January 9, 2014

Lawprof sues law school claiming failure to accommodate his depression and Asperger’s syndrome.

Joel Cornwell, who's taught at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago since 1985, bases his claim on the Americans With Disabilities Act. The school — calling his behavior "disrespectful, intimidating and insubordinate" — suspended him from teaching and barred him from campus. He says the school is "stereotyping and harassing him, creating a hostile work environment" and explains the incidents in terms of his disability, which makes it hard for him to read "nonverbal cues" in social interactions.
According to Cornwell’s complaint, his problems began in February 2011 when he engaged in an angry exchange with maintenance staff after they repeatedly failed to configure a classroom properly for his seminar course....
After taking an anger-management course, he returned to teaching in the fall semester. He asked for but was refused the assistance of what the linked article calls "a mental health professional to facilitate his communications with colleagues and superiors."

I'm trying to understand this concept and not reading the complaint, but this seems to say that just as the ADA might require that the employer hire a signer for a deaf employee, it might need — at least some of the time — to appoint someone to serve as an intermediary for an employee who suffers from a mental disorder that impairs communication. This seems to be a case of a professor who's done his work, presumably well enough, for a quarter century, who is now, apparently, going through a rough period in which he's had angry outbursts.
Problems surfaced again in October, when Cornwell lost his temper in class and chastised two students for being unprepared, according to court records. An associate dean ordered Cornwell to apologize to the class; another administrator wrote out the wording. Cornwell read the written apology in class and then issued his own apology.
We don't have the school's version of the story, so it's hard to talk about the merits of the case itself, which might trigger your aversion to litigiousness, and I suspect tenured professors are not the most sympathetic characters (especially if they yell at custodians and students), but how do you think a school should handle the case of a professor with a disorder that impairs his ability to read social situations who gets into unpleasant, emotional scenes with students and staff?

Here's a NYT article from last September titled "Quandary of Hidden Disabilities: Conceal or Reveal?," which discusses disabilities like hearing loss and autism. How should a job-seeker with Asperger’s syndrome respond to the statement on the application "Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out how I am supposed to behave around others"? Consider the employee with Asperger’s who "was working for a community college as an accountant and was having a very difficult time interacting with others because of his poor social skills and boundaries. He was lonely and wanted social time with others, and got in trouble for asking too many questions."
People with mental illness have a particularly hard time finding and keeping jobs, in part because of isolated cases of violence that lead to negative — and out of proportion — publicity about mental illness.... For this reason, employees rarely disclose a psychiatric disability, either before or after they are hired. This leaves them open to misunderstanding.
Some of the misunderstanding comes from the hiding of disabilities that can be hidden. We all have imperfect ability to read each other socially, including our failure to see the mental disorders of the people we communicate with, and we may build up antagonism to someone who'd have our empathy if the disorder where openly visible. Someone who himself seems to lack empathy for others and who erupts angrily at times is unlikely to stimulate our empathy. But there are a lot of people out there with these problems, and we must be encountering them frequently without noticing, other than perhaps to feel disinclined to figure out what their problem is.

It's our problem too, and one of the ways our problem manifests itself is when a lawsuit like Professor Cornwell's is filed.


Moose said...

Work is hard. It makes me sad. Give me money so I don't have to work.

Have I got that right? I'm all for it!!

Guildofcannonballs said...

The school should use their law skills and find any type of statement from the Prof. that could indicate he lied about his abilities. Then fire him.

How many women lost out on this position because this guy lied?

How many blacks or Hispanics? Any Asians apply?

This is white privilege. Or lib privilege if the guy is whiter-than-Santa.

Either way this guy should be slinging coffee or sweeping up WalMarts not attempting to teach our best and brightest.

MadisonMan said...

The Law School should schedule all his classes at 7:45 AM.

Then, when enrollment is low, cancel them. Tell him he isn't working, so he won't get paid.

Freeman Hunt said...

I think Hugh Ross, who has some kind of high functioning autism like that, uses an aide to assist him in interpreting nonverbal cues he might miss in question and answer sessions. Sounds like that's what this professor requested. I don't know why they didn't provide this. Seems like a simple solution. I'm not saying that every workplace must provide an aide to every employee who wants one, but you'd think that after so much time with them and the position being what it is, they'd have done it.

Illuninati said...

For me this statement by Althouse sums things up well:
"...and I suspect tenured professors are not the most sympathetic characters (especially if they yell at custodians and students),..."

The entire concept of academic tenure probably needs to be revisited.

