2021 IN REVIEW: Pacific University barraged by lawsuits
While schools have been in the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic, Pacific University has found itself in the news a lot this year for different reasons.
The Forest Grove-based private university was slapped with lawsuits by three current and former employees this year, including tort claims filed in state court by professors Richard Paxton and David Scholnick and a federal suit brought by former mid-level administrator Fallon Hughes, who worked in the school of pharmacy.
All three plaintiffs allege Pacific discriminated against them, retaliated and attempted to force them out — in Paxton and Scholnick's cases, despite them having tenure.
The News-Times first reported on Paxton's battle with Pacific administrators in April, although it dates back to fall 2020 and was also written about by Inside Higher Ed, a national publication covering colleges and universities, in February.
Pacific officials say multiple students complained about off-color comments Paxton allegedly made about drag queens, gender identity and politics during classes. They commissioned a Title IX investigation into Paxton and suspended him — according to his attorney, Lisa DesCamp, after Paxton rebuffed administrators' suggestion that he resign.
Paxton filed suit against Pacific the following month, asking for more than $1.3 million in economic damages.
Oregon Public Broadcasting, the News-Times' media partner, also pursued this story throughout 2021, breaking news on the lawsuits brought by Scholnick and Hughes.
Scholnick sued Pacific a little more than two weeks after Paxton. Seeking nearly $2 million, Scholnick accused the university of manipulating him into resigning, then bilking him on the agreed-upon severance pay.
Scholnick's story is broadly similar to Paxton's. Like Paxton, he alleges that Pacific administrators tried to push him to resign by threatening him with a Title IX investigation, then conducted an incomplete investigation while shutting him out of the process.
Unlike Paxton, Scholnick wasn't the subject of student complaints; he alleges instead that he was accused of sexism for declining to support a female colleague's application for tenure, which he said was due to "ethics concerns" rather than her gender.
Hughes' complaint is somewhat more straightforward. In her federal lawsuit, filed in July, she alleges that Pacific administrators forced her to resign over "performance issues" after she twice took medical leave due to illness, prior to the pandemic. Hughes also alleges that she and another female employee were targeted by a restriction on working remotely after she complained of sexism in her department, which she argues was retaliatory.
All three lawsuits remain active and unresolved, although Scholnick's case is in arbitration.
Paxton died Dec. 21 from complications of pancreatic cancer. DesCamp says his suit against Pacific will continue, writing on Twitter after his death: "I will fight for him to the end."
Reacting to his death, DesCamp described Paxton as "a good man railroaded by the corrupt, inept and hypocritical administration at Pacific University." She said he and his widow, Kelly Paxton, hope both his lawsuit and a U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigation into Pacific University — which was launched over the summer as well — will clear Paxton's name and lead to changes at Pacific.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.