Marc Marenco is back teaching at Pacific University after a brush with the law, but his status at the Forest Grove school remains in question

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Marc Marenco makes a point on a chalkboard during an Ethics in Society class at Pacific University in October. The 61-year-old professor, who was arrested in 2012 after taking his young son out of the country, is back teaching a full slate of classes on the Forest Grove campus this fall. Inmate 13 reclines in a swivel chair, wearing a pinstriped shirt beneath a blue blazer and scribbling notes on a yellow legal pad inside a Pacific University lecture room, preparing to speak to his students.

“Inmate 13 in pod 36” is how 61-year-old ethics and philosophy professor Marc Marenco was known in a California jail — where he was the only graduate of Yale and Oxford universities among 15 orange-jumpsuited prisoners in a kitchen-sized cell with an open toilet.

That was in the spring of 2012. Now back at Pacific, where he has taught for 23 years, Marenco has a new one-year contract for 2013-14. He’s teaching Bioethics, Ethics in Society and First Year Seminar. He’s also working on a proposal for a criminal justice track that he says could get approval as a program of study at the university by fall 2014.

“I’m chock-a-block with nearly 70 students this term and loving being in the classroom with them,” Marenco said. He described students’ curiosity about his much-publicized brush with the law as “benign, even empathetic curiosity.”

For months, Marenco’s legal troubles — which began in 2010 when he spirited his young son off to New Zealand — were far more than a curiosity on Pacific’s Forest Grove campus. While some of his colleagues rallied to support him, others wondered why he was being paid while on the lam from the law and, later, behind bars. by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - A bearded and bespectacled Marc Marenco looks every bit the Yale- and Oxford-trained academician he is. But some current and former colleagues say his management of the now-defunct Pacific Institute for Ethics and Social Policy was less than pristine.

Today Marenco finds himself in a strange and precarious situation. Last fall he was stripped of his class load even though he still had a contract with the university, which continued to pay him — an arrangement some professors resented.

The rumblings and rumors subsided this fall, when Marenco returned with a willingness to open up — both in and out of the classroom — about certain parts of his legal odyssey.

His students seemed to like it.

“I think of it as a learning opportunity,” said sophomore Doug French. “His life experiences give him more of a background for teaching us.”

Colleagues’ responses are more mixed. For a soft-spoken, cerebral man, Marenco remains an oddly polarizing presence on campus, with a reputation that ranges from excellent to abysmal.

Beyond the ironic “ethics professor gets arrested” storyline, Marenco has managed to alienate a number of longtime colleagues on the small, private campus. At times, some of them say, he hasn’t acted collaboratively or carried his weight in the departments he’s served.

Colleagues’ descriptions of him range from “maverick,” “independent” and “visionary” to “absent-minded,” “self-absorbed” and “lone wolf.”

But they all agree there is one very powerful person at Pacific who seems intent on getting Marenco to leave: John Miller, provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Miller, who quietly brought a high-powered lawyer to Forest Grove to investigate Marenco, declined to be interviewed for this story, but sources say he offered Marenco a buyout arrangement in exchange for his resignation.

It’s not as if Marenco is the only professor at the university with problems or mixed teaching reviews. But it can be difficult to get rid of tenured college professors. And the handcuffs police locked around Marenco’s wrists 19 months ago gave Miller a unique opening to pursue his dismissal.

Domestic troubles

University officials are usually happy to see their professors on the Internet — speaking as experts on an academic topic or releasing a paper or book. But google Marc Marenco and one of the first things you’ll see is his mug shot, at the top of an August 2012 news story reporting his sentencing in Washington County Circuit Court to five years’ probation for second-degree custodial interference, a low-level felony.

It’s the stuff of college leaders’ nightmares. They wonder what the families of prospective Pacific students will think.

Marenco understands the concern. by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Pacific University ethics professor Marc Marenco (center) gathers on the front porch of his house in Forest Groves Old Town neighborhood with his wife, his children and his elderly father.

