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And that’s how Pollack-Pelzner, a tenured professor of English, found out that he had been fired from the university where he’d worked for more than a decade.
Pollack-Pelzner’s unceremonious dismissal followed months of conflict with the university’s leadership. That war of words became public in March, when the professor posted a thread on Twitter in which he accused the university’s president and its Board of Trustees of abusing their power. His complaints centered on how allegations of sexual misconduct against several members of the board had been handled. In addition, Pollack-Pelzner, who is Jewish, said that he had been “religiously harassed” by the president.
It’s an ugly, complicated dispute, replete with charges and countercharges about proper university procedure and what, exactly, was said during closed-door meetings and in casual conversations. But there have already been reverberations beyond Linfield, a 1,900-student college in McMinnville, Ore., about an hour’s drive from Portland. So far the Anti-Defamation League has urged the president to resign; a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has started an investigation; and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has issued a statement saying it is “seriously concerned” about the situation.
And there remain plenty of questions to be answered, chief among them: What does it say about the state of tenure if a full professor can, without any hearing or warning, be fired on a Tuesday afternoon?
Then, according to Pollack-Pelzner, Davis brought up Jewish noses and how they were similar in length, he believed, to Arab noses. The professor found the remark out of place at the time, but he decided to let it go. He cited it in the thread he wrote in March as part of what he sees as a pattern of troubling remarks by the president, including — according to Pollack-Pelzner — minimizing the significance of swastikas found on dorm whiteboards in late 2019.
A campus investigation last August into the nose comment, along with other matters, called it a “he said, he said situation” and stated that Davis had denied saying it. But in an interview with The Chronicle, Davis confirmed that he had indeed made the comment about Jewish and Arab noses, which he said had been informed by the time he’d spent in the Middle East. He also insisted that the remark was part of an academic discussion and wasn’t meant to be offensive. Davis said he didn’t remember Pollack-Pelzner’s mentioning he was Jewish. As for minimizing the significance of the swastikas, Davis denied that allegation, and the campus investigation found that the complaint “could not be substantiated.”
Another comment by Davis has also raised eyebrows. Two psychology professors at Linfield, Jennifer R. Linder and Tanya Tompkins, said they recalled Davis, during a meeting in 2018 about transparency and budget cuts, making an off-color analogy about the Holocaust. “You don’t send Jews to the shower with soap,” Linder recalled him saying. (Tompkins remembered a slightly different phrasing.) No one reported the comment at the time, though the professors talked about it among themselves afterward. “We were sort of so shocked, and I remember a couple of us making eye contact,” Linder said. “We are in a vulnerable position. We wanted to endear ourselves to the president.”
For his part, Davis told The Oregonian that he didn’t remember making the comment, but that it was similar to an analogy by a professor of his comparing people who were fired to Jews entering a gas chamber. Davis said he would have attributed the comment to that professor if he had made it.
Contacted by The Chronicle on Wednesday, three people who had worked with Davis at Shenandoah University, where he was previously dean of the business school, said the allegations of anti-Semitic language sounded entirely out of character for the person they knew. “I could see the possibility of a misunderstanding, but I also could see the possibility that this is completely fake,” Clifford F. Thies, a professor of economics and finance at Shenandoah, said in an interview. “Those seem to me the only two possibilities.”
Bogdan Daraban, an associate dean and professor of economics at Shenandoah, and Ralph T. Good, an emeritus professor, both said they had never known Davis to display the kind of insensitivity of which he’s being accused.
The most serious allegations are against David Jubb, who left the board in 2019. Jubb has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple students. In one instance, according to The Oregonian, Jubb allegedly reached under the skirt of an undergraduate who was serving as a student representative on the board following a trustee dinner (the allegations were detailed in a lawsuit filed by the student). Jubb has pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges, including one felony count of first-degree sexual abuse.
Pollack-Pelzner said his months-long attempts to persuade the university to take more action and to change policies fell mostly on deaf ears. Along with training and more-stringent guidelines, he argued for “alternate formats for social events where it’s not getting drunk at a country club late at night.” Pollack-Pelzner said parts of a report he put together on sexual harassment had been censored by the board.
So he went public, on Twitter, laying out a number of the allegations in a 23-tweet thread that concluded with his contention that the “president and board will continue to abuse their power until someone with more authority stops them.”
Pollack-Pelzner posted that tweet on March 29. Almost exactly one month later, he was fired by the university. First, he received an email Tuesday morning from the provost, Susan Agre-Kippenhan, asking him to attend a Zoom meeting that afternoon to “discuss your employment at Linfield.” The professor said he had told the provost that he would like to have a lawyer present at the meeting if it was going to be about his employment, and that he would need time to retain one. As it turned out, though, there would be no meeting. Instead, a few hours later, Pollack-Pelzner’s work laptop was disabled, and a day later he received a FedEx delivery that contained a termination letter.
Pollack-Pelzner had tenure and held an endowed professorship. While he had publicly criticized the university, and aroused the ire of the president, he was a faculty member in good standing, as far as he knew. He said there had been no complaints about his scholarship or teaching. Could he be fired just like that?
Not according to the university’s faculty handbook, which lists a number of steps, drawn from recommendations by the American Association of University Professors, that seem mandatory, including having a faculty committee review all allegations against a professor under threat of dismissal. The handbook also says that such charges must be presented in writing at least 20 days before a hearing. None of that happened in this case.
When asked whether the faculty-handbook procedures had been followed in Pollack-Pelzner’s firing, Davis said that the handbook had “not been updated” and that there are a “number of things in that handbook that are not valid.” The handbook says “Fall 2020" on its title page, and the most recent update was in January of this year. The president said he was unaware of the guidelines, hadn’t seen the most recent version of the faculty handbook, didn’t know who had updated it, and didn’t believe it had been approved by the administration.
