The case of Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a noted Shakespearean scholar and, until recently, the Ronni Lacroute Chair in Shakespeare Studies at Linfield University, has quickly drawn attention to how a university administration and its Board of Trustees can feel entitled to bypass due process and substitute for it corporate protocols that even as such seem ethically problematic. Pollack-Pelzner, who has been a sharp critic of Linfield’s responses to sexual harassment and who has raised serious charges of anti-Semitism, has been fired for being “insubordinate.”
As reported in The Oregonian, Pollack-Pelzner is known as being “a public advocate for students and faculty who had complained about alleged sexual abuse by board trustees.” He has also publicly reported instances of anti-Semitic statements by Linfield president Miles Davis.
In an article about Pollack-Pelzner’s firing, Inside Higher Ed quotes from an email that Provost Susan Agre-Kippenhan sent to the campus community, explaining that Linfield had taken “the extraordinary step of terminating the employment of a member of our faculty for serious breaches of the individual’s duty to the institution.” This raises the question not only of what Linfield believes an “individual’s duty to the institution” might be but also what duty Linfield, as an institution, has to its faculty, staff and students. These questions cut to the heart of the educational mission.
In this case, the relationship between these obligations is entirely skewed. Linfield has denied Pollack-Pelzner a hearing, it has denied him due process and it has denied him the right to appeal. All on the basis of its own administrative judgment. This case has all the earmarks of a whistle-blower being silenced for being too insistent in their complaints. It is useful to note the American Civil Liberties Union statement on whistle-blowers:
The ACLU has long sought to defend the free speech and privacy rights of public employees. We represent National Security Agency surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden. We strongly support the Free Flow of Information Act (a bill to protect confidential sources) and oppose proposals to limit media contact with elements of the intelligence community. We also work to protect private employees’ free speech rights, especially in the case of laws limiting labor organizing.
While the First Amendment applies only to state action, the values that animate our right to free speech and free association apply to all of us, regardless of where we work. The marketplace of ideas works only if we are all free to speak vigorously and without fear about the issues of the day. This often happens in the workplace, so employee speech and privacy must be protected.
The university’s charge that Pollack-Pelzner was “insubordinate” is particularly vague and unconvincing, and the fact that he has supposedly “interfered with the university’s administration of its responsibilities” is a blatant act of shooting the messenger. For the past two years, Linfield has received only bad press regarding its many poor decisions and its multiple failures to serve its community. These include decisions to fire dozens of faculty without following standard American Association of University Professors procedures, failure to adequately address issues of sexual harassment and edicts to shut down faculty Listservs.
The situation at Linfield became so egregious that earlier this month Linfield faculty voted 59 to 11 to pass a resolution of no confidence in President Davis and David Baca, the university’s board chair. The resolution states in part, “The words and actions of President Miles Davis and Chair David Baca have created an intimidating and hostile work environment, harmed members of the Linfield community, and damaged Linfield’s reputation … Attempts to work collaboratively, constructively, and proactively [with Davis and Baca] to address issues of concern have been met with censorship, punishment, secrecy and defamation.”
It is clear that Pollack-Pelzner’s complaints are reacting to, rather that causing, deep and perennial troubles at Linfield. Instead of addressing its own defects and shortcomings, Linfield has terminated Pollack-Pelzner both as a punishment for his publicly holding the university responsible and as a warning to every other member of the faculty.
In its April 28 letter to Linfield’s president, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, asserts,
Linfield’s process-free termination of Pollack-Pelzner cannot be reconciled with the robust procedural protections it promises its faculty. It is also difficult to square Linfield’s actions with the university’s strong policies committing it to protect its faculty members’ freedom of expression, which shields Pollack-Pelzner’s speech unless it falls into one of the narrow exceptions to that rule. Linfield’s express refusal to turn over the matter to independent review by Linfield faculty heightens our concern that the university cannot demonstrate that Pollack-Pelzner’s comments are unprotected defamation.
FIRE underscores the lack of due process: “Linfield has not substantiated any of [its] assertions before a hearing committee.”
The case is of special and significant import. If Linfield is able to fire faculty with impunity, it will set a precedent that will eviscerate the foundational principles of both free speech and of faculty governance on college and university campuses.
I’m circulating this information in an open letter to collect signatures from all faculty members interested in defending Daniel Pollack-Pelzner and holding Linfield University accountable for the damage it is inflicting to the very idea of faculty governance and due process. This has become an international issue: at the time of this writing, more than 1,600 faculty, of all ranks and from diverse institutions — and from not only the United States but also Australia, France, Germany, Kuwait, Macao, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom — have signed this letter of support. I urge you to sign it, too.