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U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Professor Placed On Leave Over Colo. Theater Massacre Joke

KINGS POINT, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- A young man who lost his father in the Colorado movie theater massacre was subjected to a cruel joke. The quip came from his own professor – and now there are calls for the professor to be fired.

It was the biggest mass shooting in U.S. history and the butt of an off-color joke at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy that may cost a professor his job, CBS 2's Sean Hennessey reported Thursday night.

"Sometimes, unfortunately, people say things that they really don't mean," said Alice Gross of Manhasset.

Photos: Colorado Theater Massacre

WCBS 880's Marla Diamond reports


Back on July 31, professor Greg Sullivan was showing a documentary. Documents obtained by the New York Times say that as Sullivan was turning out the lights he said, "If someone with orange hair appears in the corner of the room, run for the exit." The reference was to James Holmes, the accused gunman who dyed his hair bright orange before allegedly going on a rampage at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

Weston Cowden was a student in Sullivan's classroom. Only a week earlier he had buried his father, Gordon, who was among the 12 killed in the theater.

"My dad taught me what it was to be a man," Cowden said. "He was a father first, last, and always."

Assistant Professor Gregory Sullivan
Assistant Professor Gregory Sullivan (credit: U.S. Merchant Marine Academy)

Professor Sullivan apologized immediately and said he didn't know of his student's loss, but Shashi Kumar, the institution's academic dean, called the joke "notoriously disgraceful conduct'' and recommended that Sullivan be fired. An internal document said Sullivan was informed on Aug. 10 that he had 10 days to contest his dismissal.

One member of the academic community called the recommendation an overreaction.

"Yes, very surprised because it is not consistent with the norms of the academic community for an administration to take such draconian action against a faculty member without an appropriate hearing," Robert Kreiser with the American Association of University Professors told WCBS 880's Marla Diamond.

Students on the Long Island campus wouldn't talk about the case and the one who did couldn't give an opinion.

"Kind of uncomfortable answering that honestly, might get in trouble," Nick Batson said.

But off campus, most said a firing would be a bit much.

"I don't know that I'd go as far as throwing him out," said Dick Weiss of Kings Point.

"He just wasn't thinking. He wasn't thinking, but I think it's still harsh," added Gale Wilson of Queens.

However, labor lawyer Vincent Toomey said a firing in this case is fair game.

"It might sound a little harsh, but the bottom line is they're there to teach kids," Toomey said.

Sullivan did not offer comment when approached at his apartment on Thursday night.

He has been suspended with pay while two different panels conduct a fact-finding mission and make a recommendation on whether he should stay or go.

Do you think Sullivan should be fired, or is an apology enough? Let us know below.

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