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Professors punished — this month — for Halloween costumes they wore in 2014

University of South Alabama concludes its investigation into controversial costumes

The University of South Alabama this month issued final punishments to two professors who wore “inappropriate” costumes to an on-campus Halloween party eight years ago.

In March 2021, business professors Bob Wood and Alex Sharland were placed on administrative leave after photos from a 2014 Halloween party surfaced publicly.

Wood was dressed as a Confederate general and Sharland, who is British, as a British “hanging judge” from the 17th century, with a black robe, white wig and a noose as a prop.

The university hired an independent firm to conduct the investigation, the results of which were reviewed by a group of faculty, staff and students angered by the costumes.

For Wood’s punishment, he wrote a two-page apology letter to the campus community, he will participate in a moderated forum to discuss the incident with those who were offended, and he will not be assigned to teach in-person courses for the next year, according to the university’s official statement on the matter provided to The College Fix.

“In October 2014 I made a last-minute, ill-thought-out decision to rent a costume for a faculty, staff, and student Halloween contest held in the Mitchell College of Business,” Wood’s apology letter stated.

“Regardless of how mindlessly I chose that costume, I sincerely apologize to everyone for doing so. I ask forgiveness for this error in judgment. I regret my decision and I understand the hurtful nature of these symbols. That choice in no way reflects my beliefs, but I certainly understand how the University and all of you could have thought so.”

He also mentioned the planned moderated forum, during which those who were offended by his costume “will have the opportunity to address me about the impact of my actions on them, their peers and the institution.” Wood also pledged to “integrate meaningful discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion topics within the context of my courses.”

The university, in its statement, said these are the actions Wood must undertake to return to his teaching duties, calling it “restorative justice.” For three years, administrators said they will make alternative arrangements for any student who does not wish to take a class taught by Wood.

As for Sharland, the professor’s conduct did not violate the university’s policy but nonetheless was deemed “unacceptable in the workplace.”

Sharland’s punishments include an admonishment not to repeat the conduct and participation in an educational program on discrimination and harassment. Sharland will also return to his teaching duties, according to the university’s statement.

Inside Higher Ed reported that last year Sharland apologized for the costume, saying, “In retrospect, I can see why someone might find the image hurtful, and I regret this attempt at humor that clearly failed. It was not my intent to hurt or be offensive, and if anyone is offended by this picture I apologize.”

In April 2022, the university investigation cleared a third professor involved in the controversy. Professor Teresa Weldy, who teaches management at the public university, returned to the classroom. She had been in a photo with Sharland holding the noose.

“The investigator’s report indicated that Dr. Weldy appeared in a photograph with another faculty member who was dressed as a British ‘hanging judge,’ with both holding a noose,” the university stated at the time. “Dr. Weldy was present at the costume contest for a few minutes and did not plan in advance to participate.”

“Dr. Weldy was not wearing a costume at the event and did not have a part in providing the noose, which was part of another person’s costume,” the university said. “Dr. Weldy reported that she did not know of the existence of the photo until it appeared in the media.”

Free speech observers have balked at the way the university has handled the controversy.

Aaron Terr, a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said that the University of South Alabama’s decision to “even to investigate complaints about resurfaced photos from 2014 of professors wearing Halloween costumes to a Halloween costume party is absurd … the university had no authority to act on calls to sanction the professors.”

“Punishing one of the professors despite finding his conduct did not violate any university policies highlights how arbitrary and unjust the whole process was,” Terr stated in an email to The College Fix.

Terr said that “the university’s actions will almost certainly have a serious chilling effect on campus. Students and faculty now know the university might target them for protected speech they engaged in years earlier if someone complains about it today. This is especially troubling given that prevailing campus opinions on what expression is beyond the pale can quickly change.”

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About the Author
Blake Mauro -- Clemson University