When My College Attacked Me, Professional Insurance Saved My Bacon

tags: academic freedom, outrage campaigns

L.D. Burnett is a professor of history at Collin College.

Iam not a lawyer — but I need one. Every professor does. That’s why I purchase professional insurance for academics — a kind of insurance policy that will pay for an attorney in case I am sued by someone unhappy with my work, or in case my employer takes adverse action against me. If you are a member of a major professional academic organization, you can often purchase a policy through the “Member Benefits” portal of their website. My own policy, which costs about $120 per year, was acquired through the member benefits provided by the Organization of American Historians.

I’ve carried this policy for a few years now, never imagining I would need it. I simply saw it as a good thing to have, just in case.


Because people can be litigious, and employers can be capricious, and professors need some protection against both potential lawsuits and against unfair disciplinary actions.

But why would anyone sue a professor? For what?

For giving a failing grade to a student, as happened at the Massachusetts School of Law.

For violating students’ rights to free expression, as happened in 2017 at California State University at Fresno.

For libeling the Fraternal Order of Police in an op-ed published in the local newspaper, as happened in 2001 at Temple University.

For writing unfavorable evaluations, as happened at the University of Missouri’s medical school.

For allegedly sexually harassing students.

(Obviously, the best way to avoid being sued for sexually harassing students is to not sexually harass them. Still, some professors who are not at all guilty of sexual harassment have been sued for it. And at least one professor, Laura Kipnis, has been sued after writing about sexual-harassment lawsuits.)

In many of these sorts of cases, the professor’s employer is named alongside the professor in a lawsuit. Even if the college itself is not named, it may provide legal protection to a professor sued for some purported misdeed in the course of performing their normal academic duties.

But legal representation is not always paid for by the college. Even if a lawsuit is frivolous or meritless, a professor could be on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal fees in order to defend themselves in court.

That’s where professional insurance can give you real peace of mind. On the very first page of its description of coverage, my insurance policy states that my insurers “shall have the right and duty to defend any suit against the insured seeking damages even if the suit is groundless, false, or fraudulent.” It’s a real relief to know that an angry student or an angry parent who doesn’t like how you are doing your job cannot bring you to financial ruin with a lawsuit over grades or attendance policies or the topics you cover in class or how you handle class discussion.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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