Friday, July 11, 2008

Moron Report #16: The Naughty Prof

I do not like passing judgment on a fellow educator, especially a fellow college professor. I understand we are all human beings, and that periodically we have thoughts that we probably consider inappropriate, or private conversations that we would prefer loved ones or professional peers would not hear. With that in mind, if you are to do this, activities which include surfing the internet for pornography or talking dirty about your own students (!) to male colleagues, it might be a good idea not to do it on your university's time and server. Meet Ronald Ayers, used-to-be economics professor at the University of Texas. Apparently, Adam Smith's invisible hand is not the only thing our econ profs are believers in.

E-mails detail UTSA professor's fantasies

by Melissa Ludwig

After a day of teaching, Ronald Ayers would shut the door to his office at the University of Texas at San Antonio — packed with newspapers, books and rotting food — and surf the Internet for pornography.

The 60-year-old economics professor also would type e-mails to a colleague at Palo Alto College detailing his sexual fantasies about young women in his classes, or the teenage girls who worked at local thrift stores that Ayers frequented, according to e-mails obtained by the San Antonio Express-News through the Texas open records law. 

When UTSA officials fired Ayers from his tenured post for accessing pornography on his office computer, they handed over Ayers' computer logs to a five-member faculty tribunal, and submitted the e-mails as evidence of Ayers' state of mind, said David Gabler, a university spokesman. But the tribunal didn't mention the e-mails in its findings and ultimately concluded the university had no cause to fire Ayers. 

In one exchange, Ayers reports that a girl in his economics class comes from a broken home and wonders if she waits tables at a nude or topless bar on the weekends. He likes her “wide-eyed innocence” and “little girl set of mannerisms,” and the fact that she wears short shorts and low-cut tops to class. 

Ayers calls her “totally dumb. That may explain her interest in me. Perhaps she has flirted her way through college to an A average,” according to a Feb. 16, 2005, e-mail. 

“Let me find out her weaknesses, flatter her, and then dig out more info to use to my advantage later,” Ayers continued. “I make no predictions other than that I will get together with her. It's in the air."
Though it's unknown whether Ayers ever acted on any of his fantasies, the e-mails bring up new questions about the case, which is scheduled to be decided by the University of Texas Board of Regents later this month. Is this an appropriate use of a school computer? Can a professor write such things about students without violating university policy? Ayers' lawyer, Javier Maldonado, thinks he can. 

“We all know we write stuff in e-mails that we shouldn't,” Maldonado said. “I don't think they have evidence that he did anything wrong with students. They are using it for a smear campaign.” 

As is standard with tenured professors, Ayers was given right to appeal his termination to a faculty tribunal, but regents will make the final ruling. He's on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome. 

It's unclear why the faculty tribunal didn't reference the e-mail exchanges in its findings, because none of its five members — Tina Lowrey, Robert Renthal, Heywood Sanders, Judith Sobre and Linda Woodson — returned an e-mail seeking comment. In a May 6 letter to regents, the tribunal concluded that Ayers should keep his job. It acknowledged he accessed “sexually explicit” materials, as the university had charged, but said the school's computer use policy only banned accessing materials that are “obscene,” not “sexually explicit.” 

Disconnected from reality 

If Ayers' office was any indication of his state of mind, the once-respected business professor appeared to be in a downward spiral in the months before UTSA moved to fire him. 

In e-mails dating to 2005, Ayers' department chairman, Ken Weiher, begs him to clean up his office, which is so stuffed with books, newspapers, garbage and rotting fruits and vegetables that a visitor barely could make it to the desk, much less sit comfortably during office hours. 

“Ron, your classes are the gateway for hundreds of students to learn economics, and we consider you one of our prize teaching assets,” Weiher wrote in a May 2005 e-mail. “However, your office looks like a gateway to Sanford and Son's. The room is not simply an eyesore; it is also a safety hazard. You have an office that no student should be asked to enter.” 

