Internal strife pits some faculty versus administration at Pacific
Pacific University is on the defensive again, as its handling of student complaints against a professor have attracted criticism from the higher education community.
Richard Paxton, a tenured professor of education at the private university in Forest Grove, was placed on leave last October amid a Title IX investigation. The university says it received multiple complaints about Paxton from students, including that he made allegedly transphobic comments on more than one occasion.
Paxton's attorney, Robin DesCamp, says the problems run deeper. As she sees it, the case against her client is just one example of how Pacific is pushing out employees without justification.
"People are scared, and people are angry," DesCamp said. "There are people who have been working at Pacific University for years who have been forced out of their jobs via threats, undue investigations, unsupported allegations and good old-fashioned bullying."
She added, "I have been contacted by many Pacific employees, both former and current, and all of them speak to me about a toxic and untenable environment in which older employees, and those with health issues, are made vulnerable by the egregious employment practices at Pacific."
Paxton was placed on leave after a virtual meeting with Leif Gustavson, dean of the College of Education, and Jennifer Yruegas, who serves as Pacific's general counsel, Title IX coordinator, associate vice president of human resources and associate dean of the College of Business.
According to DesCamp, in the meeting, after being informed of the Title IX complaint, Paxton was advised to either resign or face an investigation that would lead to him being fired.
Paxton refused to resign. He was subsequently suspended with pay and denied access to campus, Pacific IT systems, and faculty meetings both in the College of Education and the School of Learning and Teaching.
University President Lesley T. Hallick has maintained that Paxton's suspension and the Title IX investigation have followed the appropriate standards.
Allegations against professor
Pacific officials say the university received complaints of misconduct against Paxton, and that the complaints came from numerous students, across two academic programs, reporting a range of comments about gender, gender identity, race, and other protected characteristics, all in the classroom environment. The complaints also indicated that Paxton claimed he was immune to consequences for his comments due to tenure protections.
"We take these complaints very seriously, and we are following established federal regulations and internal governance processes to conduct an independent, external investigation," Pacific officials added in an emailed statement.
In a Feb. 1 letter addressed to Hallick, AAUP director Gregory F. Scholtz criticized Pacific University's "failure to afford academic due process" to Paxton and pushed for him to be immediately reinstated.
Among the allegations against Paxton is that he made students uncomfortable with a story he told about his experience with a drag bar in New Orleans about 20 years ago.
The story — which he claims to have told for the past 16 years without incident — was meant to illustrate the psychological schema theory of how the mind works, primarily through a process of assimilation and accommodation. According to DesCamp, Paxton said that while he and friends were seeking a quality jazz establishment, they noticed a place across the street that appeared promising.
"One of the things that got our attention was a group of frankly rather fine-looking ladies standing out front smoking. 'Looks promising,' we said," Paxton said, as relayed by DesCamp. "Yet upon getting closer to "where these ladies in short shorts were still hanging out smoking, we noticed a sign above the door. It said: 'Y'all come in. World's Best Female Impersonators.'
"Our attitudes changed. Our schemas were put in disequilibrium," Paxton continued. "A few nervous comments were exchanged, and we quickly decided to go somewhere else."
At least one student who heard the story reported Paxton over it, accusing him of transphobia. (For DesCamp's part, she argues the story cannot be transphobic because female impersonators, or "drag queens," are not transgender.)
That wasn't Paxton's only classroom comment about gender identity that was reported, according to Pacific.
Paxton received a memorandum from Pacific in December, about two months after his initial meeting with Gustavson and Yruegas, notifying him of the allegations against him, according to DesCamp.
According to the memo, a student in one of Paxton's fall courses said Paxton "told a story during which he stated that 'every person has a gender,' which ignored the gender identify of agender and nonbinary" and made "negative and gender-stereotyping comments." The professor also allegedly treated the complaint "dismissively" and with a "harsh" tone.
Additionally, five graduate students who worked with Paxton reported he made "negative and stereotypical comments" about ethnicity and gender, according to the memo.
Paxton, who is Jewish, allegedly said that "Jews funded the Revolutionary War," which DesCamp said was a reference to Paxton's own ancestor, Haym Salomon, a patriot and businessman who helped to finance George Washington's forces before the Battle of Yorktown.
Paxton also referred to how colleagues reacted to Donald Trump's election as president in 2016, according to the complaint, saying it was "weird" that some female instructors cried on election night.
Pacific says Paxton's case isn't about a lone instance or complaint, but rather a pattern of inappropriate behavior.
"This matter is not about one person interpreting a singular comment," the university said in a statement. "This involves numerous students reporting a range of comments about gender, gender identity, race, or other protected characteristics occurring in the classroom environment, along with statements implying that Pacific wouldn't or couldn't do anything about these comments due to tenure protections."
Pacific's statement added: "Pacific University respects tenure, but we also do not tolerate harassment, discrimination or retaliation of any kind."
DesCamp claims the university's lack of specifics is further proof that Professor Paxton did nothing wrong.
"Any comment can be about gender, race, et cetera, and still not be inappropriate or evidence of misconduct," she said. "They aren't giving specifics because they know what he said in class was not misconduct, did not implicate Title IX, and therefore their treatment of my client was improper."
