Earlier this week, Linfield University fired a tenured professor who had spoken out about allegations of sexual misconduct, as well as antisemitism, against university leaders. Now people from McMinnville to the southern hemisphere are saying that was a bad call.
“It’s devastating,” former Linfield professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner said in a message to OPB. “It’s such a blow to the work my colleagues and students and I have been pursuing to try to help Linfield become a safer and more welcoming space for everyone.”
Pollack-Pelzner also noted that he feels terribly for his students, who were close to submitting their final projects when they learned he’d been terminated.
“Linfield has deeply betrayed its commitment to our fundamental educational values,” he said.
Faculty members, as well as organizations like the Pacific Northwest Anti-Defamation League and the Oregon Board of Rabbis, expressed outrage and disappointment in university leaders following social media posts by Pollack-Pelzner late last month.
Pollack-Pelzner, who is Jewish, tweeted that he faced antisemitic comments from university employees — including Linfield President Miles Davis. Some of those comments arose after Pollack-Pelzner told the university’s Board of Trustees that multiple board members, including Davis, had been accused of sexual misconduct by students and faculty over the past few years.
In an email to the campus community Tuesday, Linfield Provost and VP for Academic Affairs Susan Agre-Kippenhan said Pollack-Pelzner was fired due to “serious breaches of the individual’s duty to the institution” including “false public accusations” that she wrote had harmed the university.
“It’s such a dangerous myth to perpetuate that people who speak out against sexual misconduct, religious harassment, and institutional racism are harming the university,” Pollack-Pelzner said. “People who speak up about abuses of power are helping Linfield recover from trauma. People who abuse their power are harming Linfield. And people who learn about abuses of power and do nothing to stop it are harming Linfield to its core.”
Pollack-Pelzner has stated repeatedly that his accusations were not false, though the university has disagreed.
According to summaries of independent investigations obtained by OPB, the events alleged as sexual misconduct involving President Davis as well as trustee Norm Nixon were found to have occurred, but they were found not to violate Linfield’s harassment or Title IX policies.
Pollack-Pelzner’s claims of antisemitic comments made by Davis were also looked into by an independent investigator who found the remarks could not be substantiated because they allegedly took place in private conversations, or witnesses could not corroborate them.
According to Linfield, Davis and others accused of antisemitism deny making any such remarks.
Following news of Pollack-Pelzner’s firing, the Pacific Northwest chapter of the Anti-Defamation League again wrote Linfield — this time calling for Davis to resign.
“In light of continued media reports of additional allegations of antisemitic remarks attributed to you, faculty no votes of confidence, and continued lack of accountability on the part of the University’s leadership, we believe that a change in leadership is the community’s best interest at this time,” Miri Cypers, the organization’s regional director wrote to Linfield’s Board of Trustees Wednesday.
Outrage over Pollack-Pelzner’s firing has come from communities on the opposite end of the country, including the nonprofit organization Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia which has called on Linfield to rescind the professor’s termination.
“FIRE is deeply concerned by Linfield University’s abrupt termination of a tenured faculty member, Professor Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, following his public criticism of you and other senior leaders of the university,” Adam Steinbaugh, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, wrote in a letter emailed to Davis on Wednesday.
Steinbaugh specifically questioned the reasoning behind Linfield’s termination of Pollack-Pelzner.
“Although Linfield is a private institution, it promises its community members that they are ‘entitled to use speech to convey disagreement, agreement, inquiry, or commentary in keeping with the principles underlying constitutionally protected free expression,’” he wrote to Davis, citing Linfield’s Faculty Handbook. “Likewise, Linfield specifically promises its faculty members that ‘[d]ismissal will not be used to restrain faculty members in their exercise of academic freedom or other rights of American citizens.’”
Steinbaugh wrote that FIRE has “serious doubts” that Linfield can prove that Pollack-Pelzner’s claims were defamatory, and therefore could be counted as unprotected speech. He noted that, as was summarized in investigative reports, Pollack-Pelzner’s allegations about Davis’ antisemitic remarks were not proven to be false. Rather, investigators found that it wasn’t possible to prove if they were made or not.
“The egregious nature of terminating a faculty critic without process cannot be overstated, nor can the chilling effect on student and faculty expression that will follow Linfield’s reckless conduct,” Steinbaugh wrote.
Linfield representatives say the university’s action against Pollack-Pelzner was legal.
“While recognizing that some may disagree, Linfield would not take an action it did not believe was both legal and justified,” Linfield spokesperson Scott Nelson said.
At the end of his letter to Davis, Steinbaugh called on Linfield to rescind Pollack-Pelzner’s termination.
When Pollack-Pelzner was asked if he would return to his job at Linfield if offered, he told OPB: “What I’ve called for all along is accountability for institutional betrayal by Linfield leaders and a demonstrated commitment to the principles of institutional courage. Until that happens, it’s difficult for anyone to feel safe at Linfield.”
Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt, a Linfield professor who worked in the English department with Pollack-Pelzner, echoed Steinbaugh’s claims that the professor’s firing was a violation of faculty rights.
“I am devastated, angry and beyond outraged about this firing of a stellar teacher and a public scholar. This firing of Daniel is extraordinarily illegal,” Dutt-Ballerstadt told OPB. “To not give a tenured faculty member their right to ‘due process’ is an egregious violation based on the principles of tenure and academic freedom.”
Dutt-Ballerstadt is one of hundreds of professors who have signed a petition in support of Pollack-Pelzner.
“It is clear that Pollack-Pelzner’s complaints are reacting to, rather than causing, deep and perennial troubles at Linfield,” the petition created Thursday reads. “Instead of addressing its own defects and shortcomings, Linfield has fired Pollack-Pelzner both as a punishment for his publicly holding the University responsible and as a warning to every other member of the faculty.”
By Thursday afternoon, the petition was signed by more than 550 professors, students and community members from California to Alabama and New York. Professors as far away as Colombia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have also signed the petition.
The petition is urging the American Association of University Professors to investigate Pollack-Pelzner’s firing and ongoing issues at Linfield.
“I’m tremendously heartened that colleagues and students around the world are not being cowed by Linfield leaders’ attempts to silence dissent,” Pollack-Pelzner said.