An Oakland college professor has sued John F. Kennedy University, arguing she was fired after her bosses discovered she performed with a Bay Area burlesque group.
In her federal suit, filed last week, Sheila Addison said she lost her job teaching marriage and family therapy at the Pleasant Hill-based university after administrators found out she was performing anonymously as "Professor Shimmy" with the Hubba Hubba Revue. A male professor who stripped down during a separate show kept his job, Addison argued.
The university issued a short statement Monday, calling the lawsuit "completely without merit." A university spokeswoman did not respond to phone or e-mail messages.
Addison's attorney, Greg Groeneveld, said the burlesque performances were the only reason given for the professor's firing in a letter from JFK President Steven Stargardter in June. Groeneveld declined to provide the letter.
Stargardter told Addison her actions were "adverse to the interests of the university," Groeneveld said. But Addison never mentioned the university or her occupation during the burlesque shows, which mix stripping, commentary and comedy, her attorney said.
"Like all artistic performances, it needs to be enjoyable, at least to the audience," Groeneveld said. "But there also is a political and social message to it."
Performers routinely keep their identities a secret to avoid such reprisals, said a Hubba Hubba Revue performer known as Sparkly Devil. She declined to provide her real name because she feared repercussions in her professional life; she works part-time as a burlesque performer.
Sparkly Devil, who said her parents are college professors, said she was upset that a university would retaliate against an employee for outside activities. She noted that a male Northwestern University professor who recently allowed a couple to demonstrate how to use a sex toy on campus kept his job after apologizing.
"I'm just interpreting this as the university punishing a woman for expressing her sexuality in a positive way," she said. "We have to ask what would happen if she were in a play where she was topless."
Addison's suit asks for lost wages and punitive damages. She did not name the male professor who she said had disrobed on stage, and it was not immediately clear who he was. Burlesque performers do not completely disrobe, but the performances include revealing outfits.
Nobody had complained directly to Addison, Groeneveld said.
"They claimed it was some students who came forward," he said. "But no one ever came to Dr. Addison and said, 'We don't like what you're doing.'"
Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattkrupnick.