Robert Klein Engler, a former adjunct professor at Roosevelt University, wants to tell his story, and with the word harassment lingering around his name it is not hard to understand why he is deeply concerned with clearing his reputation.
"I got up in the morning and I had no intention of harassing any students," he said, referring to the day that he told a joke in his "City and Citizenship" class at the university. "Nor did I ever imagine that I would do that. Supposedly I told a joke which some person interpreted as harassment. But there has never been any official statement by the university about this."
The class had been assigned a book about legal immigration and the discussion for the day centered on the new and controversial Arizona immigration law. "I wanted to get the students involved in a discussion on it so I told them I had heard this joke and wondered what they thought about it," he said.
The joke was, "There was a sociological study done in Arizona and they discovered that 60 percent of the people in Arizona approved of the immigration law and 40 percent said, 'no habla ingles.'"
Engler has been outspoken throughout his career, writing extensively on policy issues from his conservative perspective, including articles expressing his disagreement with amnesty for illegal immigrants despite how many years they've been in the United States. He said that although he holds strong views on certain topics, he does not share those views with his students and that he did not discuss his personal views on the Arizona immigration law.
"I am good at what I do," he said. "I never wear buttons that support one cause or another to my classroom. I never assign as required reading any article I have written and published. I allow students to express their points of view and then let other students make counter arguments. I keep prejudice and bias out of my work. I have done exactly that for over 30 years and have never had any complaints."
He maintains that his viewpoints and writings are not racist and that he is not racist.
Engler said he had no idea after telling the joke that any of his students had been upset by it and none of his students ever approached him to discuss it.
Later, when he found out that a student had accused him of harassment and that administrators wanted to meet with him to investigate the allegation he did not know it was related to the immigration joke.
Engler, a gay man, said he became concerned immediately that a student had filed a false sexual harassment allegation against him and says he spent months over the summer of 2010 trying to find out the details of the harassment claim. He said he wanted to make sure he knew all of the details and had a formal, written document from the school before he sat down to discuss the matter.
After months of trying to obtain the details of the harassment allegations, Engler received a letter of termination in the mail. He was ultimately fired for refusing to cooperate with a formal university investigation. He believes that he was doing everything he could to cooperate with the information he'd been given and without any written documentation or details and that it was actually the school that was not cooperating by refusing to provide him this information.
"I asked the university if they could document this and give me some details. Vice President Deb Ford refused to do that on at least two occasions," he said.
Engler eventually learned the details of the harassment allegation from the school newspaper, the Torch, which published information about the joke and the student who had made the harassment charge.
Engler and his attorney, Doug Ibendahl, are concerned with the handling of the harassment charge by the administration, believing that the professor had a right to know the allegations prior to sitting down at a formal investigation discussion.
The agreement between Roosevelt University and the Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization, (RAFO) IEA-NEA states, "Any student complaint against a faculty member deemed by Roosevelt to raise the possibility of disciplinary action against the faculty member shall be brought to the attention of the faculty member. The faculty member shall also be given an opportunity to respond to such complaint prior to any disciplinary action being imposed."
A grievance has been filed on behalf of Engler by RAFO, IEA-NEA over the termination. "We are still trying to settle this through negotiation," said Ibendahl. "The union is involved because there is a union contract which the union has a duty to defend. At a minimum, we see, there are two clear violations of the union contract."
Engler hopes to be reinstated as an adjunct professor at Roosevelt, to be compensated for the classes he'd been expected to teach that fall semester and to clear his name of the harassment charge.
"There were no offensive words in what I said," he said. "I did not single out any student, nor is there any record of me consistently doing this to anyone. So all of the things that you think about in terms of harassment, none of that was there."
The school's harassment policy does include jokes as harassment. The policy states, "Offensive conduct may include, but is not limited to, offensive jokes, slurs, epithets or name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, acts of communication causing emotional distress, insults or put-downs, offensive objects or pictures, and interference with work performance."
It also says, "Harassment becomes unlawful where 1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment or enrollment, or 2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create an environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive."
Rachel Beiersdorf, a student in the "City and Citizenship" class said, "Professor Engler had an obviously dry sense of humor and it came as no shock to most of us that he would make a joke of that content. His joke was certainly not meant to offend anyone and he made it clear that it was simply a bad joke and not meant to be anything more."
"A college student is free to complain about whatever they want and being offended is a subjective thing," said Ibendahl. "You can't say this young student should not have been offended, but the university and their officials have a different duty and there duty is to look at complaints and to say what reasonably rises to the standard to constitute true harassment."