The broader question about the ADA is more interesting. People are discriminated against all the time and no law will protect them. All laws do is drive the discrimination underground so that people are not honest about why they chose one person and not another. This is where quotas come in which leads to another level of discrimination.

CStanley said...

Well, this feels like the natural progression of our K-12 special education system, and it's an issue we're going to have to come to terms with.

It seems to me that if you need accommodations for something that is a core function of your job, then you simply aren't qualified to do the job and employers should not have to accommodate you. Think, for instance, of that example of hiring a signer for a deaf employee- OK, maybe in some limited situations that makes sense...but if the job is vocal training, then clearly it makes no sense for the employer to be forced to hire a deaf person for that position and have to additionally pay someone else to do what the deaf person is incapable of doing.

traditionalguy said...

Sweetness and a smile is a great façade, but is also very boring. Whereas outbursts of anger at appropriate times sets boundaries and wakes people up by letting human emotions emotions into the game.

A tongue lashing is not violence.

But today's social standards permit only the most docile sweet men. A bold pretty women may get to do angry in public, but no Braveheart type males need apply.

gadfly said...

So the professor had this sudden onset of Aspergers in 2011? No - Aspergers begins at birth.

So why did he accept the anger management class solution? Everyone knows that a trip to such a class is the first step toward firing.

So maybe, just maybe, the professor simply investigated symptoms that could be used to make a case under the malleable framework of the Americans With Disabilities Act. And Golly, Miss Molly - along came Ass Burgers.

khesanh0802 said...

It took 25 years to find this disability? BS!

Sounds to me like he also has developed depression along the way and is having trouble with it. That's an illness that he can deal with if he makes the effort to use professional help. The guy needs to man up a bit and realize he has a problem. Then solve it.

Why the hell sue? Because that's what lawyers do. I have no sympathy for tenure. In the real world no one gets tenure.

Roger Sweeny said...

Hiring someone who can't communicate to teach is like hiring someone who can't sing to give a vocal recital.

Mingus Jerry said...

Too bad. I had him as a Property professor back in 1993. He was one of my favorite professors there. I'd bet dealing with the type of student that goes to JMLS can be exhausting and push anyone over the edge.

And Gadfly, he definitely had a touch of something back in 1993. This was pre-Autism awareness ribbons so we just thought he was a bit odd.

DKWalser said...

I have empathy for the law professor's situation. My daughter has Asperger's and she has great difficulty understanding normal family social settings. Understanding social settings at work are far more difficult for her. When she gets home from work, we try to help her understand what happened during her day. By the end of a typical day, she arrives home convinced she's about to be fired. Almost always, she's completely misunderstood the situation and had no need to be concerned.

Having said that, I fail to understand how the law professor was able to perform without additional help and support and now, suddenly, needs such support. It would seem something has changed in responsibilities, work load, amount of administrative support, etc., that's making it more difficult for the professor to cope. If so, the school should review those changes to see if anything can be done to create an environment that allows him to be successful.

SGT Ted said...

Going off on people is NOT aspergers. It's assholishness.

Michael K said...

How does law and Asberger's connect ? I can see a math professor or a physics professor but Law ?


SGT Ted said...

Most of us can be fired for acting like he does.

So, he doesn't deserve any
"accommodation". Especially after retraining.

Ann Althouse said...

"Hiring someone who can't communicate to teach is like hiring someone who can't sing to give a vocal recital."

Yeah, well, this man worked there for a quarter of a century, so it's too late for that to apply. They had him for years before they voted to give him tenure. You have to take that into account.

Consider how you would feel if you held a job that long and then when you got stressed by continually arriving in class to find that moving the furniture around has been left to you again (when there are custodians who are paid to do this work) and you spoke to them sharply you were put on leave and when you came back and found students unprepared and went a little Kingsfield on them, the school banned you from campus.

Is this how we should treat people?

Anonymous said...

A prof with more brass than class
Who offends other people en masse
Says its so complicated
He should be compensated
When in fact, he is merely an ass.

Bob Boyd said...

"his problems began in February 2011 when he engaged in an angry exchange with maintenance staff"

Maybe its because there are so many ways to make a mountain out of a mole hill at the school.
People say stupid things and behave badly. Then they work it out one way or another and life goes on.
There doesn't need to be a "cop" to call for every human interaction that makes somebody unhappy, uncomfortable or offended.

Ann Althouse said...

