U of South Alabama resolves complaints over faculty costumes

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The University of South Alabama has resolved complaints about two costumes worn by a dean (who has since become a faculty member) and another member of the faculty that offended many people on campus.

The Halloween party, at the business school, was in 2014, but photographs of it surfaced last year.

The then-dean, Bob Wood, came dressed as a Confederate soldier. He told the university that the costume was “one of the few available costumes at the costume shop.” The professor, Alex Sharland, came dressed “in a black robe with a white barrister’s wig similar to those worn by British judges. He carried a noose and whip as props, which he said were meant to signify that he portrayed George Jeffreys, the British ‘hanging judge’ from the 17th century,” the university said in a statement of findings about the two cases.

On Wood’s case, the university said: “Dr. Wood elected to follow the … informal adjudication process. The unanimous conclusion of the complainants was that Dr. Wood should return to university duties while engaging in the activities outlined below which are consistent with principles of restorative justice, an approach focused on repairing harm and restoring community.”

The conditions are:

  • “Dr. Wood will submit a formal statement to the university community about his role in the event, which will include an apology attesting to what he has learned, acknowledging a clear understanding of the negative impact of his actions, and indicating how he intends to make positive contributions to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts going forward.
  • “Dr. Wood will participate in a moderated forum in which he will address attendees selected by the complainants and the university. Designated attendees will have an opportunity to address Dr. Wood about the impact of his actions on them, their peers, and the institution. Dr. Wood will have a chance to respond.
  • “Dr. Wood will not be assigned to teach in-person courses for the next year.
  • “For at least three years, the university will make alternative arrangements for any student who does not wish to take a class taught by Dr. Wood due to the incident.”

In his statement, Wood said that “First and foremost, I want my students and colleagues to know how sorry I am that I hurt people or left them doubting of my commitment to instill in them the very best each person can be at this university. I apologize again to them, to the university, and the campus community in general. I grieve that the school would suffer any negative perceptions due to my acts. This is a wonderful school, and I am proud of the college and its fine achievements.”

As for renting the costume, he said, “I sincerely apologize to everyone for doing so. I ask forgiveness for this error in judgment. I regret my decision and I understand the hurtful nature of these symbols. That choice in no way reflects my beliefs, but I certainly understand how the university and all of you could have thought so … I have learned from this error. My actions occurred almost eight years ago, at a time when many Americans, including myself, were not as attuned or sensitive to the symbols of the Confederacy or to their underlying meanings.”

As to Sharland, the university said that “a diverse committee composed of two faculty members selected from the Faculty Grievance Committee pool, two academic administrators and one student reviewed the relevant materials and unanimously determined that Dr. Sharland’s conduct did not violate the policy [barring discrimination] but was nonetheless? unacceptable in the workplace. Recommended sanctions included an admonishment not to repeat the conduct and participation in an educational program addressing discriminatory and harassing conduct. The committee’s recommended sanctions were affirmed.”

Because “the matter has now been concluded, Dr. Sharland will be returning to his university duties,” the university said.

Last year, Sharland apologized for the costume, saying, “In retrospect I can see why someone might find the image hurtful, and I regret this attempt at humor that clearly failed. It was not my intent to hurt or be offensive, and if anyone is offended by this picture I apologize.’

‘Utterly Ridiculous’

Aaron Terr, senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, was critical of the way the university handled the incident.

“The University of South Alabama’s decision to investigate complaints about six-year-old resurfaced photos of professors wearing Halloween costumes to a Halloween costume party was utterly ridiculous,” he said via email. “Some might have found the costumes offensive or tasteless, but USA is a public university and the First Amendment protects offensive expression. Much more is required to meet the strict standards for unlawful harassment or discrimination. The long period that elapsed between the incident and the university’s investigation and punishment makes this case even more egregious and demonstrates the folly of punishing speech under the subjective standard of offensiveness. After all, prevailing opinions about what expression is socially acceptable are hardly static. Who knows what Halloween costumes will be taboo five or ten years from now?”

Added Terr: “To make matters worse, the university sanctioned one of the professors despite admitting his conduct did not violate university policy. Anyone can see how grossly unfair that is. How are students and faculty supposed to know what conduct is and isn’t prohibited if the university just makes up the rules as it goes along?”

 

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