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A faculty panel at Widener University School of Law has recommended that the school drop its efforts to dismiss associate professor Lawrence Connell, who came under fire for allegedly using violent scenarios involving the murder of law dean Linda Ammons while teaching his criminal law course. Three professors chosen by the law school’s faculty concluded on March 7 that dismissal proceedings against Connell should be withdrawn “without prejudice, thus preserving the possibility of the actions being recommenced in the future upon re-filing.” The professors did not detail their reasoning in a letter recommending the dismissal of charges. Connell, 58, was formally charged by university administrators on Feb 24 with making racist and sexist statements and failing to cooperate with their investigation into his classroom conduct. He has been on administrative leave from the school, where he has taught for 25 years, since Dec. 20. Connell’s case has sparked discussion in law school circles about academic freedom and whether he crossed a line by presenting hypothetical situations that involved the harming of himself, his students or colleagues. Connell’s attorney, Thomas Neuberger, said he used the scenarios to grab the attention of students, not as a way to threaten or offend students and colleagues. Neuberger accused Ammons of using the situation to purge Connell because of his conservative views. Widener University spokesman Dan Harmon declined to comment on the faculty panel’s recommendation, citing a policy against discussing personnel matters. According to correspondence released by Neuberger, Connell was informed on Dec. 10 that some students in his spring 2010 criminal law class had complained to administrators about offensive statements concerning women and minorities — including his discussion of the theoretical murder of Ammons, a black woman. Vice Dean Patrick Kelly informed Connell that he had interviewed students in his fall course and they “raised similar concerns about the violent scenarios of last spring.” The letter adds that several students had made similar complaints against Connell in 1996. Connell responded by hiring Neuberger and asking for a public hearing into the allegations, which he called “biased, baseless and unfair.” Connell declined to participate in informal discussions with administrators regarding the matter. Neuberger and Connell submitted a 39-page affidavit to the faculty panel reviewing the case, in which he denied making racist and sexist comments. He admitted to using himself and colleagues in hypothetic scenarios, however. “For example, each year my plan to kill their contracts professor by placing a bomb in the class following mine is foiled when Dick Tracy discovers and disables the bomb before it explodes. (attempted murder) I have also made hypothetical appearances outside the window of my students’ property class and discharged my imaginary M-16 into their classroom just to see looks on their terrified faces,” Connell wrote in the affidavit. He wrote that he had suspected since June of 2010 that Ammons intended to force him out of the law school. During the summer, administrators informed him that he would be replaced as the co-director of the school’s externship program. Neuberger said that Connell is bracing for additional actions against him despite the faculty panel’s finding. The law school faculty could still vote in favor of his dismissal, although that course of action seems unlikely, Neuberger said. Widener University President James Harris could fire Connell without the faculty’s approval, he said. “We think they’re going to have those two students bring charges against him in a different forum of the university that doesn’t have the protections of the tenure dismissal process,” Neuberger said. Complaints of violations of the school’s discrimination and harassment code are handled by administrators, are not public, and would not give Connell the right to an attorney, he said. “We’re trying to figure out who those two students are right now. We’ve got it narrowed down to three,” Neuberger said. “We can sue the students for defamation in state court immediately. We’re not going to sit back and be a punching bag on this.” Karen Sloan can be contacted at [email protected].

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