A partial view of an academic building is framed by leafy oak trees.

Pioneer Hall is seen through the signature oak trees at Linfield University in McMinnville, Ore., Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Pioneer Hall is the oldest building on the Linfield campus, constructed in 1881.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

An investigation by a national higher education organization has concluded that Linfield University violated multiple policies last year when it fired a tenured faculty member. Those findings could be a “forecast” of the outcome of an ongoing lawsuit filed by that professor against the university, according to an attorney on the case.

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The American Association of University Professors began investigating Linfield last May, following the dismissal of Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, an English professor at the private McMinnville university.

Linfield fired Pollack-Pelzner after he had publicly shared allegations of sexual misconduct made by university students and staff involving university board members, including university president Miles Davis. Pollack-Pelzner, who is Jewish, had also shared antisemitic comments he said came from Davis and other university leaders. As the faculty trustee on the university’s board at the time, Pollack-Pelzner said he spoke out to hold Linfield leadership accountable.

Pollack-Pelzner filed a lawsuit against the university last July, claiming he was fired due to retaliation. That lawsuit is still pending in Multnomah County Circuit Court.

According to the AAUP’s 19-page report, released last week and first reported by The Oregonian/Oregonlive, the organization concluded that Linfield violated several policies in its treatment of Pollack-Pelzner — both AAUP policies and policies within Linfield’s own faculty handbook — including dismissing Pollack-Pelzner without due process, violating his academic freedom, and refusing to give him at least one year of severance pay or notice of termination.

The AAUP is a nonprofit organization that represents university instructors in local union chapters and advocates for academic freedom and shared governance. The AAUP has released policies and procedures over the past century that have guided campuses across the country. The organization noted in its report that Linfield’s faculty handbook includes multiple AAUP policies verbatim, including standards for dismissing faculty.

Pollack-Pelzner’s termination from the university happened swiftly. According to both the AAUP’s report and court documents, Pollack-Pelzner received an email from the university’s provost the evening of April 26, 2021, about a mandatory meeting the following day. Pollack-Pelzner requested to have an attorney present, and the university canceled the meeting. The next day, Pollack-Pelzner was locked out of his work laptop. He sent an email from his personal email account to his own Linfield email address and got an automated response that he was “no longer an employee of Linfield,” according to court documents.

According to the AAUP’s report, the university told Pollack-Pelzner he had been fired “for cause” for multiple reasons including circulating “false statements” about the university and its employees.

According to the AAUP-recommended standards, a tenured professor can only be fired for cause after participating in a hearing conducted by a committee made up of other faculty members. That didn’t happen, and the AAUP said the university did not offer adequate reasons for not giving Pollack-Pelzner due process.

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Dana Sullivan, an attorney representing Pollack-Pelzner in his lawsuit against the university, said the AAUP investigatory committee’s findings could be a preview of a jury’s findings.

“I think to have an organization whose central mission is to uphold important principles in higher education like academic freedom — to have them find in Dr. Pollack-Pelzner’s favor, I would hope, would give the university pause about the strength of their position,” Sullivan said. “And [it] certainly gives us increased confidence that ultimately that will be the conclusion of the jury when we get to trial.”

Sullivan said two of the issues that the AAUP addressed in its report are also issues a jury will need to consider when the case goes to trial: Whether Linfield was justified in refusing to afford Pollack-Pelzner due process, and whether Pollack-Pelzner was acting in the best interest of the institution.

The AAUP’s report found that if Pollack-Pelzner was afforded due process, and was able to participate in a hearing led by his peers, that faculty committee might not have agreed with the administration’s accusations against Pollack-Pelzner. The report also agreed with an administrative law judge, who had ruled in favor of Pollack-Pelzner receiving unemployment benefits, that Pollack-Pelzner was “acting out of loyalty toward the institution” when he spoke out against Linfield leaders.

Linfield Associate Vice President, Scott Nelson, told OPB in a statement that the university has received evidence through the litigation process that “substantially discredits much of the AAUP report,” but he did not specify what that evidence is.

Nelson noted that Linfield did not participate in the AAUP’s investigation due to the ongoing litigation.

“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,” Nelson said.

Linfield Provost Susan Agre-Kippenhan echoed those sentiments in an email to faculty members last week, following the publication of the AAUP’s report. Agre-Kippenhan also wrote to faculty that “AAUP does not have official standing on our campuses nor authority in this matter.”

The AAUP report stated that Linfield has mentioned AAUP’s lack of “official standing” in the past, and it noted that most of the institutions the AAUP has investigated similarly did not have AAUP chapters on their campuses. It said that because Linfield did not participate in the investigation, it relied on accounts from other people, documents and Linfield’s president’s statements to the media.

“Contrary to the AAUP’s position, Linfield University unequivocally supports academic freedom and faculty tenure,” Linfield’s Nelson said in his statement. “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.”

Sullivan, Pollack-Pelzner’s attorney, said the former Linfield professor was gratified by the AAUP’s findings.

“It certainly validates his perspective, particularly the finding that he was acting in the university’s best interest, which was certainly how he felt at the time,” she said.

Sullivan said the trial will most likely be set for sometime next year.

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