Penn State President Bendapudi recently announced her intention to reinstate Professor Oliver Baker and end the AC70 academic misconduct proceedings against him (which you can read about below). He has paid an enormous price that includes a year of his life and career, as well as over $30,000 in legal expenses. We are once again asking our colleagues to help defray his costs.
On June 5, 2022, Penn State 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
The Coalition for a Just University applauds the Centre County District Attorney’s Office’s decision to drop the misdemeanor charges against Professor Oliver Baker for the events that took place at the August 27 Student-Faculty Unity Rally to vaccinate Penn State. Professor Baker was also found not guilty of harassment by Centre County District Judge Steven Lachman. These legal decisions reinforce what those of us at the rally already knew: Professor Baker did nothing wrong when he was attempting to peacefully deescalate a menacing and threatening provocateur. He should be applauded for his effort to ensure the safety of all rally attendees, most notably undergraduate and graduate students who were in peaceful attendance.
On the one hand, we are dismayed that the Penn State administration has decided to begin an AC70 Termination Process against Professor Baker, despite no legal charges against him. Essentially, the Penn State administration is putting their internal human resource process above our legal system. The Penn State administration is punishing rather than protecting faculty who try to defend the physical safety of themselves and others and the rights of free speech from menacing individuals.
This suggests that faculty should be disciplined for trying to defuse potentially dangerous situations on campus. Faculty have the right to protect themselves and students to the best of their ability when confronted by dangerous persons on campus. Faculty should not have to fear losing their jobs for trying to protect themselves and students from people who threaten and harass them on campus. Professor Baker did nothing wrong when he tried to deescalate a threatening individual at our rally on August 27. The Coalition for a Just University calls on the Penn State administration to drop internal charges and investigations and reinstate Professor Baker to his work duties immediately.
The Coalition for a Just University at Penn State (CJU/PSU) is committed to working for greater transparency, equity, job security, and safety in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, and for the meaningful involvement of faculty and other workers in decision-making processes at the university. We stand in support of Professor Oliver Baker and condemn the decision to charge Professor Baker with assault, harassment, and disorderly conduct for his participation in our Student-Faculty Unity Rally on August 27. On Friday, August 27, CJU organized a Student-Faculty Unity Rally to vaccinate Penn State. Over 200 people attended the rally to express their support for a vaccine mandate and to push for university policies that protect the safety and health of our campus community. There were fewer than five counter protesters, most of them standing orderly at the back and yelling opposition to statements made. No one bothered these counter-protesters who stood in the back and made their position known. However, one provocateur displayed antagonistic, menacing, and physically aggressive behavior toward rally attendees who feared for their safety. It was clear that this counter-protester’s aim was not to exercise his First Amendment right to free speech, but rather to use verbal and physical aggression to prevent us from exercising our own. His actions demonstrated that his expressed purpose was to cause disruption.
This provocateur tweeted the day before that he was going to attend the rally to disrupt it and his sign contained menacing and threatening messages and images. One image was of a far-right talk show host Alex Jones, who is widely known for promoting anti-Semitic and anti-Black racist conspiracy theories, as well as asserting that the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was a hoax. The image depicts Jones pointing a gun toward viewers with a superimposed message stating, “Shut the Fuck Up Liberal.”
Many faculty and students we talked to described being fearful of this individual's actions and intentions. The counter-protester was running around the perimeter and through the center of the rally, lunging at people, threatening them physically by bumping against them and foisting his maskless face in the faces of rally attendees. This is why some faculty members decided to stand by the stairs to make sure that if the protester lunged at the speakers, they could block him. Other attendees witnessed the counter-protester "aggressively bumping into people and causing a tremendous disturbance." By all accounts, the counter-protester was intimidating our attendees, and he was uncivil and disruptive.
Fearing that people’s safety was at risk, some attendees, including Professor Baker, attempted to peacefully deescalate the provocateur. Attendees repeatedly attempted to nonviolently redirect this individual away from the crowd and to the area where other counter-protesters were located. Attempts to deescalate the situation and direct the counter-protester away from the rally to a safe location led to the individual putting his shoulder into Professor Baker's chest as the individual attempted to force his way through the crowd. Professor Baker’s attorney says, "We now have detailed photographic evidence which clearly shows that contrary to the allegations of law enforcement, Professor Baker did not pull the counter-protester to the ground and was not involved in the subsequent ‘struggle’ with this individual." Witnesses described the provocateur swinging his fists and lunging at Professor Baker and other attendees. After police removed the provocateur from the rally, law enforcement wrongfully singled out Professor Baker for prosecution. We called for a peaceful rally to urge the Penn State Administration to issue a vaccine mandate. CJU/PSU members and the faculty, staff, and students gathered there were peaceful, respectful, and certainly neither aggressive nor disruptive. It is very unfortunate that the police are targeting Professor Baker who took it upon himself to address a menacing and aggressive counter-protester in an effort to ensure the safety of all attendees. Thus, CJU strongly and unequivocally supports Professor Baker and we call for the charges to be dropped, for Professor Baker to be reinstated to his work duties, and for the Penn State administration to take steps to ensure the safety of all participants in future peaceful demonstrations on Penn State campuses.
© 2020 Coalition for a Just University at Penn State