Ayers promised to clean the office, but it remained a mess. There always was some excuse for the clutter — faulty shelves, a crisis at home, rotating healthy fruits and vegetables into his diet. After years of back-and-forth, Weiher lost his patience. 

“Ron, I just returned from your office,” Weiher wrote in January 2006. “I was flabbergasted at the amount of food in the office. My reaction was to think that the owner of this office has disconnected from reality.” 

A few weeks after that e-mail, a graduate student sitting near Ayers' office heard the sound of a woman moaning from behind his closed door, according to a police report. Then she heard Ayers' say, “Oh, my God. ... Oh, my God!” The door opened and footsteps made their way toward the bathroom. When Ayers returned, she heard him muttering “Bad, bad, you're so bad.” 

There appeared to be no one else in the office, so she surmised he was masturbating to pornography in his office. A couple of weeks later, she reported the incident to police, tipping off an investigation into Ayers' computer use. 

Investigators found “a number of images and video of explicit sexual material,” according to the police report. Cached files showed he had been accessing pornography for at least several months, and some of the Internet addresses included the word “teen.” 

UTSA's computer use policy bars employees from accessing “obscene materials, other than in the course of academic research where this aspect of the research has the explicit written approval of a University executive officer.” 

When Weiher confronted Ayers, he denied the student's allegations and said he had viewed pornography “recreationally” and on his own time, according to university documents. 

However, Ayers requested medical leave to seek help for his “addiction,” then tried to delete the cached files on his computer. Two months later, he told university officials he was working on a research project aimed at limiting children's access to online pornography. 

UTSA President Ricardo Romo didn't buy it and fired Ayers in March 2007.
“As a whole, your actions have demonstrated an inability to conduct yourself in a manner consistent with the behavioral norms of this university of which a reasonable UTSA faculty member would be aware,” Romo wrote in his letter to Ayers. 

But the tribunal decided the university's policy didn't specifically prohibit Ayers' actions. Ayers used bad judgment, it said, but shouldn't be fired.
Romo was unavailable for comment for this article. 

A teen girl's heart 

The sexual e-mails surfaced after Romo's letter had gone out, but before the faculty hearing had taken place, said Gabler, the university spokesman. 

In the exchanges, Ayers dishes to Duane Conley, a computer information systems professor at Palo Alto College, about women in his classes. He called one student an “exhibitionist” and said she showed off her thong underwear for him while he taught. Later, the student began dressing more modestly, and Ayers lost interest in helping her academically. 

“I have sort of ignored her since she stopped the provocative mode of dress,” Ayers wrote in a March 2005 e-mail. As with all his e-mails, it was followed by the tagline, “Ronald M. Ayers, Your Partner in Teaching Excellence.” 

Conley lends an ear, but shares little about his own interactions with women. Leo Zuniga, a spokesman for the Alamo Community Colleges, said administrators are looking at the e-mails to see if Conley violated any district policies. 

“All Conley was doing was responding to Ayers' rather off-topic discussions of various things,” said Conley's lawyer, Michael Latimer

In addition to his students, Ayers talks about his interactions with the teen girls who work at the thrift and dollar stores he frequents. In one e-mail, he talked about buying a stuffed animal for a “goth” girl he likes, and chatting with her about Alkaline Trio, her favorite punk band. 

“I may actually be making progress with this girl,” Ayers wrote. “Music may be the quickest way to a teen girl's heart, after stuffed animals.” 

Ayers and Conley also talk about pornography — always misspelled “pron” to throw off computer filters — and trade a Web site that gives advice on seducing younger women. They also exchange comments about young women whose photos Ayers has plucked off the Web. 

Gabler, the UTSA spokesman, said he is not sure if the e-mails violate a specific school policy. UTSA's computer use policy does not forbid e-mails of a sexual nature, though it does ban anything more than “incidental” personal use of a work computer. Sexual harassment policies may come into play, but would they apply if a student had no idea she was being harassed? 