By the way, virtually every time I arrive in a classroom to teach, I find the furniture in the wrong position and need to move things around. But I've never thought there was anyone around who had the job of knowing how I wanted things and getting there before me to put the stuff in that position, but I do think it looks bad for the professor to be moving the furniture, especially when it involves an older woman pushing heavy things around, but in 30 years, I've never seen fit to ask anyone to do anything about this. That's my mental disorder!

Peter said...

The takeaway most people will bring from this is, "Be careful not to hire people with (hidden, apparent, or claimed) mental disabilities because if you do you'll wish you hadn't."

An unintended consequence of the ADA, I guess. It was a gift to trial lawyers but maybe not always such a gift to those with disabilities.

Peter said...

Although I thought much of the current thinking about Asperger's was that it wasn't really a disability but more of a difference.

Freeman Hunt said...

"How does law and Asperger's connect ? I can see a math professor or a physics professor but Law ?"

I can definitely see it. Knowing all the details of the case law, making connections, logic, etc.

Freeman Hunt said...

If you've had a good employee for twenty-five years, and the person starts having trouble, you should make every effort to help him turn it around.

MadisonMan said...

By the way, virtually every time I arrive in a classroom to teach, I find the furniture in the wrong position and need to move things around.

I like to configure the furniture (desks and chairs) differently each week.

No way would I expect someone else to do this for me. Because I don't think about it 'til I get to the classroom.

Unknown said...

"America's chickens have come home to roost." Or something.

Barry Dauphin said...

It is interesting to wonder whether he is having more difficulty now (perhaps partly related to aging) or whether students and the culture have changed to a significant degree over the timeframe of his teaching (or both).

Robert Cook said...

"If you've had a good employee for twenty-five years, and the person starts having trouble, you should make every effort to help him turn it around."

Yes, but a tenured professor is a highly-paid professor, and institutions of higher learning, like other businesses, want to dispense with their higher-paid employees to cut salary expenses.

Joe said...

A professor yells at incompetent janitors and two idiot students, so is now a bad guy in need of rehabilitation and being fired? This sounds like pure PC bullshit.

This attitude of "never rock the boat" (unless it's for a liberal cause) is killing innovation in this country and University.

(What's the likelihood that one of the students is well connected?)

Wince said...

He wasn't just a teacher hiding in his office, he rose through the administration to dean.

Dean Corkery joined the faculty in 1973. He was named associate dean for academic affairs in 1998, vice dean in 2004, and served as acting dean until being named dean in 2007. He teaches Evidence, Family Law, and Professional Responsibility.

Darrell said...

Students should sit in the seats as you find them. Once seated, you should ask the class to re-arrange the room as you normally have it. That way, each person moves one thing. If they should balk, give a quiz--a hard one.

DrMaturin said...

Has he had a medical workup? Behavioral changes may indicate early dementia, a brain tumor or other medical problems. I'd want to exclude this before talking about Asperger's.

BAS said...

He's at retirement age. Gets paid a lot more then younger professors and makes less. The law school wants him to retire and he doesn't want to.

Darrell said...

I was still in school as the hippie bullshit started to filter in. Classrooms were turned into rap circles and other such BS. We always had to put the room back, not the teacher/instructor.

The Godfather said...

I hope none of the law students who got upset when the prof bawled them out for being unprepared ever show up unprepared before a judge. Here's a helpful hint: Don't expect an apology.

Darrell said...

I got on the "outs" with union janitors/maintenance staff early on my job, not because I spoke harshly to them, but because I did their work. I was moving offices and they went to lunch at the stroke of 12 leaving all the filing cabinets in the doorway. Clients showed up 2 hours early and wanted a presentation and I have to move everything to get them in the room and access their work. The Division VP, who had just come from England, seemed ready to fire me because they went to him and said they would no longer work with me around. However the Asst. VP, a former Army Colonel, heard my version and heard back from the clients giving the go-ahead for additional work and told the union guys to stop the BS--I had already apologized. He promised to make it his mission to "clean house" and he didn't mean the professional staff.

madAsHell said...

I can definitely see it. Knowing all the details of the case law, making connections, logic, etc.

I disagree.

I don't think it's the details. I think it's adherence to some undeniable truth like gravity that always behaves the same way.

Law is two adversaries with two versions of the truth.

"This is chaos. This cannot be tolerated."
- Sheldon Cooper

Like some others have stated, I have a tough time accepting a lawyer claiming Asperger's.

exhelodrvr1 said...

If the college didn't take action against him, they are opening themselves up to lawsuits from the people who he verbally abused.

Freeman Hunt said...

I had to look up Sheldon Cooper. That is a fictional character.

