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Parate the plaintiff in this action brought a civil rights action after his contract to teach at Tennesee State University was not renewed. Parate, was appointed as an associate professor for the academic year of 1982 to teach in the Civil Engineering Department. Parate’s teaching credentials included a Bachelors, Masters and Doctoral degree earned in the field of engineering earned at various Universities in Europe and Asia. Parates position with Tennesee State University was tenure track annually renewable contract. Parate presented specific grading guidelines to his students, providing students with the opportunity to document extenuating circumstances to raise their earned grade. In his first course two students requested a grade change. The first student provided a detailed and documented account of a legal matter, Parate bumped this student from a B to an A. The second student was denied due to his false medical reports and Parate personally observing him cheat on the final exam. Upon Parate’s refusal this student appealed to the Dean of the school of Engineering.
Edward I Isibor, served as Dean of the school of Engineering. Isibor and the second student were each Nigerian. Upon the receipt of the students appeal Isibor forced Parate to meet with him, at which point Parate was informed that he must change his grading scale allowing a grade of 86 percent to be an A. Upon Parate’s refusal this Isibor insulted, berated, and threatened Parate stating “it would be difficult to renew Parate’s contract at TSU” (Kaplin & Lee, 2013, p. 269). The next day Parate met with the associate dean who had prepared a memorandum stating that the grades for both students would be changed from B’s to A’s, and that the official grading scale would also reflect the percentage shift. Parate refused to sign the memorandum as prepared adding a notation that these changes were at “instructions from Dean and Department Head at meeting” (Kaplin & Lee, 2013, p. 269). “Samuchin . . . explained to Parate that there was to be no notation referring to Isibor’s instructions . . . [he] warned Parate that if he failed to sign the retyped memoranda, then Isibor would “mess up” his evaluation”. Although Parate eventually signed the memoranda as requested he did so under duress and fear of reprisal.
Over the next two academic years Isibor and Samuchin, the associate dean, acted in a retaliatory manner against Parate on multiple occasions. They “challenged Parate’s grading criteria in other courses, sent him a letter critical of his teaching methods; and penalized him with low performance evaluations . . . [They also refused] Parate’s requests for authorized professional travel and appropriate reimbursements . . . impeded Parate’s research efforts and his presentation of papers at professional conferences . . . and recommended the non-renewal of Parate’s teaching contract” (Kaplin & Lee, 2013, p. 269). In March of 1985, Parate was informed that his tenure track position would not be renewed. In a meeting with Isibor in September of 1985 he was informed that “. . . if Parate’s performance improved, consideration would be given to the renewal of his teaching contract. Isibor concluded by telling Parate “you must obey and never disobey your Dean”” (Kaplin & Lee, 2013, p. 270).
During late September and early October of 1985, several discriminatory actions were taken by Isibor and Samuchin in retaliation after two additional Nigerian students complained about Parate’s grading system. Isibor and Samuchin degraded Parate in front of students, removed him from a teaching position and forced him to attend the course he had previously been teaching. Parate was shortly after informed that his tenure track position would not be renewed.
Parate brought this action under 42 U.S.C § 1983, alleging a violation of his right to academic freedom under the First Amendment protections. Academic Freedom is both a right of the university against interference by the government, and a right of the teacher and student against interference from a university, putting these two rights in direct conflict. The courts have extended first amendment protection to the assignment of a letter grade stating “[b]ecause the assignment of a letter grade is symbolic communication intended to send a specific message to the student, the individual professor’s communicative act is entitled to some measure of First Amendment protection” (Kaplin & Lee, 2013, p. 273). The law here flows from the constitution and binding Supreme Court precedent, making it nearly indisputable.
The appeals court held that “the acts of the defendants deserve exacting First Amendment scrutiny” (Kaplin & Lee, 213, p. 275). The act of forcing Parate to personally change the grade when the action could have been accomplished through administrative channels violated these first Amendment protections. The Defendants arguments that they have a right to supervise grading policies does not outweigh the purposeful encroachment of Parate’s rights to freedom of speech. Regarding the arguments directed toward academic freedom, Parate “contends that the defendants not only precluded him from teaching his “Statics” course, but humiliated him before his students . . . [he] also alleges that because his contract has not been renewed prior to the classroom incident, the defendants did not intent to evaluate his teaching competence and illegitimately exercised their supervisory function” (Kaplin & Lee, 2013, p. 276).
Although these arguments hold merit Parate made a fatal error in not purporting to a continuous interference and/or denial of open communication with his students. Although the court found the defendant’s actions to be unprofessional it did not rise to the level violating Parate’s academic freedom. In holding the court reversed the judgment of the district court regarding the grading incident. The case was remanded back to the district court regarding the basis for his discharge, and the court upheld the ruling of the district court in regarding the October 4, 1985 incident.
Freedom of expression expands beyond the freedom to assign student grades. The court stated that “to effectively teach her students, the professor must initially evaluate their relative skills, abilities, and knowledge” (Kaplin & Lee, 2013, p. 273). Evaluating student performance, expanding skills and knowledge relates to all aspects of educating from curriculum development to instruction. An educator based on this assessment is protected under the umbrella of academic freedom in decisions related to their personal teaching method. Although an instructor must still comply to “reasonable review” (Kaplin & Lee, 2013, p. 273), this review does not obstruct personal choice. In general, the court recognizes the inherent authority of the institution to make decisions related to curriculum and content while protecting the individual rights of the individual professor.
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