Clashes over procedure
The Paxton case has drawn attention from national publications like Newsweek and Inside Higher Education.
According to Inside Higher Education, which first published an article about Paxton in late February, federal guidance for colleges and universities investigating sexual misconduct emphasizes due process for both the accuser and accused. Among other requirements, institutions are legally obligated to presume the accused is innocent prior to starting any investigation.
DesCamp says that hasn't been the case for her client, a complaint echoed by the AAUP's Scholtz.
Scholtz told the News-Times that the AAUP's biggest concern with the Paxton case is that he was involuntarily removed from the classroom for "apparently inadequate reasons and without any semblance of academic due process." Under AAUP standards, that action should only be taken in extreme cases, such as when there is a threat of immediate harm, or after a faculty hearing in which the administration demonstrates adequate cause for the suspension.
"Because such an action weakens tenure and the academic freedom it protects," Scholtz said. "If an administration can jerk faculty members out of a classroom and keep them out for six months with no process whatsoever, tenure doesn't really mean much at that institution, and every faculty member will wonder who's next?"
Pacific disagrees with any suggestion that Paxton has been denied due process, saying rather that his being put on administrative leave and the ongoing investigation is evidence to the contrary.
"To say that he was suspended without due process is inaccurate," the school said via email. "The investigation currently underway is due process, as outlined by all regulation and procedures. Dr. Paxton has, so far, opted not to participate."
DesCamp disputed the idea that suspending Paxton is "due process," and she takes issue with the way the university has conducted its investigation. She said Pacific repeatedly withheld evidence and information from Paxton, leaving him unable to fully defend himself.
"The university did not offer an interview with the investigator until about two weeks ago … and under unacceptable conditions," she said, adding, "Suspension is not a slap on the wrist, it's an extremely severe sanction by a university of a tenured professor."
The university has handed the investigation over to an independent investigator and hired outside legal representation.
What's at stake
Some faculty members are concerned about the bigger picture.
Andrew Dawes, a professor of physics and optometry and the interim president of the AAUP chapter at Pacific, has been a member of the faculty since 2008.
Overall, Dawes said, he considers his work environment to be "good," and as a member of the College of Arts and Sciences, he feels supported by his dean.
All the same, Dawes added, some faculty members feel they lack a safe place to raise concerns with university administrators.
"When budgets get cut, everyone worries, and the worry gets worse when longtime employees go away suddenly without much explanation," Dawes said. "There is an administrative structure that leaves many faculty feeling like they don't have an advocate on campus. I know other institutions have an official ombudsperson, and there has been some discussion of creating that role at Pacific. I think that would be helpful for reassuring employees."
Dawes added, "In any case, it is always important that all of our policies are clear and implemented in a way that protects the entire campus community."
Another current faculty member, who requested anonymity due to fear of repercussions, expressed similar concerns about Pacific's administrative structure. This faculty member referenced the Paxton case as an example of a "divide and conquer" approach by an administration that is operating in an "unbelievably concerning way."
Without providing names, the faculty member described "at least three, maybe four" other instances in which faculty members were "called into a meeting and had a piece of paper slid across the table to them that says 'resign now.'"
In a recent faculty meeting, university professors discussed Pacific's declining enrollment, which results in less revenue from tuition. A growing number of faculty members, along with DesCamp, believe Pacific is facing a potential financial crisis and that administrators are trying to shed payroll — difficult, when many of its best-paid employees have tenure.
"Older employees are expensive, and I think Pacific is methodically purging itself of faculty and staff who can be replaced by younger candidates who cost less," DesCamp said.
Pacific pushed back hard on that accusation, noting that the university has actually moved to increase employee pay.
"The concerns about Pacific eliminating large numbers of employees are unfounded and untrue," university officials stated in an email to the News-Times. "On the contrary, we have preserved faculty and staff positions, salaries and benefits during the pandemic year when many of our peer institutions have had to make significant budget reductions, and we have approved a salary increase for all employees effective July 1."
Since taking Paxton's case this past October, DesCamp claims she has spoken to 14 current or former employees at the school who have expressed varying degrees of concern over the work environment at Pacific.
In another letter to Hallick in early March, the AAUP's Scholtz warned that if the Paxton case is a blueprint for how Pacific handles allegations against faculty members, then "academic freedom, tenure and due process would have little meaning."
Pacific officials told the News-Times that, contrary to those concerns, the university's work environment is healthy and thriving.
"Faculty morale, by every gauge, remains very positive," they said via email. "No doubt, some faculty are suffering from low morale, especially given this past year with COVID-19. Many, however, report feeling optimistic and energized about their teaching, their scholarship, and their colleagues."
Pacific University made headlines last year when a former student, Carrie Taveira, wrote publicly about her experience with sexual assault and harassment on campus, describing how Pacific administrators shrugged off her concerns before she attempted to take her own life outside a student dormitory.
A petition on a website called "Pacific Doesn't Care," calling on the university to make changes to its policies and punish people named in Taveira's story, attracted more than 1,000 signatures.
Hallick repeatedly denied Taveira's allegations that staff at Pacific mishandled Taveira's complaints and said she was offered support.
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