Editorial: Kings Point prof's bad joke shouldn't scuttle a career

An aerial view of the United States Merchant An aerial view of the United States Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point Photo Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

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Humor is risky; that probably accounts for some of its appeal.

A tenured professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point learned just how risky a joke can be after he turned down the lights to show a documentary in class -- and said that if someone shows up with orange hair, students should run for the exits.

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It was a dark joke of the kind people use to cope with dark events. But it was in poor taste, and horrendously inopportune given that a midshipman in the professor's class lost his father in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shootings. The suspect in that horrendous massacre had dyed orange hair.

The professor, identified in the media as Gregory Sullivan, evidently didn't know his class contained the son of a victim. So the mortified teacher did what he could: He apologized to the student, his class and the administration. He's since been suspended by a brand new leader brought in to straighten out the drifting service academy. After administrative proceedings, Sullivan could be dismissed.

These circumstances call for a more tempered approach. Sullivan surely feels terrible about his misstep. And it's just awful the student was caused more pain.

Through these unfortunate events, Rear Adm. James A. Helis, the academy's new superintendent, has been granted an opportunity to establish the tone of his administration early. He should make an example of the episode by using it as a teaching moment on the complex nature of free speech, not the occasion for terminating someone's career.

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