As the tenure committee prepared to meet, McArthur sent summaries of the student letters to Weisberger, adding that the young professor was being offered an "unprecedented opportunity to have these summaries prior to your department tenure committee's deliberations." Attempting to rebut the students' charges, Weisberger did the best he could. "I categorically deny the allegation that I pressured students to reveal details about their personal lives, as well as the insinuations of voyeurism and lurid fascination," he wrote to members of the committee. "At no time during my years at Colby have I ever abused my position as a professor."

But it wasn't enough. In December 1996, Weisberger received a call from Dean McArthur informing him that his bid for tenure had been denied, due to concerns about his teaching. Weisberger, believing that the school had violated basic norms of procedural fairness and academic freedom, appealed the decision. His efforts were unsuccessful. "There is no evidence that the college's Promotion and Tenure Committee based their decision to deny Adam Weisberger tenure on the style of his teaching, rather than on his effectiveness as a teacher," concluded Colby's appeals committee.

Weisberger was furious. The explosive nature of the allegations, he believed, had cast a shadow over the objective evaluation of his scholarship, dooming his tenure bid from the start. Even worse, the tenure process, he felt, had become a sexual-harassment investigation in disguise, "which means that, when they denied me tenure, ipso facto they found me liable for sexual harassment."

Weisberger's concerns about the damage to his reputation mounted as friends at other schools gently disabused him of his hopes to remain in the profession. The market was tight, they said, and word of the harassment charges had already spread through the informal job networks of academic sociology. Based on this prognosis, Weisberger decided to give up his teaching career. In him of his hopes to remain in the profession. The market was tight, they said, and word of the harassment charges had already spread through the informal job networks of academic sociology. Based on this prognosis, Weisberger decided to give up his teaching career. In the fall of 1997, he enrolled as a first-year law student at Boston University, resigning himself to "three years of peanut butter and jelly and a mountain of debt."

BUT OVER THE coming months, Weisberger's encounters with the law will be more than academic. On April 25, 1997, he filed a civil-rights complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, accusing Colby College of gender discrimination andin an ironic twistof unlawful sexual harassment. The civil-rights charge is twofold. First, Weisberger alleges that the complaints about his teaching style would not have been allowed to grow and fester were it not for his male gender. "When female professors solicit personal experiences from students, they're not intrusive or invasive," Weisberger says. "They're caring and nurturing! When I, a young divorced male, do it, I'm this lecherous, slimy professor who's trying to pry open their legs." Second, Weisberger contends that in refusing to investigate and dispose of the students' charges, thus allowing a campaign of defamatory rumors to sprout and flourish unchecked, Colby created an "abusive working environment"an environment that was "so pervasive and hostile" that it "altered the conditions of my employment," amounting to, yes, sexual harassment.

At the moment, it seems almost certain that Weisberger will be far from the only victim in this bitter and costly legal drama. Weisberger has supplemented his discrimination claim with a civil suit against Colby, seeking damages and equitable relief for "defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress...invasion of privacy, reckless or negligent failure to investigate, and breach of contract." Already, Weisberger's legal team is preparing discovery requests for students' course evaluations, academic transcripts, even psychological records. As the case goes forwardand if it proceeds to trialthe students will surely be in for a grueling ordeal. Their accounts of family dysfunction, breakdown, and betrayalthe seamy details of which they say they were loath to share with Weisbergerwill move from the classroom to the courtroom, a cold-eyed realm of discovery, subpoena, and unfriendly cross-examination. A more hostile environment could scarcely be imagined.

Administrators at Colby College refused repeated requests to comment for this article. "In response to the general question, Did we violate our own policies and treat Adam Weisberger unfairly: To that general question, I would reply, absolutely not," was all Dean McArthur was willing to say. But the essence of Colby's position on the discrimination suit can be gleaned from the Weisberger team's written response to the school's response, a copy of which was provided by Jonathan Shapiro, Weisberger's lawyer. In its statement, Colby repeats the claim that Weisberger was denied tenure due to his inferior teaching abilities. But an examination of the committee members' summary statementswhich Weisberger has acquired from Colbysuggests otherwise. Of the nine faculty members on Weisberger's tenure committee, six voted to reject tenure. The statements of all six focus on the complaints about Weisberger's methodsnot on his effectiveness as a teacher. One professor noted that while "the vast majority of students evaluate Adam's teaching quite positively, in fact, they rave about him," he or she was unable to vote for tenure because "a smaller minority has suffered very adverse consequences as a result of his teaching methodology." Another chides Weisberger for "abusing the imbalance of power between students and teachers," adding: "It is remarkable that far more radical steps weren't expunge the problems [of] too much personal contact with students and a pedagogy that seems, despite Weisberger's denials, to have made the critique of the political very personal and painful to a significant number of female students."

