Professor’s dismissal stirs English department concerns

The decision by USF not to renew an English professor’s contract for undisclosed reasons has several graduate students in the department worried that the department’s national prestige could be jeopardized.

James Inman, 32, says that since July of last year, when USF officials told him that he would not be eligible for early tenure, has been told his contract will not be renewed when it expires at the end of the summer, with no reason given.

Inman, who has been at USF since fall 2001 and has served in several administrative roles in the English department — including director of the Writing Center — is one of three professors who have arguably carried the department’s Rhetoric and Composition program, which has recently been ranked among the best in the country. The other two are Gary Olsen, who recently agreed to accept a position at Illinois State University, and Lynn Worsham, who, according to sources in the department, is close to joining Olsen at ISU. With all three potentially leaving, students have turned to the administration to preserve the program.

“I think it’s a great loss for the department of English for (Inman) to be leaving,” said Deepa Sitaraman, a graduate student hoping to graduate with a Ph. D. in August. “I’m just amazed that someone who has brought so much to the department is not going to be allowed to stay here.

“I don’t know why the university would be willing to let the program take such a big hit.”

Several students have sent a petition via e-mail to USF President Judy Genshaft. In the petition, students urge the president to invite Inman to remain with the university, saying Inman “goes out of his way to help all students.”

Inman, who will continue to work as an assistant English professor at the university until his contract expires, says the university has still not told him why he is being let go. According to Inman, he was notified of a sexual harassment grievance filed against him in December 2002. The subsequent investigation, which he said proved him to be not guilty of the charges, was completed in August of last year. Despite his innocence, he said, the grievance, coupled with his relative youth, led to altered treatment from administrators and other faculty members at the university.

“The university essentially will not tell me anything,” Inman said in a phone interview Wednesday. “The only thing that’s actually been said is — on the actual form where they recommend the non-renewal, which was signed by (former English department chairman) Phillip Sipiora and (interim College of Arts and Sciences Dean) Kathleen Heide — it said ‘a more suitable faculty member can be found.’ I don’t know if that means I am unsuitable or what suitable means by their definition.”

University spokeswoman Michelle Carlyon said she could not comment on the situation, and nobody at USF who could comment could be reached Wednesday night.

Inman has filed a grievance with the office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity alleging discrimination on grounds of age, gender, marital status and sexual harassment.

Inman said he would be open to remaining at USF if the petition found its mark, but certain accommodations would need to be made.

“I would be interested in staying … but there would need to be some protection against discrimination,” Inman said. “It is a great university and a great program, and I would like to maybe even spend my entire career here.

“But in my experience I feel like I have been treated differently because I am a young single male. I also feel like I’ve been treated differently because there was a sexual harassment DEO complaint filed against me, even though I was completely cleared on that. I think people have treated me like I am more likely to engage in that sort practice, even though that just is not true.”

These discrimination issues, Inman said, created a hostile work environment and contributed to political chaos that he said is causing problems in the department.

“I think my case is part of the political battle that has unfolded in the department and I think a lot of the decision was made based on rumors and speculation and things that simply were not true,” Inman said. “I really have not been given the opportunity to speak on any charges made against me, either formally or informally.

“Maybe people feel like I allied with groups they didn’t support. The groups I didn’t support may have brought false claims against me.”

In his three years at USF, Inman said he has dated three graduate students. None of the students were in Inman’s classes at the time of the relationships, he said, adding that if the dating played any role in the decision of non-renewal, then the university acted improperly.

“I have no idea (if it was a factor or not),” he said. “If it was a factor, it is unfair for the university to do what they did. USF does not have a policy that prohibits faculty from dating students. If the university had told me not to date anyone at the university, that is what I would have done. I follow university policy.”

Another English graduate student, Elizabeth Lofaro, described Inman as “very professional.”

“He has shown many, many times the ability to put something together out of nothing, and his commitment and effort add a lot to this department,” Lofaro said. “Of all the professors I have worked with, he is the one who seemed to care the most about the graduate students.

“Whatever he did wrong could not be as bad as abandoning the (rhetoric and composition) program the way the university seems to be.”

But it may not be a case of USF giving up on the program, Inman said, with some obstacles the university could not foresee complicating matters.

“The position the university basically took is to do nothing and hope the department would keep its core faculty together, but they couldn’t have anticipated (Olsen or Worsham) leaving … I don’t think it’s necessarily the university trying to dismantle the program.”

But without three of the department’s key figures, Inman said, the department could face trouble trying to adjust.

“I don’t want to get into calling any one person more important that any other, but I think records from the past couple of years would show that Gary, Lynn and I have been very active in helping graduate students,” Inman said. “I think if the three of us go, a lot of opportunities for graduate students will leave with us as well.”