A tenured professor was fired with a hearing. Why?

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This week Daniel Pollack-Pelzner found out he was fired from Linfield University when his MacBook froze and a message said he was locked out. He couldn’t get into his university email, and an auto-reply from his personal account to his Linfield address said, “Daniel Pollack-Pelzner is no longer an employee of Linfield University.”

Pollack-Pelzner was a tenured English professor. He’d taught at the university for more than a decade. And without a hearing or warning, he was fired on Tuesday afternoon.

At first the situation seemed like the classic president versus professor conflict. But this dispute prompted nationwide scrutiny, and fears among other tenured professors about what could happen to them. The Anti-Defamation League urged Miles K. Davis, Linfield’s president, to resign. A chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People started an investigation. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued a statement expressing its concern about the situation.

Here’s the short of it: Davis and Pollack-Pelzner met in 2018 shortly after Davis began leading Linfield. Pollack-Pelzner, a Shakespeare scholar, told the president that he was teaching The Merchant of Venice and that it was both important and complicated for him to teach the play, as a Jewish professor. In the play, the character Shylock is a Jewish moneylender, and the name can be used as an anti-Semitic slur. Pollack-Pelzner said that Davis then brought up Jewish noses and said that he thought they were similar in length to Arab noses. For Pollack-Pelzner, that peculiar comment marked the start of problematic remarks from Davis.

The president told The Chronicle he did make the comment but that it was a part of an academic discussion — with no intention to offend.

In 2019, David Jubb, a longtime member of Linfield’s Board of Trustees, resigned from his post after he was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple students. One student representative on the board filed a lawsuit against the university, and Jubb pleaded not guilty to eight criminal charges, including one felony count of first-degree sexual abuse.

Pollack-Pelzner pushed administrators to change policies and hold training to prevent sexual abuse. He put together a report on sexual harassment, but it was censored by the board. That’s when Pollack-Pelzner went public in a Twitter thread. In the thread, Pollack-Pelzner also wrote that he was “religiously harassed” by the president and board chair.

A month after posting the thread, Pollack-Pelzner was fired. According to the university’s faculty handbook, the institutions should take several steps before a professor is fired. They include having a faculty committee review allegations made against a professor, and that accusations should be handed down in writing at least 20 days before a hearing. Neither of those happened.

Though the handbook says “Fall 2020" on its title page, and it was most recently updated in January 2021, Davis said it had “not been updated,” and he had not seen the most recent version of the book.

There’s also the race element. Davis, who is Black, argued that the allegations are, in part, unconscious bias against a Black man in power. On April 20, Linfield’s HR director emailed some professors who criticized Davis about interviews with investigators from a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. An administrative assistant also told professors that they would help schedule interviews with the Salem Keizer Branch of the NAACP, which was conducting its own investigation. One critic who was asked to meet with investigators said, “It did not feel like an external investigation.”

Critics say that recent moves make them feel like dissent is unwelcome at Linfield.

By Thursday afternoon, hundreds had signed a public letter protesting Pollack-Pelzner’s firing and calling on the American Association of University Professors to investigate.

Read Tom Bartlett and Jack Stripling’s story on the dispute here.

Lagniappe.

  • Learn. These days there’s a subscription service for razors, movie-streaming, pet toys, and snacks, to name a few examples. Here’s why.
  • Read. Here’s a story that screams “2021.” A photo of Zoë Roth when she was 4 years old was turned into a meme. Roth is now 21 and a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She sold the ownership rights to the meme and plans to use the profits to pay off her student loans, among other things. (The New York Times, The News & Observer)
  • Listen. Yasmin Williams learned to play the guitar after playing the video game Guitar Hero in 2009. Her latest album of acoustic music, Urban Driftwood, shows just how much she’s mastered the instrument. (Spotify)
  • Watch. This explainer details the messy truth of recycling. (YouTube, NPR)

Cheers,

—Fernanda

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