Editor's Note: This article was first updated on April 16, 2021 to include Pacific University President Hallick's reply to the National Association of Scholar's Open Letter. We updated the article a second time on April 28, 2021 to include NAS President Peter Wood's second letter to President Hallick. Dr. Wood's first letter, President Hallick's response, and Dr. Wood's second letter are all included below.
Our open letter was made public on April 13, 2021, to further pressure Pacific University to ensure fair and equal treatment of its faculty, staff, and students. It is part of a broader NAS effort to counter cancel culture in higher education.
We do not urge readers who are unacquainted with the cases to rush forward with emails, letters, or posts. Rather, we ask readers to weigh the facts and check our accounts against other sources. If you then agree that a college or university has acted in bad faith or counter to the core principles of liberal inquiry, then we do indeed urge you to speak up.
For those interested, we are also tracking attempted professor cancellations here.
Peter Wood's Letter to Pacific University President Hallick
Dr. Lesley Hallick
President, Pacific University
2043 College Way
Forest Grove, Oregon 97116
March 26, 2021
VIA ELECTRONIC MAIL to [email protected]
Dear President Hallick:
I write to take exception to your treatment of Richard Paxton, a full, tenured professor in the College of Education, who has been effectively fired after being told last October that he may have violated the civil rights of his students.
I am President of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), a network of academics and citizens committed to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship and excellence and integrity in higher education.
By all accounts, Professor Paxton’s dismissal stems from his commentary during his class, Foundation of Human Development and Psychology, where he told a story about his colleagues’ perceptions of gender outside a bar in New Orleans. Initially, they thought that those waiting outside were women but later realized they were female impersonators. Professor Paxton has told this story almost every year that he has taught this class at Pacific University but apparently this year the anecdote prompted a complaint from some students. They claimed that Professor Paxton was insensitive to issues of sex and gender, among other things.
I was for a significant portion of my career an associate provost of a large university and later provost of a small college. I know that student complaints, though sometimes trivial, have to be taken seriously. When allegations are made, responsible administrators gather the facts and do their best to make sober assessments. And that of course means respecting due process and, if necessary, teaching the complainants something about temperance.
We—our country, but especially our universities—are at a bad time when it comes to that quality. Very small irritations are turning into very large indictments almost overnight. And many administrators worry about getting in the way of the juggernaut of “woke” sentiment.
I don’t jump into these matters without doing some homework. NAS has been in communication with Professor Paxton’s attorney, Ms. Robin DesCamp, and her description of Pacific’s response to these complaints is troubling. It suggests the school did not respect basic fairness toward Professor Paxton, including the presumption of his innocence. For example, NAS was told that at approximately 2 o’clock on Friday, October 9, Ms. Jennifer Yruegas, Counsel to Pacific University and also its Title IX Coordinator, called and texted both Professor Paxton and his wife to insist upon an emergency Zoom meeting 15 minutes later. Professor Paxton agreed and attended along with the Dean of the College of Education, Dr. Leif Gustavson.
At that meeting, Ms. Yruegas apparently informed Dr. Paxton that he implicated the civil rights of his students who had complained that he was sexist, racist and anti-Semitic. She then demanded that he resign by the following Monday or else be subjected to a Title IX investigation which would not only terminate his appointment at Pacific University, but would also ruin his reputation and therefore also his prospects for other employment. She also forbade him from speaking to anyone else about the matter, banned him from campus and offered to draft resignation papers (a “soft landing”) which she promised would include 6 to 12 months of severance pay.
Within an hour, Ms. Yruegas emailed Dr. Paxton the resignation agreement, called the “Voluntary Separation and Release Agreement,” which included three months of severance, not the six to twelve originally discussed, and included a pledge to “not initiate a Title IX review of Employee’s conduct.” Though the Release stated that he had 21 days to sign, Ms. Yruegas told him that Title IX required an answer within two days – that is, by Monday, October 12.
Dr. Paxton later learned that on that very Friday, Pacific University had been the target of campus protests in what was called the “Pacific Doesn’t Care Campaign.” Apparently, an adjunct professor at the College of Music had been hired despite an accusation of rape against him and feminist groups had then organized these demonstrations.
Over the weekend of October 10, Professor Paxton retained DesCamp as legal counsel and on Monday, October 12, she emailed Ms. Yruegas to request a phone call. Ms. Yruegas declined, explaining that she was giving the matter to an investigation team, which would send a formal notification of the investigation and a notification of “the suspension occurring during the investigation period.” An email sent later that day from Ms. Yruegas stated, “This letter is to serve as formal notice of Richard Paxton’s paid administrative leave beginning today, October 12, 2020.”
