A tenured professor is suing Pacific University after he was suspended last year following complaints from students about comments he made about gender and ethnicity.
According to the lawsuit, Richard Paxton was in his 16th year of teaching at the private Forest Grove university last October when Pacific administrators told him he could either resign or undergo an investigation due to “violating the civil rights of his students” with comments and anecdotes he had made in the classroom.
Paxton, his attorney and two academic organizations say the school has taken action against him wrongfully, ignoring due process.
In February, the American Association of University Professors wrote a letter to Pacific University’s president, Lesley Hallick, asking Hallick to rescind Paxton’s suspension.
The AAUP, which has union chapters at a variety of universities across the country — including an advocacy chapter at Pacific — said Paxton’s suspension goes against the principles and standards for tenured faculty because he was not awarded a faculty hearing in which he could have challenged the allegations against him.
This is the second high-profile instance of AAUP becoming involved in an action against a tenured faculty member at an Oregon private college. AAUP launched an investigation last month, after Daniel Pollack-Pelzner was terminated at Linfield University. Pollack-Pelzner had publicized allegations of sexual harassment and antisemitism involving the university president among other leaders of the university in McMinnville.
According to the AAUP’s letter to Pacific, a student in one of his undergraduate classes said Paxton allegedly “told a story during which he stated that ‘every person has a gender,’ which ignored the gender identity of agender and nonbinary [people],” and that Paxton made “negative and gender-stereotyping comments.”
Five students in a graduate class also alleged that Paxton had made stereotypical comments about gender including that Paxton thought it was “weird” that some female instructors were crying on the night of the presidential election in 2016, and that “young women today” don’t carry “purses like they used to.”
Those graduate students also said Paxton made specific comments regarding specific ethnic groups. The comments include allegedly saying that Native Americans, historically, were “warlike” and “aggressive,” that Italians “worship” Christopher Columbus and that “Jews funded the Revolutionary War.” Paxton is Jewish, the AAUP noted.
Paxton said he was not made aware of any of those student complaints until two months after his suspension when Pacific sent him a “notice of allegations,” the lawsuit states.
Gregory Scholtz, Director of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, wrote in the February letter to Pacific that at least according to the information the organization received from Paxton and his attorney, his classroom comments appeared to be relevant to the subject matter.
Regardless, Scholtz said, Paxton should have been afforded a faculty hearing ahead of his suspension.
“Whether it violated standards of professional ethics is a judgment to be rendered, not by administrators or outside attorneys, but by professional peers — if academic freedom is to retain any meaning at Pacific University,” Scholtz wrote.
The National Association of Scholars also reached out to Pacific on the matter in late March, reiterating that it felt Paxton did not get due process and that he should be reinstated.
Along with the other allegations detailed by AAUP, NAS said Paxton’s suspension also stemmed from comments he had made during his Foundation of Human Development and Psychology class. The scholars group said Paxton told a story about being in New Orleans with colleagues, and seeing women standing outside of a bar who ended up being female impersonators.
“Professor Paxton has told this story almost every year that he has taught this class at Pacific University but apparently this year the anecdote prompted a complaint from some students,” NAS President Peter Wood wrote to Pacific President Hallick.
NAS said it was not involving itself in any litigation against the school but that its letter to Hallick served to “let you know how worrisome and objectionable we find Pacific University’s conduct in this case, and even more distasteful when one considers that Professor Paxton is a longstanding and productive member of your faculty and that these actions are apparently to satisfy politically correct forces on your campus.”
The court documents state Paxton has also been kept in the dark during the ongoing investigation against him.
On at least 20 occasions between October 2020 and May 2021, Paxton requested to meet with the independent investigator assigned to his investigation. The investigator has never contacted Paxton to arrange an interview, the lawsuit states.
In a statement, Pacific University disputes that, stating that Paxton has been offered the opportunity to meet with the investigator.
“It is his choice to participate or not,” the university’s statement reads. “He has not opted to cooperate so far.”
Pacific said in a statement Tuesday that given Paxton’s “lack of participation,” the legal filing “comes as no surprise.”
The university continued: “However, our mission remains the same: determine what really happened — the facts — and act accordingly. No matter what legal strategies his attorney pursues, we will stay focused on our mission.”
Paxton’s lawsuit states he has effectively been fired from the university, which Pacific disputes.
In order to stay employed at Pacific, Paxton was to sign an “appointment notice,” an annual notice sent to all faculty who are being extended for another academic year of teaching.
The deadline for signing that notice was the middle of May, according to court documents, but Paxton did not receive his notice until the latter part of the month. The university said it had initially sent it to his Pacific email address, which he had been locked out of since the start of his suspension.
That notice also included the same deadline for the middle of May, even though Paxton did not receive it until near the end of the month.
“Because Dr. Paxton has not been given an Appointment Notice that does not require a time machine for him to sign it by the deadline, he has been effectively terminated from his position,” the lawsuit reads.
Pacific also contested that, stating that the investigation is continuing, and in the meantime Paxton remains employed by the university and is on administrative leave with full pay and benefits.
“Pacific University respects tenure, but we do not tolerate harassment, discrimination or retaliation of any kind, which are all prohibited under Title IX, Oregon state law and Pacific’s policies,” Pacific wrote. “Making discriminatory or harassing comments is not academic freedom.”
Paxton is suing the school under multiple grounds including breach of contract, infliction of emotional distress and unlawful employment discrimination — claiming the university acted against him due to his age and his race.
The lawsuit is requesting economic damages of not less than $1.3 million, and other awards including non economic damages and attorney fees. It is demanding a jury trial.