Colby's reaction to Weisberger's claim that the school violated its own procedures is one of blanket denial. To Weisberger's charge that McArthur and Arendell solicited and encouraged female students to write negative letters to be included in Weisberger's tenure dossier, the school's reply is that the charge is "unfounded." As for Weisberger's charge that Colby violated its own policy by failing to investigate Geier's charges "carefully, promptly, and thoroughly," the college simply reiterates that Geier's complaint was only "informal." There is no attempt to answer Weisberger's protest that the word "informal" appears nowhere in Colby's sexual-harassment policies.

It's curious, then, that Weisberger has chosen to battle Colby over "gender discrimination" rather than focus his legal ire on the apparent lack of due process and fair play the school showed when it allowed Jamie Geier's uninvestigated sexual-harassment charge to play a role in the tenure committee's decision-making. On this last score, however, Colby's behavior may well be legally defensible under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines, which stipulate numerous legal protections for sexual-harassment complainants, but none for accused harassers. If anything, the law's presumption against suspected harassers is taken only too literally by Colby, which appears to put a greater premium on pleasing students than on ensuring justice for a lumpenproletariat faculty. ("At bottom, it's the cash nexus driving all of this," says one Colby professor. "The model of the suburban mall has encroached on higher education.") In this context, Laura Schmishkiss's expansion of sexual harassment to include any situation in which a student is made to feel "intellectually or emotionally uncomfortable" may represent a whole new vision of liberal education. Says Weisberger, "`Uncomfortable' is a word I came to despise at Colby. It's the tyranny of absolute subjectivity, a way to censure another person without having to give any content. And it absolutely seeps into the classroom. You can't even have intellectual debate because someone's feelings might get hurt."

To be sure, none of this is to exonerate Weisbergerto see him, as he appears to see himself, as a blameless victim of this shrill campus melodrama. After all, he should have known that in today's charged climate, entangling himself with the personal secrets of female students was a volatileand potentially foolhardything to do as a teacher. Even so, Colby's actions seem excessively punitive. Colby officials could have undertaken an investigation into Geier's sexual-harassment charge, as required by the faculty handbook. They could have attempted to mediate informally the more tentative complaints about teaching methods. Such measures, of course, presume a modicum of good faith toward an embattled faculty member, something that seems to have been missing in this case.

COLBY'S CRUDE response to Weisberger's alleged transgressions seems particularly unfortunate, considering that the sort of complaints he generated are far from uncommon on college campuses. In a recent article in the journal Teaching Sociology titled "When the Personal Becomes Problematic," Purdue University sociologist Elizabeth Grauerholz and her student Stacey Capenhaver explore the ethics of using teaching methods that "rely on students' own life experiences and often involve a high degree of self-disclosure." Such methods, Grauerholz and Capenhaver write, are not only crucial to the formation of what C. Wright Mills calls "the sociological imagination" but can have therapeutic benefits as well, reinforcing "the validity of personal experience" and enabling some students to "deal with personal victimization which they had denied."

But there's a hitch. "If we encourage students to think about the connections between their personal lives and the world around thema major goal of sociological teachingwe are putting some students at risk," write the authors. "We may be doing untold damage to our students by requiring or encouraging them to reveal difficult, perhaps traumatic, details of their lives in class assignments or classroom projects." In the article, Grauerholz offers up her own experience as an object lesson. During a seminar she taught titled "Gender Violence," she required Capenhaver and other students to write an autobiographical journal in which they explored the impact of violence on their lives. The goal "was to empower...students, as they gained knowledge of themselves and the social forces affecting their lives." But things didn't quite work out as planned.

Grauerholz "didn't learn that any students had problems with the assignment until after she collected the autobiographies," at which point "three students felt comfortable enough to write notes to me." One student wrote, "I felt somewhat exploited and exposed by this paper." Another ventured that "assigning a grade to a person's feelings and life experiences is difficult at best." Grauerholz was surprised by the response. "I suppose I thought, naively, that if anyone had a problem with any assignment, they would be able to talk about it with me and that we would work out a mutually agreeable solution." She realizes now, she writes, that such an assumption was "unrealistic in a relationship in which the power difference is as great as that between professor and student."

In a final comment, Capenhaver adds a note of special caution for male instructors, urging them to consider how other variables, "such as gender," might "affect the power relation between student and professor." When a female student is required by a male instructor to write anything about her personal life, Capenhaver writes, she "is surrendering even more control to someone who already has emotional and social power over her.... Instructors could use knowledge about a student's past to identify the most vulnerable female students, or possibly could use such information to blackmail or sexually harass a student."