For two months thereafter, Ms. DesCamp repeatedly sent emails requesting more information regarding the alleged offense. Those queries were sent not only to Ms.Yruegas but also to the investigator hired by Pacific University for this case, Ms. Lori Watson, and then also to the University’s outside counsel, Naomi Haslitt. But these inquiries have been largely ignored. For example, Professor Paxton has confirmed that he recorded all his 2020 classes, which were conducted over Zoom. But Pacific has not provided these recordings to DesCamp despite her numerous requests.
Only on December 8, 2020 – almost two months after Professor Paxton’s suspension / administrative leave – did university counsel Haslitt send Professor Paxton an undated “Notice of Allegations” summarizing student complaints, including about the story of the female impersonators as well as in-class remarks about Christopher Columbus, the Ku Klux Klan and Jewish people. (Professor Paxton is Jewish.) The Notice ends with the following:“This notice is required under the Title IX Sexual Misconduct Process, and, if you are receiving this Notice, then the University has made an initial determination that the Title IX Sexual Misconduct Process applies. [Though the University may be required to switch between the Title IX process and another process.]”
Professor Paxton has not been allowed to teach, or set foot on campus, since October 12, 2020. Students, staff and fellow professors have been told that he is “suspended while under investigation.”
I trust that you are familiar with all these matters and I recite them not to bring them to your attention but to say that they have my attention too. NAS is concerned with almost all aspects of this case, but because others are addressing the issues of academic freedom and free speech, my focus will be the absence of due process for Professor Paxton. You should be aware that issues of due process, or fundamental fairness, are a much-debated aspect of Title IX and that due process protection was central to the most recent federal regulation promulgated pursuant to this law.
NAS actually just completed an in-depth report on this federal law which bans sex discrimination at schools receiving federal funds and which is now used in cases where sexual misconduct is alleged, including “hostile environment”-type sexual harassment, where educational access has been affected, which appears to be the claim here. In recent years, the political pressure to “get tough” on sexual assault and misconduct has resulted in many schools railroading those accused of Title IX offenses by denying them the presumption of innocence, the right to see evidence and the right to a live hearing.
In fact, many accused male students have successfully sued their schools claiming their due process rights were violated by zealous Title IX administrators who form a large part of this politically charged climate. It is possible that the “Pacific Doesn’t Care” campaign resulted in this kind of pressure here and invited similar due process violations.
From 2017 to 2020, former Education Secretary Elisabeth DeVos addressed this fraught situation by proposing and finalizing a new federal regulation, which took effect last August and which requires that those accused of Title IX offenses receive basic due process protections such as those listed above. This regulation was not only three years in the making but also received over 125,000 public comments, an unprecedented level of public participation, and was upheld as lawful and reasonable by four federal judges asked to review it.
In short, this regulation has withstood both political and legal scrutiny and now binds any school that receives federal funds, including Pacific University.
According to the December 8 Notice, Professor Paxton’s case is now proceeding as a Title IX matter and is therefore governed by this rule. By all indications, Pacific University has disregarded many of its provisions, including the presumption of innocence for Professor Paxton, but also his right to know the particulars of the allegations against him in a timely fashion, and, especially relevant here, his right to not suffer any measure that would be burdensome. His summary removal and banning from campus is arguably the kind of burdensome measure the rule seeks to avoid.
I would call your attention to the following provisions of the new regulation (“recipient” refers to an institution receiving federal funds which, in this case, is Pacific University):
106.30 (a) Definitions – Respondent means an individual who has been reported to be the perpetrator of conduct that could constitute sexual harassment.
106.30(a)(3) Supportive measures - are designed to restore or preserve equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity without unreasonably burdening the other party (the Respondent).
106.44(a) A recipient’s response must treat complainants and respondents equitably .. by following a grievance process that complies with Section 106.45 before the imposition of any disciplinary sanctions or other actions that are not supportive measures as defined in Section 106.30.
106.44(b) With or without a formal complaint, a recipient must comply with Section 106.44(a).
In case of “suspension:”
106.44 (c) Emergency removal. Nothing in the part precludes a recipient from removing a respondent from the recipient’s education program or activity on an emergency basis, provided that the recipient undertakes an individualized safety and risk analysis, determines that an immediate threat to the health or safety of any student or other individual arising from the allegations of sexual harassment justifies removal and provides the respondent with notice and an opportunity to challenge the decision immediately following removal.
In case of “Administrative leave:”
106.44(d) Administrative leave. Nothing in this subpart precludes a recipient from placing a non-student employee respondent on administrative leave during the pendency of a grievance process that complies with Section 106.45.
