Syllabus scuffle: adjunct suspended for two semesters

Robert Kenny was accused of stealing a professor’s syllabus. He has been teaching for more than 16 years.

By Jen Maldonado

When students receive a course syllabus on the first day of classes, it’s often thought of as a reminder that tells them when it’s time to stay up all night studying for an exam or to finally start writing a paper. Last semester, a syllabus proved to be the center of a court conflict among faculty, raising the question of what exactly a syllabus means.

Robert Kenny, an adjunct associate professor in the College of Business Administration, was accused of stealing a syllabus and other course materials from Susan Denbo, professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics, after he was given them from the department chair, according to Kenny.

Though he says he was given the syllabus to use as a model, Kenny was punished with a two-semester suspension from teaching for the summer and fall 2012 semesters. Now Kenny, a lawyer, has filed a lawsuit against Denbo, claiming libel, invasion of privacy and false light invasion of privacy.

“The real damage is my reputation is stained and I was being accused of doing something unethical when in my view, I did nothing wrong,”
Kenny said.

Denbo was asked to comment but said because this matter is currently in litigation, she is unable to say anything about the case.

William Ahearn, vice president of University Communications, gave a statement on behalf of the University.

“As a matter of policy, we do not comment on matters that are in litigation,” he said. “However, we believe this claim is entirely baseless, and has, in fact, already been settled through a binding arbitration proceeding, in which Professor Kenny provided a written apology for his actions.”

Jeffrey Halpern, contract administrator and chief grievance officer of American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and associate professor of sociology, became involved as a union representative for Kenny during a campus disciplinary hearing in the case.

“At Rider, your syllabus is your property under intellectual property rights,” Halpern said. “To be an intellectual property, it has to be a creative work. As an institutional decision, we said it belongs to the individual and copyright resides with the faculty member, not the University.”

Halpern feels syllabi should be generally available to professors “particularly for an adjunct who wasn’t there for the discussion of a course,” and a sample syllabus from the department chair is usually property of the University. However, if the syllabus has a professor’s name on it and has specifics such as assignments and essay questions, which are creative elements, then it is the personal property of the person who wrote it and an adjunct or other professor needs to get permission from the author to use it. The AAUP also encourages the sharing of intellectual property.

“If it’s a much more creative element, I should ask permission,” Halpern said. “That’s a legal requirement and my advice in that [similar situation] is you should make sure you know what range of permission is given.”

Kenny, who has been teaching for more than 16 years at colleges such as Seton Hall, Mercer Community College, Middlesex Community College and currently at The College of New Jersey, and has been practicing law for over 35 years, he claims he was given a sample syllabus for a course he was teaching at Rider in the spring of 2012. He said he used the syllabus with Denbo’s assignments as a model to show his students what the expected course load for his class would be, and posted it on Blackboard.

Denbo then sent multiple emails to Kenny saying she was “outraged” that he used her syllabus, according to court papers he filed. Kenny apologized and posted a new syllabus, but Denbo had sent an email to five administrative officials accusing him of having unauthorized access to her syllabus and intending to use her assignments and resources without her permission.

Students seem to have different opinions when it comes to the issue of a potentially stolen syllabus.

“I think that it’s hard to tell for sure if the professor definitely copied the syllabus intentionally but in my opinion, the suspension was kind of extreme,” said Chris Giannino, a senior accounting major. “Also, I think there are more important issues at Rider than a syllabus.”

In the past, adjuncts were given syllabi and would assume they were given some type of sample, which is equivalent to getting permission to use it. Rider’s policy now requires adjuncts to seek permission from the original author, according to Halpern, which is something Kenny “doesn’t think is very sensible.”

“That’s a very awkward system for adjuncts and not what people would expect,” Kenny said. “I’ve gotten syllabi at least seven times from the department head and now we can’t just use it. We have to get permission from someone which is unworkable since adjuncts aren’t on campus often.”

The labor grievance of Kenny’s case was settled in arbitration, which means an outside person made a decision after hearing from both sides and settled the issue, according to Halpern, who wouldn’t directly comment on details of the settlement since it involves personnel.

“An arbitrator will try to get parties to come to a compromise and that’s what happened in this case,” Halpern said. “The union and University came to a settlement and ended the grievance and that arbitration.”

Halpern said that the union, including himself, and  an executive committee at AAUP, and the University are going to work on creating guidelines for the department chairs and adjuncts when it comes to the use of syllabi “so we don’t end up in same situation in the future.”

“There is no precedent case in law that would settle it so it’s up to institutions to wrestle with this and in some extent, it comes down to nature of syllabi,” Halpern said. “This is still contested territory and it’s a complicated issue.”

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