So I'm dealing with a very weird case here. I'm a PhD student and my wife is currently taking a history course at a different university. Apparently this instructor says he has tenure so no one can do anything about his rambling.

He spends a sizable chunk of the course ranting about how evolution is false because there's no proof of it, that Neanderthals didn't exist, and how humans aren't apes. He also claimed the Earth isn't 4 billion years old and people lived with dinosaurs.

This is obviously very obnoxious and disturbing to sit through. But is it true that his rambling is protected by tenure? If we were to complain could anything be done? Thanks.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 13 at 2:58

Having tenure doesn't mean a professor can spend large amounts of time in a course talking about off-topic things. They still have a duty to teach the subject of the course.

Have your wife talk to the department chair if she feels she isn't receiving the education that she expects from the course.

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    Being off-topic is one thing. Spreading utter hogwash is another. – Eric Duminil Sep 9 at 17:27
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    @EricDuminil yes, but unfortunately it'll be hard to give a general, rigorous definition of what's “utter hogwash” and what merely an unlucky misconception. You can't expect a professor to know about everything, so it's inevitable that they'll have some wrong beliefs – hopefully outside their field of expertise only, though. So enforcing they stay focused on their own subject is the way to go. (FTR, I think denial of evolution is utter hogwash, but focusing on single topics like this gives deniers a convenient opportunity to complain about “liberal bias / dogma”.) – leftaroundabout Sep 9 at 20:06
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    Evolution and prehistory (the Paleolithic period and big geography) are covered in AP World History under Key Concept 1.1. While it would not be OK to harp on these things day-in and day-out, it seems that they are not off-topic. – elliot svensson Sep 10 at 17:14
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    @EricDuminil And how do you propose to define "utter hogwash" in such a way that it cannot be used to bully professors out of unpopular academic stances? – sgf Sep 11 at 11:21
  • @leftaroundabout I know in practice that what you've commented is true, and at the same time I think there is a "general, rigorous definition" of what is "utter hogwash", or perhaps we know what is not hogwash, and that is any finding that is the result of the use of the scientific method and the modern practice of science. That's the whole reason why those institutions of thought (if I may use such a phrase) exist - to separate the hogwash from what we should be able to agree are facts. I hope a university, at least, would share that definition of "hogwash". – Todd Wilcox Sep 11 at 13:45

Faculty at my university, and I would imagine at any large university in the US, are bound by the terms of a technical document with a title such as “Faculty Code of Conduct” or something similar. If you look at this document for my university, you find descriptions of certain behaviors described as “unacceptable behavior” for a faculty member. Notably:

Types of unacceptable conduct:

  1. Failure to meet the responsibilities of instruction, including:

...

(b) significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course;

...

  1. Discrimination, including harassment, against a student on political grounds, or for reasons of race, color, religion, [...], or, within the limits imposed by law or University regulations, because of age or citizenship or for other arbitrary or personal reasons.

The faculty code of conduct also contains procedures that are in place for disciplining professors who engage in unacceptable behavior. The bottom line is that tenure is not a “get out of jail free” card to engage in any sort of unprofessional behavior. In theory, a faculty member who violates the code of conduct can get fired. At the same time, termination is an extremely rare and unusual punishment, and there are other milder forms of discipline that are much more likely to happen first (or at all). Moreover, the process for getting someone fired is very long and complicated. So, to a first order approximation, it is essentially correct to say that with extremely high probability your wife’s professor won’t be fired for the things he said in class about evolution.

With that said, your wife can and should complain about her professor behaving unprofessionally in class. Her university has processes for dealing with such issues, and it is likely that a complaint can lead to the situation improving for her and other students, and to the professor suffering some consequences for his actions.