106.45(b) Grievance Process (1) Basic requirements for grievance process (i) Treat complainants and respondents equitably … by following a grievance process that complies with this section before the imposition of any disciplinary sanctions or other actions that are not supportive measures as defined in Section 106.30 against a respondent.
Apparently, Ms. DesCamp has also been in touch with the regional Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”) in Seattle to see if Pacific University should be investigated and possibly found in non-compliance with this new Title IX regulation, a finding which would threaten its eligibility to receive federal funds through the student loan program (Title IV of the Higher Education Act). Such an investigation could proceed alongside a civil suit brought by Professor Paxton for the violation of his civil rights.
NAS does not involve itself in litigation (except in a “friend of the court” capacity when asked). This letter is, instead, to let you know how worrisome and objectionable we find Pacific University’s conduct in this case, and even more distasteful when one considers that Professor Paxton is a longstanding and productive member of your faculty and that these actions are apparently to satisfy politically correct forces on your campus. Institutions of higher education must observe standards of fair play and due process if they are to instill similar high character in their students.
I understand that a university can stumble in a “moral panic” in situations like this. An aroused group of students can make a lot of noise and a lot of trouble even if their cause is fundamentally unjust. It is often easier for an institution to jump to the short-term solution of acceding to the demands of the mob. But assuredly that is a very short-term solution. The mob itself is seldom appeased for long, and the reputational damage to the institution can be lasting. That, unfortunately, is where NAS comes in. We will make it our business to keep Pacific University’s actions in the public eye for many years to come. Whatever happens in the courts with a lawsuit is one thing. What happens in the public assessment of Pacific University and its responsible administrators is something else. We will take it as our duty to make these events known as widely as possible to the general public.
I urge you to reinstate Professor Paxton and to handle any issues with respect to his teaching in a way that respects both his due process rights and his service to Pacific University. As someone who has all too much practice writing letters like this to university presidents who trusted that they could turn the page, I foresee receiving no answer or a non-responsive one. I will do you the courtesy of not posting this letter or copying it to relevant news organizations until April 12. In the meantime, if you think I have misrepresented the situation in any important way, please let me know. I will, upon verifying your corrections, amend the letter.
You have in some ways my sympathy. You are in an awkward situation. I don’t think you intended to be someone who compromised important principles to solve a problem. Be that as it may, that’s what you have done. I respectfully suggest that you un-do it.
Pacific University President Hallick's Reply to Peter Wood
April 14, 2021
Via email to Peter W. Wood at [redacted]@nas.org
National Association of Scholars
420 Madison Ave., 7th Floor
New York, NY 10017
I appreciate the National Association of Scholars’ interest in protecting academic freedom and excellence in higher education.
As I am sure you understand, we respect the privacy of students and faculty through our investigation and grievance processes and accordingly will limit the information we will share at this juncture. We have also taken great care to protect Dr. Paxton's reputation in limiting the amount of information the university shared about him. Dr. Paxton and his attorney, Ms. DesCamp, have not taken the same approach.
Dr. Paxton and his attorney have sought to litigate the matter in the media by providing inaccurate information to various news outlets and organizations. For example, the statement in your letter that an adjunct music professor was accused of rape is not true.
You also reference an anecdote that has been shared in the media about Dr. Paxton's comments during classes. This anecdote does not represent the full scope of the complaints made against him.
Pacific also does not agree with Dr. Paxton or his attorney’s characterization of conversations and communications with him about the matter. The university has continually provided information about its Title IX investigation and grievance processes to Dr. Paxton and his attorney. It has also provided Dr. Paxton the opportunity to participate in the process and access to evidence as it is allowed to do so under Title IX and FERPA.
I will not go into specifics about the complaints in this case but think it is important to communicate that Pacific takes complaints made by its faculty, employees, and students that implicate bias and harassment very seriously. Additionally, Pacific is following established federal regulations and internal governance processes to investigate and, if necessary based on the outcome of any applicable grievance process, address the conduct reported to it about Dr. Paxton. Pacific does not view responding to complaints made by its students via its conduct processes as, in your words, “acceding to the demands of the mob” nor find itself in a situation of “moral panic.”
Without getting into the specifics of Dr. Paxton, I would also like to address administrative leave, generally. As you may be aware, parties are often separated during the course of a grievance process. In some cases, separation may mean moving a student to a different class section or implementing mutual no-contact orders. It also can include administrative leave for employees, which is consistent with the Administrative Leave 34 CFR 106.44(2)(d) and Supportive Measures 34 CFR 106.30(a) sections of Title IX regulations, which you also cite.
A number of factors are considered in determining how best to separate parties in a given case. These considerations can include safety, but also can be based on the breadth or number of complaints, as well as previous misconduct reports that might indicate a pattern of behavior.
Administrative leave is not punitive.
