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Investigation shows journalism department chair fired for creating 'hostile learning environment'

Journalism Department Chairperson Tim Boudreau poses for a portrait on Nov. 4 in the Courtyard Marriott.

After more than two months of investigations, Central Michigan University’s Journalism Department Chairperson was fired for “creating a hostile learning environment” with his use of racial slurs during class time.

The university completed its investigation into Tim Boudreau and the incidents that led to his termination on Aug. 17.

“CMU’s faith in (Boudreau) is irrevocably shaken and its ability to faithfully trust future students to his care and mentoring is forever fractured,” the report states. "(Boudreau’s) behavior in creating a hostile learning environment for a Black student in his class is severe misconduct that CMU cannot allow in its academic environment.”

Rumor spread of Boudreau’s termination on Sept. 2 when an email from College of the Arts and Media Interim Dean Elizabeth Kirby to tenured journalism faculty stated that he was “no longer employed by the university.” At the time, however, neither Boudreau nor the journalism department staff were willing to comment.

Central Michigan Life obtained Boudreau’s personnel and employment records along with the reports from the investigation into the viral incident from 2017 and the disciplinary action taken against Boudreau after the investigation by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the university.

On June 22, alumna Skyler Mills, of Miami, posted an Instagram video of Boudreau delivering a lecture in his Spring 2017 media law class. In the nine-second video, Boudreau can be heard saying, “… so he said… ‘I don’t want you to be like n-----s in the classroom, but I want you to play like n-----s on the court’” during a discussion about the 1993 lawsuit between CMU and fired men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot. Boudreau was using Dambrot’s direct quotes stated in the lawsuit, not his own words.

Mills’ mother also took to social media to express support for her daughter in a June 22 Facebook post.

The video prompted a response from the university. On July 7, Dennis Armistead, executive director of CMU’s Faculty Personnel Services, informed Boudreau in a letter that he would be placed on paid administrative leave while his classroom conduct is investigated.

The investigation into the incident involved interviews from both sides of the dispute. On July 8, CMU interviewed Mills and her mother to gather more information. 

Mills mentioned there was no verbal or written warning in Boudreau’s JRN 404 class syllabus about the use of controversial language. In fact, the syllabus included a paragraph that celebrates CMU’s commitment to be a diverse, multicultural community. 

“(Mills) expressed that she experienced significant personal turmoil after (Boudreau’s) use of the N-word. (Mills) contemplated withdrawing from CMU but decided that she was too close to graduation to make such a significant change,” the report stated. “(Mills) was one of two Black students in journalism 404 in Spring 2018. (Mills) witnessed white students using the N-word and laughing after (Boudreau’s) use of the racial slur.”

Later that month, CMU received Boudreau’s side of the story. He said he taught JRN 404 since 2006 and was involved in drafting the master course syllabus. He believed it was being revised by the journalism department at the time.

Boudreau confirmed that he used the N-word and other derogatory terms while teaching the class, including homophobic language during his teaching of material associated with the Westboro Baptist Church.

“(Boudreau) noted that he believes it is important not to censor the facts of a case or situation because the field of journalism emphasizes truth in reporting, and he doesn’t think it is appropriate to ‘sugar coat’ language,” the report states. “Despite (Boudreau’s) belief in using uncensored language when he is teaching, he confirmed that he had censored himself on one occasion after a Black student requested that he not use the N-word.”

From there, the investigation worked to answer three imposed questions:

1. Is the conduct, as alleged, protected by the conventions of Academic Freedom?

2. If not, is (Boudreau’s) behavior misconduct?

3. If so, what is the appropriate sanction for (Boudreau’s) misconduct?

The short answers, according to the report are; no, yes, and termination. 

Investigators pointed to the 1940 American Association of University Professor's statement on Academic Freedom, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education and other legal authorities along with CMU’s own policy on racial slurs and derogatory language to back up the claims.

Investigators also cited current events as a motivator to launching the investigation.

“In the wake of protests arising out of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, CMU began receiving expressions of concern related to experiences of racism from current and former students,” the report read.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a non-profit group that focuses on defending free speech, legal equality and due process at American universities. Staff Attorney Greg Greubel said FIRE keeps track of cases like Boudreau's.

"Faculty members have told us that they are concerned with this trend because they feel that it inhibits their ability to present academic material in the proper context. I think it is important for faculty to be conscious of their language in the classroom, but the university must be a place where individuals can feel free to express themselves and expose students to “controversial” ideas and concepts. As an organization, FIRE is monitoring these trends and will take action when necessary. 

As a tenured professor since 2007 and CMU employee since 2001, Boudreau is a bargaining unit member of the Michigan Education Association - affiliated with the CMU Faculty Association. This means Boudreau had certain due process protections.

In the Aug. 17 letter, Armistead informed Boudreau that he could file a written rebuttal to the final investigatory report. 

Boudreau’s response after the two-week period was the following: “I disagree with CMU’s findings and its decision to terminate my employment.” According to the final letter to Boudreau, investigators deliberated over the response but ultimately moved forward with termination.

“CMU feels that the only appropriate sanction for (Boudreau’s) misconduct is the termination of his employment,” the report concludes.

Armistead and Faculty Personnel Services would not offer further explanation as to why termination was the “only appropriate sanction” or how the widespread civil unrest played into the final decision.

Boudreau did not return CM Life's call for comment on this story.

At the time of Mills' post, her mother said she was unable to comment until the investigation was complete. Mills also did not reply to CM Life's message via Instagram for comment on this story.

"The University, Dr. Boudreau and Dr. Boudreau’s labor union have mutually agreed to reserve all public comments on the matter while it works its way through the grievance and arbitration process in the CMU/CMUFA collective bargaining agreement," Armistead said in an email.

Boudreau’s employment at CMU formally ended Sept. 1. While he was under investigation, public relations faculty member Elina Erzikova served as interim department chair before William Dailey stepped into the roll temporarily. The search to find a permeant replacement for Boudreau is still underway.