College Finds No Violation Of Policy; Currie Attributes Bigoted Comments To Insomnia Medication
Professor of Psychology Paul Currie has resigned from his position at Reed College, effective January 6, 2023. Currie was filmed in March harassing local food-service workers with racial epithets, sparking multiple days of protests and calls for his removal by students and faculty; his resignation came after “a faculty committee investigated the incident and found no violation of college policy.” In a public statement, Currie attributed his actions to “a well-documented side effect” of prescribed insomnia medication.
Reed College President Audrey Bilger announced the conclusions of the Investigating Committee (IC) and Currie’s resignation to the Reed community on the evening of Wednesday, November 30. In her public statement, Bilger said that Currie chose to resign after she “discussed the committee’s findings” with him and with “legal experts.”
In an email to the Quest, President Bilger said that “all elements” of the investigation into Paul Currie’s actions must remain confidential as a consequence of being “a personnel matter.” Bilger declined to answer questions about the timeline, scope, content, charges, and conclusions of the investigation. When asked if there were any conditions to Currie’s resignation (and if so, what those conditions were), Bilger replied, “We have said everything we can about the conditions of his departure.” Bilger declined to answer questions about the discussions with Currie and “legal experts” that took place.
Since March, President Bilger has been criticized by students and faculty for not providing a timeline or any other details about the investigation to the Reed community. However, in her email, Bilger emphasized the importance of obeying confidentiality proper procedure, writing, “It was important to follow Reed’s faculty personnel practices, as these are designed to support our educational program and provide fair employment practices. Shortcuts would have undermined faith in the fairness of the proceedings.”
“Since coming to Reed, my priority has been and remains to support students in their educational pursuits, efforts that rely on an inclusive and welcoming campus environment,” said Bilger, before emphasizing her responsibility as President “to guide this work forward,” and her personal investment “in building a campus environment where all can thrive.”
In a statement released to multiple Portland newspapers and provided to the Quest, Currie thanked the IC “for its thorough review of the facts and ultimately concluding I did not violate Reed College’s Policy or the Faculty Constitution.” The full statement is available on Page 3 of the Quest.
Wrote Currie in the statement, “I’ve been living with intense shame and regret from an event I – still to this day – do not remember.” Currie claimed that he suffers from acute insomnia, and that his behavior in the March video was the result of “a well-documented side effect of a popular medication to treat acute insomnia” prescribed to him by his physician. Currie later clarified that the side effect depicted in the video was “complex sleep behavior.”
“My history with acute insomnia was shared with the IC, which I believe led to their decision and recommendation to the president that Reed College had no cause to suspend or terminate my academic tenure, or to impose any other penalty,” said Currie. However, he noted, “There is no excuse to ever engage in offensive or discriminatory behavior and I accept full responsibility for my actions.”
When asked about the accuracy of Currie’s claims, President Bilger stated that the college is legally bound not to share employee health information.
In the now-infamous video, Currie complains of “rude behavior” from employees at a drive-thru, baselessly accuses the establishment of “hiring illegal immigrants,” and repeatedly asks an employee where she was born and if she was born in the United States. Currie, who is seen at the wheel of his motor vehicle in the drive-thru lane, appears disoriented and slurs his speech.
In the state of Oregon, Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants (including controlled substances) is a misdemeanor crime which carries a maximum prison sentence of 1 year and fines of up to $6,250 on first offense. The statute of limitations for Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants is 2 years.
According to one article on the subject Complex Sleep Behaviors (CSBs) are “complex activities, normally associated with wakefulness, that occur when the subject is in a sleep-like state after taking a hypnosedative drug.” Individuals typically retain no memory of their CSBs. They are a rare but widely-publicized side effect of nonbenzodiazepine drugs, most notably zolpidem (Ambien), which is one of the most popular sleep aids in the United States. Ambien is, in rare cases, known to cause people to cook, eat, make phone calls, converse, or even have sex while partially or fully unconscious, even at prescribed dosages. “Sleep-driving” is a particularly dangerous CSB that can be caused by the drug. According to the FDA, zolpidem may also cause unusual behavior or decrease inhibition (similar to alcohol), leading to uncharacteristic aggression and extroversion.
Attempts to use the side effects of zolpidem as a defense in court against crimes committed while under its influence (such as DUIs) have seen mixed success. The “Ambien Defense,” as it is colloquially known, has been successfully used to defeat or lower charges, but courts may also find individuals liable in cases where they voluntarily intoxicated themselves with a drug whose side effects they were aware of. In 2018, actress Roseanne Barr used the Ambien defense after she made a series of offensive and racist tweets that led to the cancellation of her TV show; following this, Ambien manufacturer Sanofi tweeted, “While all pharmaceutical treatments have side effects, racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”
In his statement to the Oregonian, Currie emphasized his “decades-long commitment to students’ diversity and inclusivity,” which is “personal” to him as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. He encouraged people to, “continue to support and revere the positive role DEI plays in psychology, neuroscience, and other college-wide curricula,” and expressed hope “that we appreciate how DEI contributes to the overall character and openness of the Reed College community.”
When asked for comment by the Quest, Currie wrote, “I’m working to move on to the next chapter in my life and have nothing further to add.”