An arrest and conviction can define a person’s life, especially if it keeps showing up on the Internet, he said. It’s as if “nothing I’ve done matters anymore, except being arrested in San Francisco.”

Police took Marenco into custody at the San Francisco International Airport upon his return to the United States May 15, 2012, because he had taken his son out of the country in December 2010 during a bitter and protracted legal fight with his then-wife, who now lives in Washington state.

Marenco says he fled to New Zealand to “rescue” his then-9-year-old son from what he alleges was “violent and abusive” behavior toward the boy by his mother.

Marenco’s former wife vigorously disputes those allegations. As with any acrimonious breakup, the “he-saids” and “she-saids” present opposite pictures that are difficult, if not impossible, to sort out.

Marenco says his attorney assured him that because he had sole custody of his son at the time, he would not be committing a crime if they left Oregon. But the trip violated the visitation portion of the ex-couple’s custody agreement and parenting plan.

“I only wanted a time-out for a thorough risk assessment to be done,” Marenco says.

In June 2011, while Marenco was abroad, a judge in Washington County reversed custody as part of an effort to force Marenco home, creating grounds for his arrest when his plane landed in California. He was transferred to the Washington County Jail after three-and-a-half weeks at San Mateo.

In August 2012, Marenco pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree custodial interference, a Class C felony, in Washington County Circuit Court. That conviction was later reduced to a misdemeanor.

As an ethics professor, Marenco knows the line between ethical and legal behavior is sometimes surprisingly thin — and that it shifts depending on who is examining it, and from what perspective.

He’s well aware students and others might be judging his fitness to excurse on ethics after breaking the law himself.

But rather than denying or hiding his time in jail, he’s embracing it as a teaching tool. He occasionally mentions his personal story, leaving out the more sordid details, as a jumping-off point for class discussions.

“What happened is just a fact and an interesting experience I draw upon to be a good educator,” he says.

French, a public health major, sat through an Oct. 7 panel discussion of contemporary crime and punishment moderated by Marenco. He said that for him, his professor’s choices and their repercussions weren’t an issue.

“In my mind there’s no real correlation between law and ethics. Everything might be either legal or illegal, but not necessarily ethical,” said French. “Nothing is black and white. There are always shades of gray.”

As far as Pacific faculty members go, many view Marenco’s legal troubles as “a family matter,” said Lisa Sardinia, a biology professor who has worked with Marenco. “The question becomes, ‘Does being convicted of a misdemeanor make you an unethical person?’”

Miller stays mum

Among those in Pacific’s upper echelons, Miller seems the most intent on separating Marenco from his association with the university.

Earlier this year Pacific hired Eugene attorney Melinda Grier to look into Marenco’s personal and professional actions. Grier, who now runs a private consulting practice, served as the University of Oregon’s legal counsel for at least a decade and took some heat for her role in the saga over the decision to pay former athletic director Mike Bellotti $2.3 million when he left the university.

Grier, who sources say charges between $200 and $400 an hour for her services, interviewed a number of Pacific faculty members — friends and foes of Marenco — during a weeks-long inquiry this past spring and summer, listening to stories about his legal wranglings as well as the quality of his relationships with staff and students and his reputation as a teacher.

To date, that report has not been made public or shared even with Marenco.

Miller declined to comment on the matter, calling on Pacific’s public relations office to issue a response.

“Pacific University maintains confidentiality regarding personnel matters on behalf of our employees and the university,” Media Relations Director Joe Lang wrote in a Nov. 12 email to the News-Times.

Of the various people who spoke to the News-Times for this story, many felt that Miller’s focus on Marenco started well before the professor’s arrest.

“Provost Miller has wanted to get rid of Marc for a long time before all this happened,” said Sardinia, one of the few willing to speak on the record. When his legal troubles hit, “It was kind of like he said, ‘Now I’ve got you.’”

Institute’s rise and fall

Many of Marenco’s colleagues’ views are influenced by the institute he helped form.

The now-defunct Pacific Institute for Ethics and Social Policy (PIESP) was founded in 2001, in Marenco’s philosophy department office on campus.

In March 2003 it moved across College Way to office space at the United Church of Christ, then relocated again, four years later, in the basement of Pacific’s Carnegie Hall.

The institute won a $257,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2005 to implement the two-year Faith Forum on Genetics project. That was a coup for Pacific, which operates several other study centers, none of which, at the time, had garnered so large a financial prize.

Over a decade, PIESP hosted a variety of gatherings, among them:

n A 2002 town hall, “People Without Papers,” looked at the impact of 9/11 on immigration policy in Oregon.

n The Faith Forum on Genetics symposiums in 2005 and 2006, in which Marenco and Sardinia partnered with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon to “engage religious communities in moral reasoning processes related to genetic research and development,” Sardinia said.

n A less-successful 2007 NIH-grant-funded conference at the Portland Hilton, “Challenging Assumptions: Religious Faith, Genetics Science & Human Dignity,” drew criticism for attracting a leaner than expected crowd.

Besides the big NIH grant, over its life the institute won other substantial monetary awards, including $65,300 from a slate of benefactors ranging from the Northwest Health Foundation and the national office of the United Church of Christ to the Hillsboro Police Department.

Yet Marenco was called upon to respond to criticisms in 2008. In a letter to then-College of Arts & Sciences dean John Hayes — posted on the institute’s website — Marenco defended budgeting and administrative practices in areas ranging from the institute’s Web page to his ability to put on a fruitful conference.

Some felt the NIH award should have put the institute on a path to becoming self-sustaining. Instead, PIESP folded in early 2011, a few months after Marenco left Oregon with his son.

Sardinia, who turned down an invitation to take over as PIESP’s interim director, said the institute was failing before Marenco went to New Zealand. She was sad to see it disappear.

“I think we did some good things and could have continued on,” she said. “After Marc left, no one else wanted to be the director, so it just died.”

By then, sources say, several of the institute’s board members had walked away, disgruntled over what they viewed as Marenco’s lack of follow-through on programming details, as well as what they described as administrative inefficiencies ranging from inattention to outright mismanagement.

“He was not working very hard,” said one former colleague.

Marenco himself acknowledged that administration is not his strong suit.

But Kim Monteleone, who worked with Marenco at the PIESP as a part-time executive assistant for eight months, described him as “very effective” as the institute’s director.

“He was a brilliant speaker,” said Monteleone, who later served as an administrative assistant to former Pacific President Phil Creighton. “He pulled together large groups of people from different backgrounds to discuss important topics after 9/11.

“He was very passionate about [the institute], and in the beginning was running it on practically zero funds.”

Mixed reviews

Sardinia, who has seen the best and worst of Marenco, understands the criticism.

“There are people on campus who don’t like Marc,” said Sardinia, who herself at times has been frustrated with what she views as Marenco’s poor organizational skills. She had to shoulder one of his projects when he fled to New Zealand, and has occasionally been exasperated by his quirks and foibles.

“Sometimes he annoys me to no end. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good teacher,” said Sardinia, who has known Marenco since 1998. “Every year I have students who talk to me about Marc. They just can’t say enough about how much they love him.”

John Medeiros, one of Pacific’s physical therapy professors, praised Marenco’s role in creating an integrated curriculum in bioethics at the university’s School of Physical Therapy. The new curriculum has been “hugely successful,” Medeiros said, “because it requires students to discuss the ethical challenges they will face as clinicians” rather than simply listen to bioethics lectures.

Marenco is “exceptional at fostering class discussion,” Medeiros said.

Students interviewed by the News-Times all said they like the way Marenco folds real-life experiences into classroom discussions.

Madeleine Ottoson, an environmental toxicology major, said Marenco has read from notes he took while in cell 36. “We talk about theories — what can be classified as right or wrong,” said Ottoson.

