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Professor fired from JFK University for expressing herself in burlesque

University faculty members have a fine line to walk. In general, they must satisfy the dual roles of researcher and instructor, maintaining respect both from their fellow professors and from the students they teach. Even when professors are not in an academic setting, their activities can reflect upon the university. It might be hard to see one’s physics professor in quite the same light after seeing her at Panther Hollow Inn. Consider, then, seeing that professor in a burlesque show. According to John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, Calif., that is crossing the line.

Sheila Addison was a professor at JFK University who also performed as a dancer in a burlesque show. After the university’s administration discovered this, they fired Addison for bringing “public disrespect, contempt and ridicule to the university,” according to a complaint Addison filed in federal district court. Addison went on to claim that a male professor who performed in a similar show faced no disciplinary action. We see this termination as unjust interference by the university in Addison’s personal life, and we are dismayed by the alleged gender discrimination. We have one main problem with Addison’s termination. Her outside activities were not affecting her pedagogical work.

She did not advertise about her burlesque performances on campus and kept them strictly separated from her academic life, according to court documents as reported by Inside Higher Ed. The university administrators even seem to recognize this, since their cause for Addison’s termination did not mention teaching or research, but was based on citations of public disrespect and ridicule. Even if Addison herself were the subject of contempt for her performances, no reasonable person could transfer that blame to the university for an activity that was clearly outside her role there.

At Carnegie Mellon, the faculty and administration have established standards of conduct both in academic and non-academic settings. These standards, found in the official university policies and in the Faculty Handbook, make it clear that faculty members can be terminated only if they have substantially neglected their duties, demonstrated incompetence or moral turpitude, or otherwise committed some egregious offense. The handbook advises faculty members to “participate like other citizens in community affairs,” provided they clearly identify themselves as individuals separate from the university. This is a sensible guideline, and one that simultaneously upholds the university’s ideals while protecting the freedom of faculty members.

While we are disturbed by Addison’s case in California, we are confident that Carnegie Mellon’s commitment to free speech and free action on the part of students and faculty would prevent such an injustice from happening here.