In a message to the student body in SB Info, Student Body President Safi Zenger celebrated Currie’s resignation, stating that it “proves that we made an impact in our protests, we made it clear that he was not welcome here, and he took the hint.” After the discovery of the video of Currie in March, students staged multiple days of protests in Eliot Hall and elsewhere on campus calling for his removal and for systemic change at the college. When asked what effect the student protests might have had on the investigation, Bilger declined to answer.
However, Zenger also said that the IC’s determination that he did not violate college policy was “incredibly upsetting” and “emblematic of a much deeper problem” at Reed, writing “our policies have failed us, and spectacularly so at that.”
“White supremacy is in the very fabric of this institution, and as much as Reed likes to present a facade of progress and positive change, it’s difficult to feel reassured in moments like these. Especially when understanding that Paul Curie is not the only one of his kind,” Zenger said. “It’s okay to be angry, and this doesn’t have to be the end.”
Zenger noted that, while there aren’t any solid plans at this time to amend college policies, Dean of Faculty Kathy Oleson recently expressed a desire for there to be student involvement in any Reed policy changes. Said Zenger, “As a senate, we are going to keep pushing for policy changes and student involvement.”
When asked if the college had any plans to amend its policies, President Bilger wrote, “Faculty personnel policies are adopted by the faculty and approved by the board of trustees. As noted in our anti-racism statement, we must continually examine our policies to ensure they are equitable.”
Following Currie’s resignation, psychology and neuroscience majors received an email from Psychology Chair Kris Anderson and Neuroscience Chair Michael Pitts which asserted that they are “working to minimize” disruptions resulting from Currie’s resignation. Said the email, “Faculty will work with Paul’s former students as they finish their programs, and we are requesting a visiting position in behavioral neuroscience to bridge the gap between an anticipated request for a tenure track position in this area.” The two professors also emphasized that Currie’s remarks “do not represent our department’s values or the views of individual faculty members” and called attention to a number of steps which the department has taken this year alone “to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion within our department.”
Bilger informed the Quest of some steps Reed has taken this year to support marginalized students at Reed. She noted that the college now requires new employees to complete bias training, and praised the faculty’s decision to approve Curricular Practical Training for international students, a policy change she noted was “recommended by students.” She also referred to a December 6 communication, sent in conjunction with Vice President And Dean For Institutional Diversity Phyllis Esposito, which pointed out that the College has “Met with joint Committees on Diversity,” “Invested in programs that support diverse communities,” and “Developed administrative divisional DEI plans.” The statement emphasized the need to“continually examine our policies” as well as the importance of community involvement in “intentional organizational change.”
The faculty at large has expressed interest in the College’s response to Currie’s actions. In March, 50 faculty signed a letter calling for investigation into his actions and, potentially, his separation from Reed. During every faculty meeting held this semester, Bilger has used part of her President’s Report to provide terse, vague updates on the investigation, and some faculty have expressed dissatisfaction with the transparency of the investigation. “I don’t ask the administration to explain word after word exactly what is going on,” said Professor of Spanish Diego Alonso during an October 10 faculty meeting, “but, in general terms, I expect more clarity.”
These regular updates were provided once again during this week’s December 5 faculty meeting; although the President’s Report was given in a closed session which the Quest was not allowed to observe, multiple professors in attendance have confirmed that Bilger solicited questions from Faculty about the investigation into Currie’s actions, though her ability to speak on the issue was limited. Allegedly, Bilger was unable to answer most of the questions the faculty asked her.
According to the Faculty Rules of Procedure, to commence proceedings against a member of the faculty where suspension or termination of tenure is at stake, either the Dean of Faculty or the Committee on Advancement and Tenure (CAT) must present formal charges to a “Committee on Tenure” (COT), which is comprised primarily of members of the pre-existing Appeals and Review committee. Whoever presents the charges bears the burden of proof to satisfy them, and that burden “will be satisfied only by clear and convincing evidence in the record considered as a whole.”
Once the charges have been presented, COT appoints five tenured faculty to a separate Investigating Committee (IC), which investigates the charges. The IC “normally” takes thirty or fewer working days to conclude its investigation, and ultimately votes on the charges via “secret ballot.” Once they’ve voted, they deliver a report of their findings and recommendations to the President, who either accepts or rejects them. The President of the College is permitted to attend any hearings or meetings held by the IC or COT as an observer.
The IC may recommend in favor of or against termination or suspension based on their findings. The IC may find that a faculty-member did, in fact, violate college policy but nevertheless conclude that there is not adequate cause for suspension or termination, or they may simply choose to recommend against those sanctions despite having cause to impose them. However, in Currie’s case, the IC specifically found that there was no violation of college policy, and President Bilger accepted these findings.
It’s not clear how much time passed between the conclusion of the investigation and Currie’s resignation. However, Bilger emphasized that, once Currie agreed to resign, she informed the community of his decision “immediately” after it was finalized due to her desire to provide a concrete update on the situation, despite the poor timing of the announcement.
In a statement to the Quest, Bilger wrote, “I am grateful to all who have worked to advance inclusion and who continue to devote their time and energy to cultivating a welcoming environment. We must collectively engage in this work to make changes that strengthen our community, and my senior leadership team and I are dedicated to supporting our Reed community and ensuring students can thrive as they pursue their educational goals.”