Education major McKenzie Brock also finds Marenco’s story intriguing. “His talking about it is a positive thing,” she said. “People’s life experiences contribute positively if they let them.”

Most folks “don’t speak as openly,” added Brock, who appreciates her professor’s candor. “It takes away the stigma” about what some construe as wholly negative behavior, she said: “Just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”

Uncertain future

Marenco and his children’s mother have divorced, and last March he married Alejandra Huerta-Zepeda, a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Puebla, Mexico. The couple lives in Forest Grove’s Old Town neighborhood.

Marenco continues to seek sole custody of his son, who is now 12. “We are in the middle of a custody evaluation,” he said.

His daughter is currently living with Marenco while attending Pacific for free due to a special tuition deal for children of faculty members.

Marenco would not discuss the buyout offer, but sources say the professor-under-fire turned it down.

Professionally, Pacific University has been Marenco’s home for more than two decades. He is neither defiant nor repentant about the actions that landed him in jail. But he is hoping for the university’s forbearance.

“I’m very grateful to the university for looking at the truth of the matter and the opportunity it is affording me as an educator, rather than just what otherwise might be perceived shallowly as ‘bad press,’” he said. “Colleagues who know me well know why we did what we did. Colleagues who don’t know me well, [but] take time to look at our situation, understand I was acting out of the profound needs of my son at the time.”

Marenco is due for a performance evaluation by the university’s personnel committee in February. That report is expected to go upline to Miller and, eventually, to President Lesley Hallick.

Between now and then, Miller could make a formal move to fire Marenco. If that happens, one possible response would be a wrongful termination lawsuit, brought by the American Association of University Professors on Marenco’s behalf. Marenco is hoping it doesn’t come to that.

Meanwhile, he has learned to live with uncertainty. He’d like to stay inside the Pacific fold, he said.

“I didn’t know, after a decade working with graduate students, whether I would connect with undergrads,” said Marenco. “I do, and especially dig teaching First Year Seminar. It’s a pleasant surprise.”

Editor’s note

At what point does something become newsworthy? That’s a question we ask regularly at the News-Times, and this week’s story about Pacific University Professor Marc Marenco shows that it can sometimes be a difficult one to answer.

Marenco’s custody battle came to our attention several years ago and we decided it was a personal matter, even though he’s a fairly high-profile figure in our community. That was still our view when we learned he’d abruptly left the country with his son.

However, his arrest upon his return pushed the dispute into the news and we reported it. But we also began a conversation with him about how we might cover the story in-depth should he return to campus.

So, over the last nine months, Marenco sat for interviews, describing his jail experience, his academic activities, his legal odyssey and how he decided whether to take a buyout offer from the university.

We also collected enough insights from people who know or have worked with Marenco — both on and off the record — to provide a rarely-available glimpse into some of the inner workings at Pacific: a small, private academic community that also happens to be Forest Grove’s second-largest employer.

From Yale to jail

Pacific University Professor Marc Marenco once traded his breakfast for a torn brown paper bag.

That was in 2012, during his three-and-a-half weeks in the San Mateo County Jail in California, where he says he used writing to cope with everything from abusive guards to a worm-infested prison cell to handcuffs and chains.

“I have 51 pages of notes written on toilet paper and the backs of shopping bags. We were not supposed to have those means of expression,” Marenco said.

Handwritten notes on the bag include:

“May 17 Restless night. Breakfast 3:30 in a daze. Inspection at 6:30 and now soon Lunch at 9:30. Sandy came for a visit. Mostly not so good news ... Now in large cell with 15 people, bunks 3 high. TV droning in the room at left there is a telephone. Collect calls only. 1st minute $4.80.”

“There are lots of reasons that cause someone to lose their freedom,” the Ivy League-educated Marenco recently told a class full of Pacific students. “Things often go right, but when things go wrong, they can go wrong real bad, real fast.”