“Just because you have fantasies that are not acted upon does not mean that you have committed any act that is in violation of the faculty handbook,” said Sheldon Steinbach, a higher education lawyer who served as vice president and general counsel for the American Council on Education for 37 years. “This is a sliver of evidence of the professor's general mindset. But one could hardly come to the conclusion that this would lead to inappropriate activity.” 

Even though the e-mails didn't alarm him, Steinbach said last month he disagreed with the faculty tribunal's decision, calling it “unadulterated academic poppycock.” 

Tony Farrenkopf, a clinical psychologist in Portland, Ore., who specializes in sexual addict
ion and abuse, said many porn surfers look, but don't act on their fantasies. 

“If you look at someone's history and that's all you find, that's most likely who they are, that's what they do,” Farrenkopf said. 

Though Farrenkopf couldn't comment specifically on Ayers' case, he said that putting such fantasies in an e-mail and sharing them with someone else is a bold move. 

“If someone does bold or risky acts, what other risks might be taken?” Farrenkopf said. 

Ayers' lawyer, Maldonado, said the university couldn't pin the professor down using its own policy, so it tried to throw in the kitchen sink.

“The university had an opportunity to lodge additional charges and they didn't do so,” Maldonado said. “They tried to put this information in there even though it was never considered an issue.” 

Gabler said he believes no students have complained about Ayers. But that doesn't make it right, he said. 

“This conduct is an affront to our standards of excellence at UTSA,” said Gabler, the university spokesman. “The e-mail exchange does not reflect a healthy or appropriate student-faculty relationship, and reinforced our findings of inappropriate conduct.”

All of this gets back to a debate I have had with myself over the years. Should intimate relationships between students and professors be permitted? In my younger years, back when I was more of a hedonist, I personally did not care. After all, in academia, we are all adults. And I remember reading stories of professors back in the late 1960s in some of the English departments of this country who took it as a point of pride to sleep with their grad students (the female and male profs).

As someone who has been teaching at the college level for the past several years, my view on this issue has evolved. Yes, we are all adults, and I do not want to do deny anyone's rights, but there are a couple of issues in allowing these kinds of relationships (and I am clueless as to Mr. Ayers' ever acting on his fantasies). One, liability. All it takes is one lawsuit for sexual harassment and your department and your job can become unstable overnight. Having gone to law school, before coming back to the social sciences, this is something I am especially sensitive to, and it is why my door is always open while I am in office. Contrast this with Mr. Ayers' behavior behind his closed door.

The second issue is power differential. As a professor, I hold the power of the grade over my students, and there is no greater responsibility a person can have in college (and it is one I take very seriously). It is impossible for any professor not to think of it. The students are not naive. They know this and some will try to take advantage of the situation (or as some like to call them, the brown-nosers [and yes, this does occur sometimes in college classrooms, although many students are just interested in the subject matter]). Some people, however, do not take this responsibility as seriously, and they can easily misinterpret a question or stare, or clothing attire (which these days seems to be getting less and less for youngsters), as a green light for advance.

The easiest way to find out how deluded these people are, simply ask: Does anyone honestly believe that the average 18-21 year old is going to want to date or be interested in a 60 year old? In real life, unless that person is a multimillionaire or in some position of authority (and a professor is definitely in a position of authority), they almost certainly would not. This is a form of exploitation (just consider the prof's email hoping that one of the subjects of his desire comes from a broken home, so he could more easily take sexual advantage of her). Sure, exploitation can cut both ways, but at the end of the day fraternization exposes the professor as someone with a serious conflict of interest in the classroom. When I enter a classroom, unless some of those students have taken my other classes and know me, I have nothing going for me but my word. Once your students find out that you are the kind of person who would date other students, every one of them is going to have the same thought: he/she is just sleeping him/herself into an A. That de-legitimizes the professor's integrity and makes a mockery out of the learning environment in the classroom.

To put this another way: Parents, how would you like your teenager taking a class from a man like this?

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