At first glance, the recent banning of political science professor Jacqueline Stevens from the Northwestern University campus looks like a case in point for this dismissive old quip about university faculty squabbles: "The politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small."
The ostensible issue? A class-scheduling meeting in March between Stevens and a colleague, professor and associate department chair Alvin Tillery. Stevens says Tillery blew up, began shouting, ordered her to leave, and slammed the door behind her.
Tillery's version, as described on his Facebook page, is that Stevens "had a break from reality and began to imagine that I was verbally abusing her."
And things took off from there: Stevens filed a complaint about verbal abuse and door slamming, Tillery had a lawyer send Stevens a warning to stop defaming him, and Stevens requested that Northwestern cover her for any ensuing legal costs. That triggered an investigation by an outside consultant that led Northwestern to conclude that Stevens is a threat to campus safety.
On July 28, College of Arts and Sciences dean Adrian Randolph sent Stevens a letter banning her from campus and from any contact with students, and ordering her to undergo a "fitness for duty" evaluation with a doctor of their choosing. The psychiatric interview was scheduled for this week.
The charges? According to the dean's letter, Stevens's behavior is seen as "uncivil, disruptive, threatening, and disrespectful." Moreover, the dean continues, "Some colleagues state clearly that they fear you might physically attack them or instigate an attack against them." No specific instances are mentioned.
Stevens denies threatening anyone with physical violence, and says the investigator hired by Northwestern to see whether she should be covered for legal costs turned out to be the author of an article in the Journal of College and University Law titled "Dealing With Troublesome College Faculty and Staff: Legal and Policy Issues."
She also says her personnel file revealed that the provost's office has been plotting with her department to get rid of her since last fall.
Why would they want to do that? She thinks it might be because they noticed an article she published last September in the journal Perspectives on Politics criticizing the "militarization" of university boards and pointing to Northwestern's trustees as a prime example.
At the time, Stevens was also spearheading an ultimately successful campaign to stymie the appointment of retired lieutenant general Karl Eikenberry as head of Northwestern's Buffett Institute for Global Studies, where Stevens heads the Deportation Research Clinic.
And then there was the episode a couple of years ago, when she supported the sexual harassment claim of an undergrad against high-profile philosophy professor Peter Ludlow—it ended with him leaving the university.
Northwestern has officially refused to comment, but political science department chair S. Sara Monoson—a supporter of the Eikenberry appointment—referred me to her own remarks as quoted on the widely read philosophy blog, Leiter Reports, where she suggests that Stevens's "online campaign to place herself at the center [of] a grand conspiracy" is "illuminating." According to Monoson, Stevens's research and political activity "had nothing to do with [her banning] whatsoever."
Tillery, who declined requests for an interview for this story, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he finds Stevens "creepy."
"Do I think she might shoot me?" Tillery asks rhetorically in the Chronicle story: "Absolutely. It happens all over the country."
In a phone interview last week, Stevens said: "In all this, there's no specific threat, and no specific allegation of violence. Tillery's only evidence for his fear that I might shoot him is that it happens all the time. The worst he's accusing me of is that I misrepresented what he said in a conversation. I dispute that, but [even if it were true] it's not a basis for banning me. If he really felt I was an imminent threat, he should have called police, filed for a restraining order." She has posted her own account of the saga online at brandNU.world.
Art history professor Stephen Eisenman, a former president of the Northwestern faculty senate, knows Stevens from the Buffett Institute and says she is "collegial, smart, and brave in her willingness to challenge institutions like the U.S. government and the Northwestern administration."
"I never saw any sign of instability or even remotely any threat of violence," Eisenman says. "It may well be that in her department she rubs people the wrong way. That can happen. You call in a dean and talk it over. But banning from campus—that's a serious act, and [according to Northwestern's rules] it can only happen after determination by a shrink of a threat to self or others."
And there's something important at stake here, Eisenman adds: "Maybe it had nothing to do with Eikenberry. Maybe it had only to do with her department. But it's natural to suppose that the Eikenberry thing had some role. We don't know, but anybody looking at it may assume that it did. And they themselves will be afraid to speak out on a major issue for fear of retribution by the administration. That's why abiding by the rules is crucial. Otherwise academic freedom and free speech on campus is out the window." v