Jail, he said later, “makes you either a good Buddhist, or crazy, or violent ... I dug deep into my Buddhist roots while I was in jail.”

At the News-Times’ request, Marenco recently wrote down some of his reflections about his time in San Mateo, based on the notes he scribbled while in jail:

“You are one of 15 men in a room the size of our kitchen in Forest Grove. I sat naked in a concrete holding cell for 3 hours with three other inmates. One was white and had small bruises and sores all over his body where he had injected drugs of some kind. The other two were black and they talked fast.

“After we were issued our orange jumpers, ‘sporks’ (a do-it-all eating utensil), and toothbrush (with toothpaste in a small clear tube to prevent hiding something in it) we were led shackled at the waist and legs to our ‘Pod.’ I overheard one of the guards saying to the black guys, ‘See that orange shirt? That means I have the right to shoot you in the butt. But I like you so I’m just going to kick you in the balls.’

“Pod 37 was nearly full. Someone had left recently so I was able to get a lower bunk against a wall. That night I brushed my teeth. As I brushed I glanced down and saw what I thought was a piece of spaghetti in the toilet, a one piece stainless steel fixture next to the sink, it suddenly moved and I realized it was a worm. I noticed that at the bottom of the shower fixture something was glistening. I looked closer and it was a colony of maggots going in and out along the cracked shower base. Later I saw small black flies of a type I’d never seen before coming up through the drains. After lights dimmed down at night I disobeyed the rules and tied my pillow case around my head to help prevent these flies from getting into my eyes.

“I understand life is a good deal better in state prison and those that were headed there seemed to look forward to it. As for me, my experience in county jail is that it first jolts you into the state of a frightened animal and then slowly leaches away whatever remaining life resources you bring with you into jail. You are bombarded with noise 24/7 because all surfaces are hard. There is never enough silence or darkness to sleep more than an hour or so from exhaustion.

“Breakfast is at 3:30 in the morning with inspections at 6:30. Disorientation is the natural state. One wall is plexiglass, like some of the cages at the Portland zoo. You piss and defecate not only in front of other inmates but in front of the guards, sometimes women.

“A guard who seems friendly may suddenly and for no reason kick the pod door closed with great force and grin as we inmates cower.

“You learn to time requests to do things like sharpen the stubs of pencils we’re sometimes allowed. You never look into the eyes of a guard. You take furtive glances and make your bet.

“The guards couldn’t find the toenail clippers once, something you have to ask for and risk being yelled at to use. They forced us all out into the room in the middle of the pods in the middle of the night and made us stand there until someone confessed. They let us back in and then pulled us out again; and then again. They grew weary of it all and then in the morning found the clippers on the floor near the guards’ desk.

“You become docile, dependent, and anxious. You have to fight hard to maintain any semblance of cognitive life. I bargained food for bits of paper other inmates had so I could write to stay sane.

“Not wanting to ask to sharpen my pencil I would use my fingernails to keep it capable of laying down lead. I used toilet paper to try to block out some of the noise.  

“I became known in my pod as ‘the professor,’ and interestingly they seemed to generally be protective of me, almost proud. When they would let us walk in the larger common room, around in circles, I would take something to read if I could find it and read and walk. Soon I found one inmate and then another following me in the circle trying to read as well. I did get to know some of my pod mates and am trying to do some writing about that.”

Marenco makes clear that his experience at the jail in Hillsboro was dramatically better than in California: “Washington County Jail is hotel Hilton compared to San Mateo.”

Nonetheless, he says, incarceration anywhere is a dangerously dehumanizing experience.

“Every time I now pass the Washington County Jail, I cross myself and think about my mates on the other side of the wall, wanting to yell at the drivers around me, ‘Damn it ... don’t you understand that that square concrete shell of a building with the frosted slits for windows is FULL of human beings leached of their humanity, being prepared for nothing but an emotionally incapacitated life on the outside?’”

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