In the aftermath of the Weisberger case, Grauerholz and Capenhaver's cautionary tale has particular resonance for Colby faculty. "When students start talking about their personal lives, they're talking about issues that you're not prepared or trained to handle," says one male professor. "You should stay the hell away from it. You'd have to be a fool after what happened to Adam." This professor, a teacher of foreign language, says he recently asked students in his intro class to compose a letter in the foreign language. One student chose to write a letter to her mother. "In terms of technique and sentence structure, the letter was well written," says the professor. "In my conference with her, my only criticism was: `This doesn't read like a letter from a daughter to her mother. This is like a letter you would write to your accountant.'" The student began to weep. "That is my relationship to my mother," she told him.

It was then, says the professor, that he realized, "I'm out of my depth. I don't know what I'm doing here. And that's when I said, forget it. I'm not prepared to play with this." From that point on, he says, when students suggest that they write something involving their personal life, "I say no."

Other professors, particularly women, are still willing to experimentif they forgo the kind of abrasive approach that was Weisberger's stock-in-trade. Phyllis Mannocchi, a fifty-two-year-old English professor, teaches a popular course called "Passionate Expression," focusing primarily on sexuality. "I've developed a kind of writing assignment that is both personal and analytical," Mannocchi says. "I call them `Reflections.' Students do things like describe what is erotic.... I don't think you can do that in the context of a formal essay." Mannocchi's teaching presumes an impressive level of student trust. A few years ago, one of Mannocchi's students chose to perform a scene from Tony Kushner's play, Angels in America. "It was a nude scene," she saysthough underwear was worn. "Now, I mean, I didn't broadcast that all over campus. But that happened. I told students they didn't have to come to class if they didn't want to. But why am I allowed to do that?" Mannocchi laughs nervously. "I don't know," she says.

Told of Weisberger's inclination to "challenge" or criticize student papers, Mannocchi recoils in horror. "I always use the voice of my shrink," she says. "She never would have said, Well, what about your mother? It's all about nudging along responses rather than directing them." Indeed, far from seeking to unsettle or discomfit students, Mannocchi soothes them. "Because I came through the women's movement, and really through a lot of consciousness raising, I'm very careful about the comments I make," she says. "I help students to see their own experience. I don't judge the way they've expressed it. My comments are always as an equal."

Of course, Mannocchi is not quite her students' equal; after she comments on students' papers, she presumably goes on to grade them. But there, too, Mannocchi is not out to rock the boat. "I judge students holistically, on all their work in the semester," she says. "Somehow, we come to an agreement about grades. Students write or talk to me about what they feel they deserve." Mannocchi leans forward in her chair and smiles. "Usually," she says, "I'm very generous."

Adam Weisberger, of course, thought he was being generous as well. Within the precincts of his classroom, students were urged to view Hegel's master-slave dialectic not only as an object of scholarly examination but as a central trope of their interactions. "One of the things you can do with the master-slave relationship," Weisberger says, "is to see how it might be played out in the context of student and professor. Hegel writes that the slave has repressed knowledge about the nature of inequality, by virtue of having to act in service to the master.... There are some things a student knows which the teacher is himself unconscious of." For this reason, Weisberger admits, "the students who rose up against me were acting out some of the very things I wanted them to understand."

But while applauding their cheekiness, Weisberger stops well short of endorsing the students' uprising. "I used to say in the course that there were two destructive tendencies a student could bring into it: blind obedience and blind rebellion," Weisberger says. "Sometimes the reaction against the way you were conditioned to respond to authority can be just as blind as the original conditioning." The first-year law student sighs. "Especially," he adds, "when you have people reinforcing you."

In the end, Weisberger's chief regret is not that his students learned the material all too well but that they didn't learn it well enough: "They were using fight something oppressive. But that's not who I am! It was a great delusion, a massive displacement." What the students failed to understand, Weisberger says, is that there were two categories of masters at Colby. "Untenured professors are the lower masters," he says. "The upper masters are tenured faculty and administration."

Weisberger grows agitated. "Don't you see?" he asks. "The upper masters instrumentalized the discontent of the student slaves to impose social control on a recalcitrant member of the lower category of master. That's what happened here. The students thought they were freeing themselves. They weren't freeing themselves. They were running into the arms of their masters! You think the administrators of Colby College are more likely to want to see you liberate yourself?"

In any case, no one associated with the Weisberger affair is likely to find liberation any time soon. "Colby wanted to get rid of a problem in the least costly way," Weisberger explains. "They miscalculated. Now it's going to cost them. It's going to cost them a lot of money. It's going to cost them faculty morale. It's going to tarnish their reputation."

For the first time all day, Adam Weisberger smiles.

Ruth Shalit is an associate editor at The New Republic.

Copyright © 1997 Lingua Franca,Inc. All rights reserved.