An American Association of University Professors investigation into why and how Linfield University fired tenured professor David Pollack-Pelzner found that he was dismissed in the “context of eroding shared governance, which has jeopardized the faculty’s exercise of academic freedom and contributed to a culture of abuse .”
“General conditions for academic freedom and shared governance at Linfield University are deplorable,” says the AAUP’s new report on its inquiry. The document will guide the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure as it decides whether to recommend censuring Linfield’s administration for alleged violations of faculty rights at the committee’s meeting in June.
The AAUP’s governing council will vote on any recommendation for censure at the council’s own meeting later that month.
Linfield fired Pollack-Pelzner, the former Ronni Lacroute Chair in Shakespeare Studies there, last spring, citing his breaches of “duty” to the institution. Pollack-Pelzner, who was also Linfield’s sole faculty trustee, had recently publicly accused members of Linfield’s Board of Trustees of retaliation and anti-Semitism: he said he became a target after urging the board to do more about reports of sexual misconduct involving multiple trustees , including the criminal groping case against David Jubb (who was sentenced last year to probation), and a faculty member’s allegation that Linfield President Miles K. Davis had touched her inappropriately.
Davis—whom Pollack-Pelzner and other professors accused of making anti-Semitic comments, including one about the size of the average “Jewish nose”—has accused Pollack-Pelzner (who is Jewish) of engaging in a “smear” campaign.
Pollack-Pelzner is now suing Linfield for whistle-blower retaliation.
Regarding the AAUP investigation, which supports Pollack-Pelzner’s account of what happened to him at Linfield, the university said that discovery is underway for the lawsuit and that information gathered thus far “substantially discredits much of the AAUP report.” (Linfield did not share any details about what the AAUP report got wrong.)
“We politically declined to participate due to the ongoing litigation,” Scott Nelson, university spokesperson, said in a statement. “As with any employee-related issue, critics are free to comment, while the university is often prevented from sharing a complete story, limited by our adherence to policies, procedures, privacy guidelines and the facts. Contrary to the AAUP’s position, Linfield University unequivocally supports academic freedom and faculty tenure. We also take all allegations of misconduct seriously and are committed to creating and fostering a learning and working environment in which all members of the community feel physically and emotionally safe and can thrive.”
Gregory F. Scholtz, director of the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, said that the Linfield investigation stands out to him for Davis’s “blatant disregard of the university’s own dismissal policy,” which parallels AAUP-approved standards for dismissal.
“The Faculty Handbook incorporates our entire set of recommended institutional regulations, including those on academic due process for dismissal,” Scholtz said. “In some cases, those who wish to rid themselves of a faculty member find subtle and clever ways of doing so. But there was nothing clever or subtle about this approach. This was a direct attack on tenure and academic freedom and the institution’s own policies. And, as the report suggests, President Davis’s offhanded and dismissive admission of ignorance of these policies bespeaks not only irresponsibility but incompetence.”
A ‘Negative Cultural Shift’ and Tenure Concerns
According to the report, individuals at Linfield told AAUP investigators that there had been a negative cultural shift at the institution, with one saying that university had demonstrated an “absence of empathy for victims [of sexual misconduct]—particularly women.”
The report also notes that Ronni Lacroute, a donor who endowed Pollack-Pelzner’s former chair, resigned from Linfield’s board following his firing, saying, “I was incensed” and “You just don’t do that. The university didn’t want negative communication, but that’s not how you stop it. It’s how you make it worse. You take care of the problems. You just don’t suppress speech.”
Lacroute said at the time that she didn’t accept Linfield’s public, after-the-fact argument that the termination wasn’t governed by the Faculty Handbook because Pollack-Pelzner had been fired for cause as an employee, and not as a professor. The AAUP report also accuses Linfield of using this and other revisionist rationales—namely Davis’s public assertion that the handbook had “not been updated”—for how it handled Pollack-Pelzner’s termination.