“I’ve been kind of dealing with the pandemic and keeping the institution open and going forward,” Davis said. “Our legal representation feels very comfortable with the basis for his termination.”
As for whether there should have been a period during which Pollack-Pelzner would have had a chance to respond to the charges against him, Davis replied with an analogy. “If a person walks up and punches a student in the face, you’re telling me I need to go convene a group of people before I take any action against them?” Davis said. The president added that Pollack-Pelzner’s allegations against him had caused pain for “my entire family and everybody in the institution who cares about truth.” Davis, who is Black, also argued that it was “very likely” that the allegations had been prompted in part by unconscious bias that white people, like Pollack-Pelzner, have toward “people who look like me in positions of power.”
So what did Pollack-Pelzner do to merit his dismissal? The president said that it had nothing to do with his fitness as a teacher or a researcher (though that’s the standard, according to the faculty handbook). Instead, he said, it was the result of Pollack-Pelzner’s having made a “number of statements that were blatantly false.” The example he cited is the professor’s stating, in a recent email to Linfield faculty members, that Jubb, the former trustee, faced eight felony counts. In fact, there is one felony charge against Jubb, along with seven counts of third-degree sexual abuse, which is a misdemeanor in Oregon. So eight criminal charges total, not all of them felonies.
Linfield’s position, officially, is that Pollack-Pelzner was fired for “serious breaches” of his duty to the university. Agre-Kippenhan, the provost, wrote in an email to the university on Tuesday that, “as a matter of policy and privacy, personnel matters are confidential, but maintaining that is not always possible — particularly when the precipitating events involve false public accusations that have, sadly, harmed the university.” In an interview, Agre-Kippenhan said that Pollack-Pelzner had been fired from the university under his status as an employee, not as a tenured professor, and that the faculty handbook needed to be revised because many of the provisions in it were “not entirely useful.”
Firing Pollack-Pelzner, said Dutt-Ballerstadt, sent a clear signal to anyone who would challenge the administration: “Everybody is a target right now.”
On Wednesday the chairman of Linfield’s English department resigned that post, “effectively immediately.” In an email to the dean of arts and sciences, David T. Sumner, the chairman, said he was stepping aside for health reasons. “I have been fielding emails from Daniel’s students,” he wrote. “But because I am no longer chair, I will now be forwarding those inquiries to you.” Sumner did not respond to an interview request.
After several professors, including Dutt-Ballerstadt and Pollack-Pelzner, publicly criticized the president, they were surprised to find themselves singled out for interviews with investigators from an area chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The faculty members first learned of the investigation in an April 20 email from Linfield’s director of human resources. They were subsequently informed that an administrative assistant from their college would help to schedule their interviews with the Salem Keizer Branch of the NAACP, which was investigating “allegations of racial animus at Linfield University.”
“It did not feel like an external investigation,” said Linder, who, after going public with the Holocaust story, was asked to meet with the investigators. Both subtly and overtly, critics at Linfield say, they’re getting the message that dissent isn’t welcome at the university.
Last week the College of Arts and Sciences voted no confidence in Davis and the board’s chairman, David C. Baca. On Saturday the college’s dean, Joe Wilferth, sent an email to his colleagues, noting the “glaring contrast” between the accomplishments he sees the university making and the “other narratives that bombard our inboxes daily.” The dean wrote that he was “perplexed” by the “vetting” of Linfield on social media and in news articles.
“In truth, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this,” Wilferth wrote, “and I struggle to make sense of it all — viz. the gaslighting while denouncing gaslighting, the calls for justice while denying due process, the use of divisive rhetoric to denounce alleged divisive rhetoric, and so on. I trust that this communication dynamic and the means by which we (or some of us) choose to communicate is not somehow a part of the ‘Linfield way’ or the new normal. I want no part of it, and I will actively work for a different and better way forward.”
Dutt-Ballerstadt described the email as a “horrific” effort to “silence us all.” Asked about this reaction, Wilferth said that his email “was not intended to silence dissent.”
“It’s unfortunate that a colleague took it that way,” Wilferth wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “To be fair, numerous colleagues responded and expressed gratitude for my message and the leadership it communicated.” In a follow-up email on Thursday, Wilferth wrote that any mention of the no-confidence vote should note that 59 faculty members had voted in favor of it, while “37 voted against or did not attend the meeting wherein the vote took place.”
In another move that some professors have interpreted as an effort to silence critics, Linfield on Sunday paused access to campus email lists, citing the use of such lists to send “unsolicited messages.” (Previously, someone had used such a list to share research, from a nonprofit group called the Center for Institutional Courage, positing that perpetrators often blame victims.)
With or without email lists, Linfield’s story attracted national attention as scholars elsewhere saw one of their own so easily cast aside. By Thursday afternoon in Oregon, a public letter in protest of the firing had been signed by more than 600 professors, calling for the AAUP to investigate. Denise Y. Ho, an assistant professor of history at Yale University, said she had been stunned to see on her Facebook feed the news about Pollack-Pelzner, with whom, as an undergraduate at Yale, Ho had taken a senior seminar. It’s a story that “has ricocheted all around social media,” she said. “Academics know what is happening.”
As for Pollack-Pelzner, he said he hadn’t slept in the nights since his dismissal. He’s still not sure what will happen with the students in his Shakespeare and British-literature courses, who were supposed to turn in their final projects on the same day he was fired. When news of his dismissal spread, some students condemned the decision by writing messages in chalk on campus sidewalks. A memo followed to resident advisers, The Oregonian reported, warning that at Linfield University sidewalk chalk can be used only with authorization. The messages were washed away by a staff member with a hose.