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UPDATE: Linfield University will pay professor more than $1 million after firing him for criticizing university president

Riley Center at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon

(DerRichter / via Wikimedia Commons)

In 2022, Linfield University had the dishonorable distinction of cracking FIRE’s “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list for the first time. In 2023, the Oregonian institution will start the year by paying out a total of $1,037,500 to Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, a former English professor abruptly fired in April 2021. His offenses? Taking issue with remarks about “Jewish noses” by Linfield’s president and raising concerns about student and faculty allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate contact by board trustees.

The alleged retaliatory firing formed the basis for Pollack-Pelzner’s lawsuit against the university. He learned about his own termination when he attempted to send an email from a personal address to his Linfield email and got an automated response telling him he was no longer employed. While Linfield continues to dispute its former professor’s claims, the university agreed to the sizable settlement on Monday. Now, almost two years, Pollack-Pelzner is moving on.

“Everyone should be able to work and study without fear of discrimination or harassment, and everyone should be able to report their safety concerns without fear of retaliation,” Pollack-Pelzner said. “I’m grateful for the many students, alumni, and colleagues who joined me in demanding change and refused to be silenced when Linfield failed to uphold these essential principles.”

Even more surprising than  Linfield President Miles K. Davis’ admission to making remarks about “Jewish noses” to Pollack-Pelzner is the university’s retaliation against a tenured professor. President Davis and Linfield administrators advanced a series of contradictory excuses, feigning ignorance regarding the rights of tenured faculty members. As we wrote when Pollack-Pelzner filed suit:

After Pollack-Pelzner was summarily terminated, President Davis and Provost Susan Agre-Kippenhan unwisely gave a series of interviews demonstrating that they either do not understand what tenure means or believe that they have found a get-out-of-tenure-free card. The senior administrators claimed alternatively that Linfield had no policies, the policies were outdated, or they didn’t apply because Pollack-Pelzner was fired as an employee, not as a professor. 

If ignorance is bliss, shelling out over $1 million as a result of your own misconduct must be more akin to a gut punch.

When Linfield decided that squashing the speech rights of Pollack-Pelzner wasn’t enough, the university began removing signs in support of the professor posted by students and faculty around campus. Suddenly, Linfield’s academic freedom violation Bingo card really started filling up.

“Everyone should be able to work and study without fear of discrimination or harassment, and everyone should be able to report their safety concerns without fear of retaliation,” Pollack-Pelzner said.

Naturally, FIRE stepped up with a letter of support on behalf of Pollack-Pelzner in 2021. Linfield lost a longtime donor and trustee who resigned her position after saying she could no longer serve “in good conscience.” As institutional and reputational damage began to take shape, Linfield found itself embroiled in a lawsuit that Pollack-Pelzner had hoped not to bring before he was suddenly terminated.

“Ultimately, we hope his case sends a clear message that sexual harassment must not be tolerated on any campus and that institutions that seek to silence whistleblowers will be held to account,” said Pollack-Pelzner’s attorney, Dana L. Sullivan. 

FIRE takes no joy in watching universities shell out enormous sums of money to faculty that have been wronged. Perhaps President Davis, or the board of trustees that still employs him, might query how much money — and face — Linfield might have saved if it had just listened to FIRE’s advocacy in the first place. In the aftermath of the settlement decision, Pollack-Pelzner himself put it best: “If you don’t follow your own policies, you’ll have high costs to bear.”

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