i was there. i’d like to remember the place affectionately, and i think i will. so, cut me the best severance package you reasonably can under the circumstances, and there will be no lawsuits, aaup proceedings, or whatever it may be. i will sign to that effect. goal: finally pay off those damn student loans!

Sartwell then went through negotiations with the administration regarding his separation from the college. In a letter dated March 10, 2016, the provost wrote:

This letter is being sent to confirm our e-mail exchange earlier today which took place in response to your notes over the last two days indicating your interest in entertaining an offer from the college that would allow you to retire early. Your overture was consistent with similar comments and interest you expressed at the outset of our meeting on March 3. While we are willing to discuss this approach with you, I must reiterate that Dickinson College is not asking you to leave your position as associate professor and member of its faculty. 

The provost then presented a severance package. Sartwell replied with an email, which included the following:

i don’t regard this as satisfactory, neil. i think you need to pry off some sort of lump sum. and i am going to demand straightforwardly that you remove this absurd psychiatric condition…  i will sign nothing that has anything like that whatsoever. read the academic handbook on academic freedom. you and dana were in lurid, obvious violation of the most basic idea of academic freedom. you were pressuring me to withdraw something i said – obviously constitutionally protected speech – on behalf of police agencies in oklahoma….

The provost then, later that day, updated the letter to include a lump sum payment of $30,000.

The letter states that the severance offer was good until March 31. Sartwell says that on March 30, he wrote to the provost and the general counsel the following email:

I do not accept the separation agreement dated March 10. Nor do I resign my position; you will have to go through the Handbook procedure for removing me.

Sartwell then received a letter from the Dickinson’s human resources director stating that “Your employment with Dickinson College ended effective March 31, 2016.”

The position of the administration, as represented in an April 4 email from general counsel Scaduto (posted on Sartwell’s blog), appears to be that there are two distinct relevant events: (a) Sartwell’s resignation, and (b) Dickinson offering a severance package “to assist [him] in transitioning from the college.”

The college takes as evidence of (a) an email dated March 8 in which Sartwell tells the provost, “Neil i am definitely gone! i have retired,” plus the public reiteration of this position, “including most recently in a written statement [Sartwell] sent to the Dickinsonian on March 29 in which [Sartwell] stated… ‘I will not return. . . . Not, in short, if it was the last college on earth.’”

According to the college, Sartwell had until March 31 to accept the severance package. He did not have the further option to undo his resignation, or, as Scaduto put it, “unquit.”

Sartwell maintains that the college did not actually take him to have resigned, and continued to publicly refer to him as “a faculty member in good standing at Dickinson… currently on leave” after what they are asserting is his resignation date, for example, in a quote from a college spokesperson in a March 16 blog post at Reason. In a post today, Sartwell writes, “In brief, I did not resign and I do not resign.” He has begun a GoFundMe page to raise money for legal expenses related to his dispute with Dickinson.

The foregoing is my attempt to piece together in a comprehensible form the events and positions related to Sartwell’s current relationship with Dickinson College. Let me stress that I doubt I have all of the relevant information, but it was the best I could do given the limited resources available.

UPDATE (4/12/16): The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has written a letter to Dickinson College President Nancy Roseman (who herself just announced her own upcoming resignation) about the Sartwell case (via Leiter Reports). Among other things, the letter states:

We appreciate that the administration has construed Professor Sartwell’s e-mail messages and public comments on his case as evidence of his intention to resign his tenured position. We also understand that the administration has taken the position that it therefore has no obligation to initiate dismissal proceedings in the case of Professor Sartwell. We disagree. We do not think the academic community at-large would understand those statements to constitute a formal resignation. Given the academic freedom issues raised by this case, we are concerned that no proceeding has taken place in which the administration would assume the burden of demonstrating adequate cause for dismissing Professor Sartwell from his tenured appointment. 

Dickinson College

Dickinson College

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