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    I am not sure why you included the point 2. – quid Sep 8 at 18:28
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    @quid just on the off-chance that it would be of interest to OP, e.g., if his wife’s professor showed signs that he wanted to discriminate against students on the basis of their religious beliefs. But I agree it is not directly related to OP’s concerns. – Dan Romik Sep 8 at 18:46
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    By that standard my biology professor who called me out in class and called me a, "f---ing idiot for believing in God", should be terminated. – Will Byers Sep 10 at 19:57
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    @WillByers: Singling out a student in class to call them a "f---ing idiot" should be grounds for termination regardless of whether their underlying reason is connected to any religious belief or lack thereof; from a position of authority, it's abusive and completely unprofessional. – R.. Sep 10 at 20:48
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    @WillByers very sorry to hear about this. Certainly that is unacceptable behavior for a professor. – Dan Romik Sep 10 at 23:23

In general, yes, tenure protects you from retaliation for anything you say, write, research, etc. That is the point of it. But the instructor still has to teach his/her course. If this is going on in a math course, then a complaint could come about not teaching math.

But in a biology course, the person could probably make a case that they are teaching biology, even when they are actually rejecting science and its underlying principles.

The student also has academic freedom, I'll point out, so speaking out against a creationist professor should never result in any sanction. That, unfortunately, is harder to guarantee.

Another issue, of course, is whether the instructor is requiring students to adopt anti-scientific positions for any reason. You can't attack a person for their religious beliefs, of course, and under tenure you can't attack them for speaking about those beliefs, but you can require that they not try to undermine the beliefs of others.

One effective way to counter ineffective teachers is to avoid them. If that isn't really possible then complaints to the dean, etc. or letters to the editor, etc. are certainly possible. But be aware that you are very unlikely to change the minds of people who choose to ignore science using any argument whatever. There is some research, in fact, that arguing with such people only deepens their belief.

From the Dean's standpoint, while he/she may not be able to fire a misbehaving teacher for what they say, there is no reason for the Dean to be required to let that person anywhere near students, or promote them, or give them raises, etc.

Finally, in some (but sadly not all) places, the other faculty can provide helpful peer-pressure against instructors who use their classroom time to proselytize rather than teach.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Sep 13 at 2:57

This is a difficult position to be in, but I'm alarmed that most of the other posts here seem to be discussing how to get a tenured professor fired or negatively impacted.

You should be focused on helping either your wife and/or other students, NOT on harming the instructor. If your efforts seem focused on harming the career/public opinion of a tenured professor, the dean should, and hopefully will, meet those efforts to the defense of the instructor, which could result in very negative consequences to you and/or your wife.

Regardless of what you hope to achieve, ask the dean what your options are. If a professor is acting like this, it is extremely likely that the dean knows about it, and has heard complaints from other students. Most likely, your wife would be allowed to drop the course or transfer to another section with a different instructor without significant incident. If other students are having similar problems, the onus is on them to act similarly.

If you are really dead-set on trying to get the instructor reprimanded or fired, then take a video of the class, and be willing to accept it if the dean tells you that they can't do anything. There could be a lot of politics happening that you have no awareness of.

I would avoid the following: Making a scene during class, arguing with the instructor in front of the class (do not pull a "God is Dead" moment in reverse), or actively attempting to get the instructor fired.

