Sociology lecturer resigns amid controversy

Michelle Ma

Sociology lecturer Joanne LaBonte said she was forced to resign on Thursday from her position at Northwestern.

University officials told LaBonte she could either resign from NU or face formal inquiries that would probably lead to being fired without severance pay, she said.

University officials did not return calls and could not be reached over the weekend.

At two meetings with university officials, LaBonte said, she was told students from her “Sociology of Complex Organizations” class filed formal charges with the dean’s office against LaBonte for permitting students to drink beer in one of her lectures and for using politically incorrect phrases.

Students in the class brought beer to class in late April during a book presentation about the history of Harley Davidsons to capture the Harley Davidson culture. LaBonte said she didn’t know the students brought the beer to class until students started passing out the cans.

According to students in the class, the student presenters offered their classmates cans of beer and then handed out more cans as prizes for a game that accompanied the presentation.

LaBonte said students brought beer into this class in previous years when presenting the history of Harley Davidsons, but alcohol was always passed out in “the context of an academic presentation.” LaBonte said she has never brought beer to class.

Robert Cosnahan said he was present during the lecture where students brought in beer.

“I think (LaBonte) realized it was a wrong move,” said Cosnahan, a Communication senior. “I really respect her that she didn’t accuse students of doing something bad. I think she is really rational about it.”

By allowing alcohol in her lecture, LaBonte said, she knew she was doing something inappropriate.

“I knew that it was wrong,” she said. “I guess I did not expect for students to report it to the dean. The beer was part of the point of their presentations about Harley Davidson culture.”

LaBonte said she also had some beer “because it was in the spirit of the class.”

Students who filed charges with the dean’s office also said LaBonte made “offensive and racist remarks about Asians” and used the word “retard” during lectures, she said.

During one lecture LaBonte said she made a comment about some Asians who didn’t seem to have an opinion when she asked whether or not students wanted to reschedule their midterm.

“I made the quip, ‘That’s what I like about Asian women, they’re so agreeable,'” LaBonte said.

In another lecture, LaBonte said she used the word “retard” to describe the language used among employees at a friend’s workplace to illustrate how some language is still used in organizations.

Although LaBonte said she can’t prevent students from being offended, she stressed that she never discriminates against people.

LaBonte said her sociology lectures try to “expose, explain and debunk stereotypes” by sometimes using phrases that may seem questionable in order to make a point.

According to Course and Teacher Evaluation Council surveys from Fall 2004 for “Sociology for Complex Organizations,” students described LaBonte as having a “unique lecture style and down-to-earth approach.” Another comment said: “Her tell-it-like-it-is nature might rub some people the wrong way.”

LaBonte has taught at NU for 21 years but has renewed her contract with the university on a yearly basis. Even if she were “exonerated” from the charges, LaBonte said, she doesn’t think she would be hired again next year.

With her resignation, LaBonte will finish teaching her sociology course this spring and will be paid through Fall Quarter without teaching a class, she said.

Reach Michelle Ma at [email protected]