Professor Faces Firing for Joke Tied to Shootings

Ann McClure's picture
Friday, August 17, 2012

After turning down the lights in his classroom at the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Prof. Gregory F. Sullivan began showing a documentary and prepared to step out for a moment.

But first, according to an internal personnel document, he paused to make a parting joke: “If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room,” he is said to have remarked to his students, “run for the exit.”

The joke — a reference to James E. Holmes, who is accused of fatally shooting 12 people and wounding 58 more last month in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and who dyed his hair bright orange — would not have been especially funny in any setting. But in this classroom, 11 days after the shootings, it was dreadful. One student’s father had been killed in the shootings. Hearing his teacher’s joke, the student left the room, obviously upset, according to the internal document.

The institution’s academic dean has recommended that Professor Sullivan, who, according to the internal document, said that he had been unaware of the student’s loss, be fired for the remark.

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