Faculty, students rally after Penn State moves to potentially terminate professor

Despite a court clearing a Penn State assistant professor of wrongdoing after tussling with an anti-vaxx student last August, Penn State is still moving forward with the termination process — drawing ire from faculty and students alike.

Oliver Baker, assistant professor of English and African American studies, remains on administrative leave, a university spokesperson confirmed, in spite of being found not guilty in November on his lone charge, a summary count of harassment. The university declined to confirm the “confidential” termination process had begun, but two faculty-based groups reported by Thursday that the process was moving forward.

The group Students Against Sexist Violence organized a rally in support of Baker for 6 p.m. Friday at the Allen Street Gates. A petition started by undergraduate students, titled “Don’t Let PSU Fire Dr. Baker!,” has so far gained nearly 600 signatures.

“This decision threatens to undermine the very legitimacy of the (termination) process,” read a statement from the Penn State chapter of the American Association of University Professors. “A faculty member cannot be guilty of grave misconduct if he has committed no misconduct of any kind. … This decision sends a chilling message to all university faculty: that they can be brought up for dismissal by an unaccountable Human Resources office that has ignored a faculty member’s exoneration by a court of law.”

How it got to this point

The controversy first started during an Aug. 27 rally in front of Old Main, when about 150 community members gathered to demand that Penn State mandate the COVID vaccine.

A counter-protesting student in a neon-orange safety vest, whom organizers characterized as “being physically aggressive toward peaceful attendees,” toted around a sign with memes, tweets and sayings such as “Shut the f— up liberal.” Baker then confronted the student, before the situation escalated.

According to the criminal complaint, Baker was accused of trying to take the counter protester’s sign, pulling him to the ground and then injuring him during the ensuing scuffle. The counter protester was seen with a bloody face after the scuffle; he told police he believed Baker’s shoulder made contact with his nose and/or face after trying to peacefully exercise his First Amendment rights.

The 36-year-old assistant professor initially faced misdemeanor charges of simple assault and disorderly conduct, in addition to the summary count of harassment. The two misdemeanor charges were dropped in October after Baker’s lawyer described the student as having “antagonistic, menacing and aggressive behavior.” In November, Centre County District Judge Steven Lachman found Baker not guilty on his lone remaining charge, a summary offense on par (legally) with a parking ticket.

“(Baker) has done nothing wrong. If anything, his actions at the rally were protecting folks,” said Valerie Braman, a spokesperson for the faculty-based group Coalition for a Just University. “He ought to be reinstated immediately because this has gone on longer than it’s needed to. Where he belongs is in the classroom.”

About 150 people attended a rally in August at Old Main to call on Penn State to require a COVID-19 mandate for students and staff.

Starting the termination process

Even after the court ruling, Penn State kept Baker on administrative leave, before formally starting the AC70 Dismissal Procedure.

Based on policies outlined online, the first step is meeting with administrator(s) and, if concerns remain, the matter is referred to a university jury of sorts, called the Standing Joint Committee on Tenure. That committee will determine whether Baker will face discipline or resume teaching.

According to a source, Baker is now past Step 1.

Based on the university’s own academic policies, dismissal requires “clear and convincing evidence.” It is not known what, if any, evidence Penn State might have that wasn’t available to the county district attorney. The committee’s proceedings are largely veiled in secrecy and are not open to the public.

A Penn State spokesperson declined to comment further and Baker’s attorney, Julian Allatt, said he was also unable to comment. It’s unknown exactly how long Baker’s hearing might last, but it could potentially be months before a final decision is reached.

Students and faculty hope Baker is reinstated soon.

“Should the AC70 process go forward, the insult to justice — and the harm to the university’s reputation — would be incalculable,” the AAUP statement read. “Such a misuse of our dismissal procedures would surely draw national attention, the repercussions of which would resonate for years.

“In the interest of justice, therefore, and in the best interest of the university, we ask that the AC70 process be stopped before irreparable damage is done.”