After turning down the lights in his classroom at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Prof. Gregory F. Sullivan began showing a documentary and prepared to step out for a moment.
But first, according to an internal personnel document, he paused to make a parting joke: “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room,” he is said to have remarked to his students, “run for the exit.”
The joke — a reference to James E. Holmes, who is accused of fatally shooting 12 people and wounding 58 more last month in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and who dyed his hair bright orange — would not have been especially funny in any setting. But in this classroom, 11 days after the shootings, it was dreadful. One student’s father had been killed in the shootings. Hearing his teacher’s joke, the student left the room, obviously upset, according to the internal document.
The institution’s academic dean has recommended that Professor Sullivan, who, according to the internal document, said that he had been unaware of the student’s loss, be fired for the remark.
In a “notice of proposed removal” issued last week, the dean wrote that the joke constituted “notoriously disgraceful conduct” under the academy’s rules forbidding “misconduct generally criminal, infamous, dishonest or notoriously disgraceful.”
The notice said that Professor Sullivan, a tenured humanities instructor who has been at the academy, in Kings Point, N.Y., since 2006 and had a positive reputation among students, had offered a “quick and remorseful admission” to administrators and a “personal apology immediately following the incident” to the bereaved student and to the class as a whole.
But the notice said that Professor Sullivan “reasonably should have been aware” of the student’s loss, because the academy had sent out an academywide e-mail about it on July 25, because that student had been absent from Professor Sullivan’s course for several days and because the professor had given two other students permission to miss class so that they could attend a funeral.
“I find there is no lesser sanction to effectively address this misconduct” than dismissal, the dean, Shashi Kumar, wrote.
The notice, dated Aug. 10, informed Professor Sullivan that he had 10 days to contest his dismissal. He has been suspended with pay in the meantime.
Professor Sullivan declined to comment, saying that the academy’s faculty was not permitted to speak with the news media unless the academy gave permission.
B. Robert Kreiser, a senior program officer in the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, said that in “generally accepted principles of tenure,” a professor with tenure would receive a hearing before a faculty committee before charges would be brought. Professor Sullivan’s suspension, Mr. Kreiser continued, would be appropriate only if he “represents a threat to himself or to others.”
“Given that it was a single remark — an indefensible remark, but nonetheless a single remark, for which he has apologized — it’s hard to imagine why the administration decided he should be suspended” in the interim, he said.
The academy, which is near Great Neck, on Long Island, is a civilian institution run by the United States Transportation Department whose faculty members are federal employees. The academy trains students for careers in the marine trade, but it operates under the rules of military discipline. Its 1,000 or so students, who attend without charge, are organized into a regiment; many of its faculty members identify themselves by rank.
The academy is led by Rear Adm. James A. Helis, who said: “The academy’s first priority is the well-being of its students. As soon as I learned of the incident, I immediately placed the professor involved on administrative leave, and he is not teaching class at this time.”
“As with any investigation,” he added, “we are interviewing both students and faculty, and the professor will have the opportunity to respond before we issue our final determination.”