Your professor's night off

JFKU former prof files federal complaint after being fired for performing in burlesque act

Aside from assignments and the office hours afforded to us, how much do students really know about their professors outside of the classroom? And does it really matter what your instructor is up to once they leave campus?

I pondered this question when I came across an Inside Higher Education article on a former professor at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, Calif., who filed a federal complaint against the university last week after she was fired for taking part in a burlesque act off-campus.

Sheila M. Addison was hired by the university in 2007 as an assistant professor of psychology on a one year contract, and was then offered a two year contract the following summer after which her contract would be renewed until 2012 unless it was formally cancelled by April 1, 2010, according to the complaint. Addison also took on performing at a burlesque act, the Hubba Hubba Revue, in San Francisco around the same time she accepted her position at JFKU, under the pseudonym Professor Shimmy.

Though the act attempts to incorporate social commentary on sexuality, body image and gender stereotypes along with traditional burlesque and vaudeville numbers, university officials caught word of Addison’s hobby and did not see her participation in the show in a favourable light. Addison was handed a termination letter dated June 21, 2010, with her burlesque performances the only reason cited for her dismissal. The complaint says that Addison was told that her performances brought “public disrespect, contempt, and ridicule to the university” in the letter addressed by university president Steven Stargardter.

According to her complaint, Addison never openly publicized her participation in the act on campus or affiliated herself with the university during her performances.

Addison is alleging that her dismissal “evidences the university’s disgust for a woman performing in politically, socially and sexually based performance art.” In her suit, she has also cited that a fellow male colleague took part in a one-man show where he performed partially nude, and publicized the show on campus, but was never disciplined for his actions.

While Inside Higher Education has pointed out that the suit is raising concerns over sex, gender discrimination, and freedom of speech for faculty members, for me, it raised the question of how responsible professors are to their institution once they pack up and leave for the day. In an ideal world, I don’t think they should be beholden to their employers outside of their duties as instructors, but the realities of holding a professional position are sometimes far from ideal.

Addison may not have openly publicized her performances to students or colleagues, but this is 2011. There are YouTube videos, like the one shown on Inside Higher Eduction, of the former professor’s performances that could be readily accessed and spread throughout the school. Even though she wasn’t advertising that she is an employee of JFKU, if she is a recognizable professor, she was in some way representing the university she works for wherever she goes.

That being said, does it really matter what Addison does at her night job if it doesn’t affect her performance as a professor and relationships with her students and colleagues? Ultimately, what she did with her time on campus should have been more significant to her bosses than what she chose to do once on her time off.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.