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    I disagree that the discussion of whether a tenured professor can be fired (which is what OP asked about) is motivated by wanting to harm anyone’s career. To me OP and his wife just sound concerned about the wife and her fellow students getting a bad education. As a general rule, if someone cannot do the job of a professor competently (and I’m far from being able to assess whether that‘s the case here), that person should be fired, not as punishment, but simply to protect the students’ right to get the quality education they are paying for. – Dan Romik Sep 11 at 6:02
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    @PeterA.Schneider, the OP has not mentioned Creationism but is in fact merely witnessing a skeptical stance toward a few common claims. "Evolution is proven" is not maintained by evolution-folks: evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/teach/68pitfalls.php#1e ... "Humans are apes" is only applicable within science ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ape ) ... Birds are dinosaurs, so what's the matter with "people lived with dinosaurs"? ... and honestly, how do you know that the earth is 4 billion years old? – elliot svensson Sep 11 at 14:26
  • @PeterA.Schneider I wholeheartedly agree with you that this person is likely unfit to teach, but "removing" a professor is harmful to that professor. The desire to protect the other students is admirable, but it is not the student's job, it is the job of the other faculty. The duty of the student is to raise the objection, not to decide the fate of the instructor or push for any specific course of action. – kashim Sep 11 at 14:48
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    @DanRomik Your comment in parenthesis "and I'm far from being able to assess whether that's the case here" is exactly my point. No one on this forum knows enough of the circumstances behind this case to suggest that action be taken against the professor, let alone what that action might be. Specifically, the poster asked "If we were to complain, could anything be done?" The end answer is "Many things can be done, but only your dean knows enough to know what they are." – kashim Sep 11 at 14:58
  • @elliotsvensson (1)The OP reported that the teacher "claimed the Earth isn't 4 billion years old." Technically that would cover the claim that earth is actually 4.5 Ga old but my assumption is that he'll rather aim at <10 ka or it wouldn't be worth reporting. (2) There may be no proof in the mathematical sense, but ignoring the evidence is delusional. By the way, if we suppose the axiom of no frequent divine intervention (a premise supported by many mainstream churches) evolution follows logically because as a general principle it is another way of saying "things just run their course". – Peter A. Schneider Sep 11 at 15:14

I perceive two distinct issues that you bring up with this question. It seems that the direct questions ("How much time is OK to dedicate to this in history class? Is this behavior protected by tenure?") have been addressed by other answers. I would like to examine whether it should be obnoxious and disturbing for the professor to make his unusual claims.

Evolution is false because it is not proven.

That evolution is not proven is acknowledged, and even asserted, by evolution's authorities such as UC Berkeley. So on the notion that an idea is only true if it has been "proven", this would be the natural implication. Instead,

Scientists gather evidence which might help support or refute hypotheses and theories, but these ideas can never be absolutely proven, even when supported by many different lines of evidence.

UC Berkeley, Understanding Evolution, Teaching materials, 6-8 Teachers' lounge, Avoiding common teaching pitfalls, 1. Choosing your words carefully. https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/teach/68pitfalls.php#1e

When the professor asserts that "anything not proven is false" he is repeating a common fallacy in science education. Jack Fraser wrote in Quora in 2017:

All science is merely the current best model. Science is impermanent. It is, by definition, in constant flux. You can never have 100% proof of anything. There will always be doubt.

This comes as a bit of a shock to many people. At school we’re taught science in terms of absolute facts— and this attitude persists rather a long time, into university education as well.

It takes a surprisingly long time for the new information you are being taught to finally be bookended with the phrase “of course, this is all based on the validity of model XYZ, which may turn out to be false.”

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/12/14/theres-no-such-thing-as-proof-in-the-scientific-world-theres-only-evidence/#215633255392, reparagraphed by me

It may be that the professor is misguided: doesn’t this mean that the theories of gravitational attraction and the conservation of energy aren’t true either?

Instead of this absurdity, perhaps the professor is using the apparent contradiction between "evolution is a universal concept in biology" and "there is not 100% proof for evolution" to bring students face-to-face with the academic notion of doubt.


But isn’t this off-topic in a history class?

While it may seem odd for the subjects of human origins and evolution to appear in a history class, they appear as Key Concept 1.1 in AP World History (an American standardized college-level course):

Key Concept 1.1

The term big geography draws attention to the global nature of world history. Throughout the Paleolithic period, humans migrated from Africa to Eurasia, Australia, and the Americas. Early humans were mobile and creative in adapting to different geographical settings from savanna to desert to tundra. Humans also developed varied and sophisticated technologies.

AP World History, July 2017 edition. Note that in 2019, this course will be split into AP World History: Modern (1200 CE - present) and AP World History: Ancient.

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