One of the common ways that law professors keep students mildly entertained in class is by posing hypotheticals involving their professors and the Dean. I ‘m not sure why this is so funny, but students just love it. If you teach first-year criminal law, which typically focuses heavily on homicide crimes, that means you spend a lot of time imagining your colleagues meeting horrible fates. If A kills B out of revenge, that’s just a boring hypothetical. But if the hypo involves the students’ Torts Professor killing the Dean out of revenge — or better yet, a conspiracy in which the Dean and the students’ Torts and Contract Professors agree to kill their Criminal law Professor for beer money — well, that’s serious entertainment. It may seem a bit morbid at first. But it’s the opposite, I think. Putting Professors or the Dean in the place of real criminals and real victims makes the scenario so absurd that it adds a bit of levity to what is otherwise a very depressing topic. As a result, it’s a common tool Criminal Law professors use when teaching first-year students the basic doctrines of criminal law. I suppose over the years I’ve murdered pretty much every 1st-year teacher — and certainly all my Deans — and they’ve all murdered me, too. (All during in-class hypos, mind you.)
In light of this, I was astonished to see this article about a Criminal Law professor being put on administrative leave for posing hypotheticals in class:
During a spring 2010 criminal law class, Lawrence Connell shot and killed Linda Ammons — hypothetically speaking.
Connell considered the pretend notion of his murdering the Widener School of Law dean an absurd example meant to help students remember a legal principle.
But at least two students filed complaints with administrators, calling it violent, racist and sexist, according to Connell’s attorney, Thomas Neuberger. . . .
Connell remains on administrative leave awaiting a review of the case by the tenured faculty at the Brandywine Hundred law school.
Through his attorney, Connell has waived his right to confidentiality and demanded a public hearing. Widener has declined comment, citing its personnel policy. . . .
Neuberger said [Widener Vice Dean J. Patrick] Kelly and Ammons offered to allow Connell to return to campus if he recanted statements students found offensive and underwent psychiatric evaluation.
Connell refused, believing it would amount to admitting racism, among other things, Neuberger said. . . .
In the description of the complaints provided to Connell, the unnamed students accuse him of using Ammons, a black woman, as the shooting victim in his class examples “at least 10 times,” Neuberger said. In one instance, a student alleged Connell used a hypothetical situation describing how he “blew her head off,” Neuberger said. His examples ranged from the gory to the intentionally absurd, according to Neuberger, such as when Connell asked students to imagine Ammons dealing drugs out of her office.
Perhaps there is some back-story to this I don’t know, or perhaps there is some aspect to the classroom hypos that takes them way outside the usual I-killed-the-Dean hypo. The actual hypos haven’t been made public. But based on the story alone, at least, it sounds to me like a ridiculous overreaction. I trust the Widener faculty will reverse the suspension pronto to avoid becoming the laughingstock of legal academia. Either that, or I think it may be time for me to develop a less dangerous area of academic expertise.
Thanks to Brian Leiter for the link.
UPDATE: The Philadelphia Inquirer adds a few details. Professor Connell is a tenured professor; the school is preparing formal charges against him; he is presently barred from appearing on campus; and in addition to being charged with making his hypotheticals, “Connell is accused of making inappropriate remarks about a female student’s appearance in 1996.” (1996?!?)