KINGS POINT, N.Y. — A professor at the United States Merchant Marine Academy faces dismissal for joking about the Colorado movie theater shootings in front of his students, including one whose father was among the victims.
According to an internal personnel document obtained by The New York Times, Gregory F. Sullivan was suspended from his tenured position as humanities instructor for telling his classroom before showing a documentary: “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit.”
James Holmes, the suspect in the Aurora, Colo., mass shooting, has dyed his hair bright orange.
The professor had just turned down the lights to show the documentary and was preparing to step out for a few minutes when he made the remark.
Shashi Kumar, the institution’s academic dean, called the joke “notoriously disgraceful conduct” and recommended that Sullivan be fired. The internal document said Sullivan was informed on Aug. 10 that he had 10 days to contest his dismissal.
The document also said Sullivan had been unaware that the father of one of his students was killed in the shootings. It said he immediately apologized to the student after being told of his loss. He also offered apologies to the entire class and the administration.
But the notice also said the professor should have been aware of the student’s loss because the school had sent an email about it on July 25 and the student had been absent for a few days. It said Sullivan also had given two other students permission to miss class to attend a funeral in Colorado.
Sullivan declined to comment to the Times, saying faculty were not allowed to comment to the media without the school’s permission.
B. Robert Kreiser, a senior program officer in the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, told the Times that a tenured professor generally would receive a faculty committee hearing before charges would be brought.
“Given that it was single remark — an indefensible remark, but nonetheless a single remark for which he has apologized — it’s hard to imagine why the administration decided he should be suspended” in the interim, he said.
The civilian academy, which is on Long Island and is run by the U.S. Transportation Department, has about 1,000 students who are trained for careers in the marine trade. Its faculty members are federal employees.