When My College Attacked Me, Professional Insurance Saved My Bacon

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Image: Boris Séméniako

By L.D. Burnett

Iam not a lawyer — but I need one. Every professor does. That’s why I purchase professional insurance for academics — a kind of insurance policy that will pay for an attorney in case I am sued by someone unhappy with my work, or in case my employer takes adverse action against me. If you are a member of a major professional academic organization, you can often purchase a policy through the “Member Benefits” portal of their website. My own policy, which costs about $120 per year, was acquired through the member benefits provided by the Organization of American Historians.

I’ve carried this policy for a few years now, never imagining I would need it. I simply saw it as a good thing to have, just in case.

Why?

Because people can be litigious, and employers can be capricious, and professors need some protection against both potential lawsuits and against unfair disciplinary actions.

But why would anyone sue a professor? For what?

For giving a failing grade to a student, as happened at the Massachusetts School of Law.

For violating students’ rights to free expression, as happened in 2017 at California State University at Fresno.

For libeling the Fraternal Order of Police in an op-ed published in the local newspaper, as happened in 2001 at Temple University.

For writing unfavorable evaluations, as happened at the University of Missouri’s medical school.

For allegedly sexually harassing students.

(Obviously, the best way to avoid being sued for sexually harassing students is to not sexually harass them. Still, some professors who are not at all guilty of sexual harassment have been sued for it. And at least one professor, Laura Kipnis, has been sued after writing about sexual-harassment lawsuits.)

In many of these sorts of cases, the professor’s employer is named alongside the professor in a lawsuit. Even if the college itself is not named, it may provide legal protection to a professor sued for some purported misdeed in the course of performing their normal academic duties.

But legal representation is not always paid for by the college. Even if a lawsuit is frivolous or meritless, a professor could be on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal fees in order to defend themselves in court.

That’s where professional insurance can give you real peace of mind. On the very first page of its description of coverage, my insurance policy states that my insurers “shall have the right and duty to defend any suit against the insured seeking damages even if the suit is groundless, false, or fraudulent.” It’s a real relief to know that an angry student or an angry parent who doesn’t like how you are doing your job cannot bring you to financial ruin with a lawsuit over grades or attendance policies or the topics you cover in class or how you handle class discussion.

My policy also provides protection against suits by other professors. Say you are an associate dean who reassigns a professor to other duties as part of some disciplinary act, and that professor sues you. Or say you are part of a committee that denies someone tenure, and that professor sues you. Your insurance would defend you against lawsuits in either of those scenarios.

Speaking of deans and college administrators, what if you need protection from capricious or damaging acts perpetrated against you by your employer? What if your college does something to threaten your employment or takes adverse action against you?

What if you are, say, a community-college professor on a year-to-year contract, and you tweet something snarky about the vice president — just spitballing here — and unnamed “legislators” call for your firing, and instead of standing up for your First Amendment rights as a citizen, your college publicly hangs you out to dry and requires you to sign an “employee-coaching form” with a bespoke policy, created just for you, that says you are not allowed to reply to any outside emails sent to your college-email account, so that if you respond to, say, an editor’s query or a colleague’s invitation to participate in a conference, you could be disciplined and fired?

Well, you would need some legal advice.

Those things actually happened to me. Enter professional insurance. My policy pays for consultation with a lawyer before any disciplinary hearing, and also pays for the presence of counsel during any disciplinary hearing. I availed myself of both of those benefits when my college asked me to sign a form promising that I would not use my college email to reply to anyone outside of the college-email system.

Here’s what professional insurance doesn’t cover: disgruntled professors suing their college. I am, as you might imagine, hella disgruntled at the moment. In my view, and in the view of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and their boatload of First Amendment attorneys, my employer has violated my civil rights. The outrageous and defamatory statement my college president wrote about me is still up at the school’s website. The college is still stonewalling on efforts by FIRE to find out the names of the elected representatives who called for my firing over a tweet. In fact, the college has retained a white-shoe law firm in Dallas to fight FIRE’s request for that information. (Is it possible to request through the Freedom of Information Act records of discussions or receipts for attorney fees to find out how much money a public entity is spending to fight a FOIA request?) In short, I have many reasons to be displeased with my employer, and the college could conceivably be found liable for violating my civil rights.

Even so, professional insurance will not pay for me to bring a lawsuit against my college.

Which is just as well, because I am not a litigious person. But there are litigious people out there, and carrying a professional-insurance policy helps me as a professor do my job without worrying that I would go broke defending myself against a meritless lawsuit brought by some student who doesn’t like how I teach the Civil War because I don’t teach “both sides” of the conflict and who therefore wants a refund. Hasn’t happened yet, but in today’s climate it certainly could.

And that’s why you want professional insurance. You may never need to use it — but having it will help you sleep at night.

L.D. Burnett is a professor of history at Collin College.

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