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Fired for Making Waves, Kutztown University Professor Takes Case to Federal Court

Until being fired in October 2009, Will Plouffe had been a tenure track professor in the Criminal Justice Department at Pennsylvania's Kutztown University for just under two years. Transitioning into academia from his previous career as an attorney, Plouffe was seemingly well-suited for a long, successful career. So what happened? In Plouffe's telling, the answer is depressing, and Plouffe's fate now lies in the hands of a federal district court in Pennsylvania.

Plouffe's story begins during his first semester teaching at Kutztown, in the spring of 2008, when he was approached by the department chair with an unethical proposition. According to the complaint Plouffe filed in federal court in April 2010, the chair pressured Plouffe to credit another professor as a co-author on forthcoming articles by Plouffe. Initially, Plouffe refused, but, after repeated inquiries, he eventually relented, asking that the other professor at least contribute some work to a forthcoming article. The other professor did not do so, and the article was not published, much to Plouffe's frustration.

More aggravations followed. Plouffe's complaint alleges that the other professor twice managed to wrest classes assigned to Plouffe away from him, each time with the approval of the department chair. After the second instance, Plouffe complained to the dean, who returned the class to Plouffe. While the department chair apologized to Plouffe, it was too late: Plouffe's refusal to go along with the typical department politics had earned him the enmity of both the other professor and the chair. When the fall semester came, Plouffe again found himself the target of internal departmental slights: he was pressured to help pass failing students, to withhold criticisms of scholarship produced by his superiors, to transfer oversight of a speaking series he had started to the other professor, and to hire an unqualified candidate to the department.

The pressure on Plouffe to acquiesce in the hiring of the unqualified candidate to the department proved to be the last straw. Plouffe refused, citing both professional ethics and, given the conflicts of interest apparent to Plouffe, state law. After the department tentatively agreed to hire the unqualified candidate, Plouffe complained to the provost and the university's Office of Social Equity. The Office of Social Equity agreed with Plouffe and removed the candidate from the department's consideration.

At this point, Plouffe claims in his complaint that he began to be shunned by his colleagues within the department. At the urging of the faculty union, Plouffe requested that the chair of the department not be allowed to participate in his evaluation at the end of his second year of teaching. Meanwhile, other faculty members told Plouffe that the department planned to fire him. The signs were ominous: Plouffe was not allowed to teach the classes he had been scheduled to teach during the spring and summer semesters of 2009, and his fall class was awarded to another professor.

Then, in fall of 2009, Plouffe was notified that he was the subject of a school investigation concerning his behavior in the Criminal Justice Department. Following a hastily-called pre-disciplinary hearing and after being denied sufficient opportunity to respond to the charges against him, Plouffe was informed in October of 2009 that he was being dismissed, effective immediately, for "fail[ing] to develop constructive working relationships within [the Criminal Justice Department]" and "contribut[ing] to significant conflicts that inhibit the ability of the department to function appropriately."

Plouffe was stunned by his dismissal, and he wasn't the only one. His teaching evaluations had been excellent, and his students posted signs around campus protesting Plouffe's firing. Kutztown's student newspaper, The Keystone, ran a piece exploring the circumstances surrounding the firing. The American Association of University Professors weighed in with a letter to Kutztown questioning the propriety of the university's actions. The faculty union continued to assist him in various ways, as well.

None of this support made a difference, however, and in April 2010, Plouffe filed a complaint in federal district court against Kutztown, Kutztown's President, the dean, the Criminal Justice department chair, the head of Kutztown's Human Resources department, and several other professors, in their official and individual capacities. Plouffe brought a host of charges, including First Amendment, due process, conspiracy to deprive of civil rights, and whistleblowing retaliation claims, as well as related tort claims. Plouffe asked for punitive damages and his job back, amongst other relief.

Since filing his case, Plouffe has drawn upon his experience as an attorney and has tirelessly represented himself pro se. (FIRE has sought help from our Legal Network. Interested attorneys should contact us for more information about the case.) Initial motions to dismiss were stayed by the district court judge, who ordered settlement proceedings with a court-appointed mediator. Negotiations went nowhere and the parties returned to the proceedings.

In a preliminary ruling issued April 12, 2011, District Court Magistrate Judge Mary A. McLaughlin held that Plouffe's complaint had stated sufficient claims against the defendants in their individual capacities on the First Amendment, whistleblowing retaliation, and conspiracy claims to move forward. Plouffe's remaining claims and all claims against the defendants in their official capacities were dismissed.

Plouffe has asked the court for certification for reconsideration on the claims that were dismissed or, in the alternative, findings of fact, findings of law, and an interlocutory appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The court has yet to rule on those motions, but it would seem that William Plouffe's case is far from over.

However Plouffe's case ends up getting resolved, his is a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of working in academia, as Kutztown and its officials seem to have a lot to answer for. We will keep you posted on developments in the case here on The Torch.

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