“The notion that, when convenient, an administration can choose to apply the provisions of the employee handbook rather than those of the faculty handbook when seeking to dismiss a tenured faculty member is inimical to principles of academic freedom and tenure because it allows an administration to dismiss a faculty member without affordance of the academic due process that defines tenure and protects academic freedom,” the report says. “Tenure, as the AAUP understands it, is an indefinite appointment terminable only for cause as demonstrated through an adjudicative hearing before a faculty body. In the absence of this academic due process, tenure does not exist, and academic freedom lacks protection.”
Widely followed AAUP guidelines also say that fired tenured faculty members are entitled to one year’s notice or severance pay, unless they’ve been found responsible for moral turpitude in a formal dismissal proceeding. Pollack-Pelzner reportedly told AAUP investigators that he’d asked for severance and was denied, and that Linfield had also contested his application for unemployment benefits on the grounds that he’d been dismissed for misconduct.
‘No Subtlety’ With Respect to Academic Freedom
Scholtz said that another “striking feature” of the case was how Pollack-Pelzner’s summary dismissal “so clearly implicated academic freedom. Again, no subtlety.”
According to the AAUP, academic freedom protects faculty members “intramurally,” here meaning when they participate in institutional governance. Scholtz continued, “So here we have a professor whom his colleagues elect to represent the faculty on the Board of Trustees. In fulfilling this governance responsibility, he receives credible reports of sexual misconduct by board members and tries to get the administration and governing board to do something about it. When his pleas seem to fall upon deaf ears, he pushes harder, eventually putting all his charges out on Twitter. Three weeks later, he’s fired.”
Linfield, like many small colleges, has faced enrollment and financial concerns in recent years. The report doesn’t delve into this side of life at Linfield, but footnotes mention Davis’s “efforts in 2019 to deal with financial and enrollment problems” and say that enrollments were down again in 2021.
Linfield was considering cutting tenured faculty members in 2019 but was able to avoid layoffs through early retirements. Amid a rebranding under Davis, which involved expanding pre-professional and professional programs and calling Linfield a university instead of a college, enrollments had been increasing ahead of the pandemic.
As the university changed, some professors said they worried about the implications for academic freedom and tenure. And while the AAUP focused its report on Pollack-Pelzner due to his sudden termination, Linfield has faced other criticism that it’s stifling faculty rights. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for example, last month demanded that Linfield drop an inquiry into Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, a professor of English (and a vocal supporter of Pollack-Pelzner’s, as well as an Inside Higher Ed contributor) who posted quotes and comments about English and business scholars on social media.
Dutt-Ballerstadt said last week that she hasn’t heard anything further from Linfield about that inquiry. Of the AAUP’s report, she said it’s “not at all surprising but both damning and retraumatizing for faculty to see once again the egregious violations of academic freedom and due process at Linfield.” (The AAUP’s investigation notes that Linfield apologized to Dutt-Ballerstadt in 2018 for how it handled her own, separate claims of harassment, writing in a letter to her that “the investigation did not comport with expectations of excellence and fairness.”)
The local NAACP branch investigated Linfield last year for racial animus, at the request of Davis, who is Black. It determined that he’d been treated unfairly based on his race, and that the specific allegations against him, originating from within Linfield’s predominantly white culture, reflected harmful racial stereotypes about Black men. Six unnamed faculty members declined to participate in the NAACP investigation, according to that report. (Nelson initially said that Linfield did not initiate the investigation and later said he didn’t know that Davis had requested it.) The AAUP inquiry discusses the NAACP report, saying that faculty members “interviewed by this investigating committee perceived the NAACP investigation as an effort by President Davis and his supporters to counter and perhaps intimidate the president’s harshest critics.”
Susan Agre-Kippenhan, Linfield’s provost, wrote to the university’s faculty last week, saying the AAUP “does not have official standing on our campuses nor authority in this matter.” Moreover, she said the report “does not reflect the important work we are undertaking together to strengthen shared governance at Linfield.” Revised university bylaws, for instance, “call upon each college and school to establish governance structures and in all cases their bylaws are complete or very near completion. The colleges and schools have implemented new structures and demonstrated their effectiveness as each has launched new graduate programs and initiatives.”