Hugh Ross, who I mentioned above, does astrophysics as well as theology. He seems to enjoy theology very much, and he's very good at it. On the finer points, there is much weighing different versions of truth, much reconciling of evidence. I think that's similar to law.

Freeman Hunt said...

Also, based on my own interactions with people with Asperger's, I don't think law is an odd fit.

Sam L. said...

Chastising two students who came to class unprepared? Shoulda just noted it and dropped their class grades a letter or two.

William said...

TA's are cheaper than Louisiana field hands. Couldn't he have just taken it upon himself to hire his ownTA to do these border negotiations. Why is it the school's responsibility to solve his problems........I myself once worked for an employer who was totally unsympathetic to the problems associated with an Internet porn addiction. You never know how unfeeling human beings can be until you suffer from a disabling addiction.

Unknown said...

I had professor Cornwell for property and then chose to take his estates and trusts course. He was one of the most academically challenging and interesting teachers at that entire school. He was odd and aloof but brilliant and challenged his students to be better. In a profession where most just go through the motions he was legitimately concerned with improving the knowledge and skills of his students by providing real world context to theoretical legal concepts and judicial opinions. He yelled at me once for not being prepared for class but why is that a problem? It's his job to instruct and it was disrespectful and lazy on my part to show up I'm disregard for the modest tasks he had assigned. While he may have been a pain to some the school has definitely suffered the loss of a brilliant instructor.

Freeman Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Freeman Hunt said...

Ric touches on another important thing. There are quite a few geniuses with Asperger's or Asperger's type traits. Seems like it behooves us to learn how to accommodate them.

SteveR said...

As someone with a disability and having worked, up until last year with it, there were more than a couple incidents where I could have claimed some "failure to accommodate/hostile work environment" and was tempted more than once. ADA is a mixed bag for me as is the whole SSDI scenario. The reality is sometimes there are real legitimate issues but sometimes its a scam. I tend to be skeptical, even as I am looked at skeptically myself.

Gia said...

Professor Cornwell was one of the best professor I had while attending John Marshall. I had him for property law and estates and trusts. I one hundred percent agree with Rick's comment. He was a brilliant man who truly challenged his students. As far as students not being prepared, there are professors who will not even permit you to remain in the classroom if you have not done the assignment. Surely as an attorney you would at best be chastised and maybe even yelled at by a judge if you show up to court knowing nothing about your case... Not to mention it could be malpractice. In my opinion, the school mishandled the issue from the very beginning.

Anonymous said...

As the parent of two young men with aspergers and a volunteer autism advocate I am going to add my two cents in here. Society has a way of demonizing those with invisible disabilities. Mental illness and developmental disabilities are horribly misunderstood and we can thank the media hype and ignorance for this state of affairs.

On the other hand it is because of law suits like this one that employers do NOT hire those otherwise highly competent individuals with aspergers or mental illnesses. And this is why most keep their disability a secret. While it is important that employers understand and support persons with disabilities, it is up to the individual to learn to function in the real world and to learn how to behave and function in an appropriate manner. You MUST be able to do your job like others notwithstanding your disability.

Recent studies have shown that adults on the autism spectrum have been fired from jobs that they have done competently due to social interaction and corporate political reasons. More training for those on the spectrum is necessary as is social awareness of the problems faced by aspergeans and how to help those on the spectrum.

From what I read here the school did try to support the professor by sending him to seek counseling and discussing his issues with him ad nauseum. However, it is ultimately up to the professor to have seen to his own well being, as any adult is required to do. He should have sought out counseling on his own to help him with his social interactions and self-help techniques in dealing with highly anxiety prone situations and how to interact with his students. that there should have been a go-between for him with the administration or human resources is truly stretching the ADA. If he had seen a therapist his therapist could have acted as his go-between. Infact the therapist and the school could have worked together to help the professor do his job properly. But it is a joint effort, not simply an effort for the school. There does not seem to be any effort on the part of this professor to seek any form of joint private/employer support.

Remember: His job is to teach not to berate and destroy his students.
Whenever an employee's actions places the employer in a situation of being sued due to their behavior or incompetence, the employer is not required to place its entire livelihood at risk for this person as long as the employer made a good faith effort to try to support that disabled individual.


On another point: there is a tremendous amount of disinformation about aspergers and autism in this thread and I might add in this post. Persons with aspergers are not necessarily devoid of emotional attachment, misunderstanding of other's feelings nor have the inability to function appropriately in the real world. This is an outdated and outmoded way of thinking. If anyone is interested in learning more about autism and aspergers please go to my blog Raising Asperger's Kids at http://asd2mom.blogspot.com. You can also email me if you have any questions.

