Sofka siege: Chronicle of an embattled professor


The HooK: COVER- Sofka siege: <I>Chronicle</I> of an embattled professor



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Holiday 36

In the high-pressure "publish or perish" world of academics, getting national media attention can propel a professor's career to new heights. Unless it's the wrong kind of attention.

It's safe to say the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, "Don't Stand So Close to Me," a detailed look at the controversial release of former Dean of the Echols Scholar program, James Sofka– re-published in this issue– falls into the "wrong kind" category.

The coverage is "certainly something that nobody welcomes," says Sofka, who learned in January that his contract with UVA would not be renewed when it ends in May 2007.

His occupational travails exploded in the pages of the Cavalier Daily in late January. In a letter leaked to that UVA student newspaper, the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, Ed Ayers, scolds Sofka for alleged encounters with coeds.

"Specifically, I directed you to cease inappropriate behavior with female Echols Scholars," Ayers writes of an April 2003 conversation. "In light of complaints that that behavior has not abated, I believe that you cannot effectively continue to perform your duties as Echols Dean."

Sofka has denied the accusations. "I have no reason to feel ashamed of my conduct towards any student– male or female– in 11 years of teaching at the University," he says.

He flatly denies claims by anonymous students in the Chronicle article that, among other things, he invited one female student to his home when his wife was out of town and put his arm around another when they were leaving a bar together.

"I have never engaged in the type of conduct characterized by the anonymous individuals cited in the [article]," he insists.

But while dealing with allegations in a publication widely read at American universities is "stressful," Sofka says it hasn't changed anything about the way he conducts his courses, nor the way he feels about his students.

"I have not discussed this matter in my classroom," he says, "and my work in the classroom this semester is no different than it has been for the previous 10 years."

Students don't seem to have changed their opinion of the popular 37-year-old professor either. In fact, his courses for this fall have filled quickly, he says, with about 150 students on a waiting list.

Not since 1985, when Echols scholars Jens Soering and Elizabeth Haysom conspired to kill Haysom's parents, has the Echols program– one of UVA's most prestigious– received such a spate of unwanted attention.

"We intended to keep this as a confidential personnel matter," says UVA spokesperson Carol Wood.

Are top administrators angry with Ayers for allowing the situation to escalate to such notoriety? Wood says no.

"Both the president and the provost were consulted about this situation throughout the process and were well aware that Dean Ayers was writing the letter and of his plans to deliver it to Professor Sofka," Wood says.

"Dean Ayers had– and continues to have– their full support in this matter," says Wood. She adds that the university does not plan to investigate who leaked the letter.

Sofka says he has no intention of going quietly. He has repeatedly and publicly asked for a hearing so that he can confront his accusers and clear his name, but his employment status leaves him vulnerable.

As a general faculty member, Sofka would have the "expectation of continued employment" upon signing a new contract only after completing six years with the university, according to the provost's website. When he signed his last contract in May 2004, Sofka was three months shy of six years.

He declines comment on what steps he will take if his request for a hearing is denied, but he stresses the critical importance of clearing his name.

"In academia, reputation is everything," says Sofka, "and it's a very small world."





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