Why is Linfield University investigating English professor Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt?
Today, she enters a third week as the subject of a major university inquiry — complete with an outside investigator — still awaiting an answer to that most basic question.
Linfield told Dutt-Ballerstadt it commissioned an investigation of her late last month, a few days after she poked fun at the business school on her personal social media accounts, praising English majors and emphasizing tensions between Linfield’s English department and business school. Now it appears to be doubling down on ditching due process for faculty. Linfield announced via newsletter last week that all employee complaints are confidential. So confidential, it seems, that faculty accused of wrongdoing like Dutt-Ballerstadt are not allowed to know why they’re even being investigated.
So far, Linfield has provided Dutt-Ballerstadt only cryptic clues via email, specifically: a supposed “series of events” which took place in TJ Day Hall, where the English department and business schools are both housed, and “on social media.”
As FIRE and Dutt-Ballerstadt attempt to crack the code, Linfield included in its March 31 newsletter updated protocols surrounding the complaint “processes” that assertedly “are not new” but are “now more clearly stated in the handbook.” The timing is interesting, as are the changes.
This section of the newsletter said:
When an employee reports a complaint of any kind, confidentiality is vital to support an environment in which that employee can feel confident the issue will be investigated thoroughly, resolved as appropriate based on the facts and done so without fear of publicity.
Every employee deserves to have their concerns heard, and sometimes those concerns must be investigated to reach a full understanding of the facts. In such cases, we may utilize an independent investigator unaffiliated with Linfield to conduct the investigation. An impartial, fair and confidential process to investigate complaints is an important component to building a community in which all members feel safe and able to succeed professionally.
Confidentiality may make those who submit complaints more comfortable, but the most basic tenets of due process require making the targets of investigations aware of the complaints levied against them so they can properly respond.
Two weeks after Dutt-Ballerstadt learned of the formal investigation, she still is not privy to what she allegedly did wrong. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, which accredits Linfield, requires that the university “exemplifies high ethical standards in managing and operating the institution” including “in the fair and equitable treatment of” faculty, and that “complaints and grievances are addressed in a fair and timely manner.” Linfield’s actions toward Dutt-Ballerstadt are anything but “ethical,” “fair,” and “timely.” This is unacceptable and has almost certainly created a chilling effect extending beyond Dutt-Ballerstadt, impacting the speech of other Linfield faculty members.
While certain confidentiality standards can help ensure a fair process for all parties, universities cannot keep mere allegations confidential from the subject of the investigation in a manner that prevents them from meaningfully responding. Linfield has a responsibility to respect the rights of the accused faculty just as much as those of the complainant — and thus far, Linfield has thrown Dutt-Ballerstadt’s due process and expressive rights aside.
Additionally, while FIRE agrees employees “deserve to have their concerns heard,” that does not mean the university should investigate all complaints it receives, which Linfield itself acknowledges by stating that “sometimes” the concerns must be investigated. In the case of speech protected by the university’s free expression and academic freedom promises — as appears to be the case here — an investigation is not necessary and, in fact, chills speech. The university should conduct a preliminary review of the allegations to determine whether the speech is protected before either launching an investigation or summarily dismissing the complaint.
Linfield has shown that it cannot defend its actions in private or in public.
Over the past year, Linfield has revealed itself as a bad actor when it comes to protecting faculty expressive and due process rights. After FIRE first raised concerns, instead of acknowledging its wrongdoing in investigating Dutt-Ballerstadt, Linfield doubled down, securing outside counsel to claim there’s additional information, and to invoke a Supreme Court case which does not support Linfield’s position. And when FIRE asked the university to enlighten us and Dutt-Ballerstadt regarding the nature of the charges: silence.
Thus far, Linfield has shown it cannot defend its actions in private or in public. FIRE will continue to pressure Linfield to do the right thing and, at minimum, provide Dutt-Ballerstadt with the allegations against her.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).