Professor Althouse: Thank you for posting this comment.

madAsHell said...

I had to look up Sheldon Cooper. That is a fictional character.

yeah....sorry, but I still can't see a lawyer suffering from Asperger's, or any kind of autism. Engineers, and mathematicians, but not lawyers.

Anonymous said...

To Mad as hell-

As an autism/aspergers advocate I can assure you that there are a many lawyers who are on the autism spectrum. You can find aspergeans in every profession, every economic class, every religion and every walk of life.

Sheldon is an amalgamation of idiosyncrasies, some of which are attributed to those on the autism spectrum and some are not. But every person with autism is not Sheldon Cooper as every STEM individual is not on the spectrum as well.

Anonymous said...

Based on my personal experience as a faculty kid, colleges are generally incredibly welcoming and tolerant places for folks with ASDs to work.

Both my parents are physics professors -- and they and well over half of their faculty colleagues would likely have been diagnosed as on the spectrum had they been born 30-40 years later.

Heck, I studied geophysics in grad school and my advisor's lab was relocated to a different building (so that he and "Dr. X" would not cross paths on a daily basis) after what was amusingly referred to as the Great Snowball Earth Argument of 1999. This kind of thing happened every few years, the administration didn't really bat an eyelash and was par for the course.

It also sounds like this particular prof was given lots of help (counselling, anger management, etc) and ought to have been responsible for finding his own "liaison" if he was still having issues interacting with his students.

Kirk Parker said...


"He yelled at me once for not being prepared for class but why is that a problem? "

Yeah, what is with these special snowflakes anyway? I suspect none of them have ever been on an actually-competitive sports team, or a large musical ensemble. (And I certainly dont' need to add "or in the military"!)

NotWhoIUsedtoBe said...

I don't like it when people make their own problems into everyone's problems.

Disabilities are to be overcome, not inflicted upon the rest of the world.

Asperger's isn't something that cannot be overcome, in the way that missing limbs or paralysis are permanent conditions.

This story makes me wonder why this professor was hired in the first place, and how he was tenured if he had so much trouble with people. Teaching is nothing but social skills. Mastery of the subject is a tiny part of the necessary skill set.

If someone cannot handle teaching for whatever reason, they should do something else. It is not fair to their students otherwise.

No one would claim that a person with no legs should be accommodated in order to be a pizza driver or a UPS driver. It's just not going to happen. No one cares because these are lower-status occupations, while being a college professor is seen as high-status.

...which is why I see these disability claims as being about power and status, not about discrimination. If you can't do the job because of how your neurons are organized, then fix the neurons or do something else.

Before anyone accuses me of a lack of empathy, I have Asperger's (or whatever it's called now) and had to change in order to succeed in the world. It's a problem, but it can be overcome. At least I have to try.

gadfly said...

So Althouse thinks this all happened because some students moved his cheese?

Please. From high school through college, I watched the classroom bullies take out every teacher who could not control the class. That's life on the lectern, and after 25 years, he should have had that harassment controlled.

When the harassers became the chain of command above him, he was on his way out. It happened to me at Kraft Foods and despite being over 50, there was nothing I could do to stop it. The first door that I passed through was Anger Management 101.

Now is the time for him to take his skills elsewhere. There is a school somewhere that needs a knowledgeable teacher.

Limited Blogger said...

@EDH said:

"He wasn't just a teacher hiding in his office, he rose through the administration to dean.

'Dean Corkery joined the faculty in 1973. He was named associate dean for academic affairs in 1998, vice dean in 2004, and served as acting dean until being named dean in 2007. He teaches Evidence, Family Law, and Professional Responsibility.'"

So he's the Dean, eh? Yup. I smell a faculty revolt.

What a pity for the law students, since he provides them with excellent courtroom training. Think about it, trial lawyers. How many judges have you been in front of, who seem to have Aspberger's? For me, it's 70%, easily. The symptoms -- impatience and anger, especially! -- grow more frequent and intense the longer they're on the bench.

Unknown said...

For parents who has kids with aspergers syndrome, patience is the key to keep you going. Proper care and monitoring is therefore suggested. Kids with these problems are those that need more attention, love and care. One technique that could help parents alleviate these disorder are the so-called cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people understand and modify certain automatic, negative thoughts that can affect their emotions and behavior.

Unknown said...

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