It's safe to say that unemployment isn't Professor Wyndham Lathem's biggest problem right now. Northwestern University abruptly fired him after he and a chat-room buddy from England allegedly stabbed Lathem's boyfriend 70 times while carrying out a gory sexual fantasy and then fled across the country, giving rise to a nationwide manhunt.
On the other hand, Lathem's coconspirator, Andrew Warren, an administrative employee at Oxford University's Somerville College, was merely suspended.
If you can momentarily get past the horror-story details (the sleeping victim, the nearly decapitated head, the blood-spattered apartment), Lathem's dismissal raises an academic but nonetheless interesting question: Did Northwestern, in its haste to distance itself from this latest example of jarring professorial conduct, violate its own rules for terminating faculty?
As we've seen so often, it's easy to maintain protections for ideals like free speech and due process when everyone's civil; the test comes when things get ugly. And this case takes NU's surprising campus news to a new level. The alleged scenario—in which a talented and much-admired scientist-professor is revealed to be a bloodthirsty murderer—leaves previous jaw-droppers like the optional live-sex-show segment of a 2011 undergraduate psychology class in the dust.
According to prosecutors at a bond hearing last week, Lathem and Warren planned to first murder several others and then themselves in an I-shoot-you-while-you-stab-me grand finale. But after killing 26-year-old cosmetologist Trenton Cornell-Duranleau in the early hours of July 27, Lathem and Warren apparently reconsidered. They showered, rented a car, and stopped to make two donations in Cornell-Duranleau's name: $5,610 to the Howard Brown Health Center, and $1,000 to the Lake Geneva Public Library, where Lathem used the phone to anonymously alert management at his North State Street apartment building that a crime had been committed there. Eight days after the murder, the duo turned themselves in, separately, to San Francisco-area police. According to prosecutors, Lathem had also sent a video to family and friends admitting his guilt.
The fact that Lathem, a microbiologist, is an internationally known expert on plague—the dreaded Black Death—ramps up the drama. (His lecture on how the bacterium that causes plague evolved from "mild to murderous" is up on Youtube.) That his work may help eliminate this killer disease, potentially saving untold lives, adds to the irony. At the bond hearing Lathem's attorney introduced an impressive array of letters, from people who've known Lathem from his undergraduate days at Vassar College (where he organized a 20-year reunion last year) to professional colleagues at universities in the U.S. and abroad. They describe not the stereotypic recluse and loner but a warm and kind man of great integrity; a gifted researcher and teacher with a wide circle of friends. Only one of the 31 letters hints at a red flag. Lathem had recently been depressed, this writer said: he'd been planning to move from Northwestern to the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris this year, but had lost that opportunity (when he failed to get a security clearance from the French government).
Lathem and Warren were denied bond and are being held in Cook County Jail; their next court date is September 8.
Northwestern's faculty handbook spells out a process for termination that calls for notification to the faculty member, evaluation by a faculty committee, and a 20-day period for appeal. Northwestern spokesman Storer Rowley had no comment last week on whether these procedures were followed, beyond the university's official statement, that, effective August 4, Lathem was "terminated for the act of fleeing from police when there was an arrest warrant out for him."
Was it justified? I put the question to Saint Xavier University professor Peter Kirstein, vice president of the Illinois branch of the AAUP, who said that, in his opinion, it looks like a violation of academic due process. "This is a gruesome situation," Kirstein said, "but you're innocent until proven guilty in this country, and this man has not been convicted of anything. A suspension would appear to be the appropriate response."
Northwestern political science professor Jacqueline Stevens, who has her own pending issues with the university, noted the abrupt firing on her blog and wondered, "Is there anything in the handbook that says you can be fired at will when police allege a crime but it has not been proven?"
Here's how Stevens put it: "I have no idea if Dr. Lathem is Mr. Hyde or someone with really, really bad luck. But I do know that every time NU's administration shreds its Faculty Handbook it provides more evidence that the folks in charge care only about a brand and nothing more."
Lathem's attorney, Adam Sheppard, told me last week that Lathem "will plead not guilty to any charges."
He said the evidence presented at the bond hearing appeared to rely "in large part on the statement of Andrew Warren, the self-confessed murderer," and suggested that alternative "independent evidence" will unfold going forward. "Our jurisprudence accords the presumption of innocence," Sheppard said. "We'd hope that the public and all the relevant institutions would abide by that." v