Title IX regulations and Pacific’s Title IX Sexual Misconduct Process allow each party — along with their designated advisor in the Title IX Sexual Misconduct Process — to receive access to evidence that is directly
related to the allegation before the close of the investigation phase of the process. This is consistent with the limited exception to FERPA that is provided by Title IX regulations. Dr. Paxton has received access to evidence directly related to the allegations.
The investigation process is, however, still underway. Dr. Paxton has been offered the opportunity to meet with the investigator for an interview. It is his choice to participate or not. After a reasonable period of time, the investigator will move forward with the initial report.
This case has received scrutiny from a number of external sources, from the NAS to various bloggers and news sites, with incomplete and one-sided information. We, however, remain committed to following established processes, including federal regulations, university policy, and our Faculty Handbook, in completing the investigation into the allegations of misconduct appropriately and without the influence of these external parties.
Dr. Lesley M. Hallick
President, Pacific University
Peter Wood's Second Letter to Pacific University President Hallick
April 23, 2021
Dr. Lesley M. Hallick
President, Pacific University
2043 College Way
Forest Grove, Oregon 97116
Dear President Hallick,
Thank you for your response of April 14, to my letter of March 26. For the sake of transparency, I have posted both letters to the NAS website.
I note the reasons you’ve given for not answering specific points about the Paxton case. I remain interested in any documentation you have that might indicate Professor Paxton, or his attorney, gave us inaccurate information. That would have significant bearing on NAS’s assessment. As it stands, all the documents that I have reviewed support the veracity of their accounts, as does your response, though the latter does so indirectly.
First, the new Title IX Rule above all requires recipient schools, such as Pacific University, to treat accusers and respondents equitably. But Pacific University has accepted as true all student accusations, on their face and without scrutiny. By contrast, Pacific University has treated Professor Paxton as guilty by demanding his immediate resignation, banning him from campus and imposing on him a gag order regarding these events. This is not only inequitable treatment but a disproportionate and likely unethical response. That response also violates the presumption of innocence, also required by the new rule.
Pacific University’s course of conduct is substantiated by Ms. Yreugas’s own emails as well as her draft Separation Agreement, which included provisions on severance pay. Her first email was sent on Friday, October 9 at 5:18 PM with the subject line of “offer” and with the statement, “I made sure there was a clause [in the Agreement] that the Title IX investigation would not occur.”
The second communication was an emailed letter, sent on Monday, October 12, notifying Professor Paxton of his immediate leave and informing him of the new Title IX investigation.
This is shocking behavior toward a faculty member in good standing since 2005.
What’s more, the school’s own Notice of Allegations, received only on December 8 but which is undated and unsigned, should contain “the full scope of complaints,” as you put it. It details Professor Paxton’s supposed offenses, all of which occurred within one month - September of 2020 - though Professor Paxton has been teaching there for over 15 years without incident. The conduct complained of included Paxton’s “tone of voice” and “comments” which made students “uncomfortable.” The document cites remarks of his, such as, “young women today do not carry purses like they used to,” “Italian Americans worship [Christopher] Columbus,” and also his description of some Native Americans as “war like” and “aggressive.”
The Notice contains nothing suggesting that Professor Paxton poses any threat or security risk to anyone - which would be expected for a school to impose a campus ban. Instead, it only notes that students took offense, although even that could be questioned, as other factors could explain student complaints of this kind - such as poor grades, dislike of a professor, vindictiveness, or a test of power.
Additionally, while the new Rule requires schools to provide “supportive measures” to complainants, it also insists that those supportive measures not “unreasonably burden the other party” (the respondent). A forced resignation would be considered, by most people, “unreasonably burdensome.”
Even if Pacific wanted to characterize its response to the students as an “emergency removal,” it would still be in violation of the new Rule’s requirement that a school then “undertake an individualized safety and risk analysis [that] determines the existence of an immediate threat to the health or safety of others.” It also must then “provide respondent with notice” and “an opportunity to challenge that determination immediately following removal.” None of that has happened here.
While your letter refers to Professor Paxton’s removal as administrative leave, and therefore not punitive, Ms. Yruegas’s own emails, on two occasions, referred to Pacific University’s actions as a “suspension,” whichis punitive.
To show the inaccuracy of our information, your letter says that no accusation was made against an adjunct music professor there, as Professor Paxton had indicated. That fact is, of course, completely tangential to Professor Paxton’s case and was mentioned in my letter only to allow that Pacific may be acting under pressure when it comes to Title IX complaints.
Ironically, your correction of this fact only makes the non-correction of other facts more conspicuous. You do not deny, for example, that Pacific demanded Paxton’s resignation, banned him from campus and imposed on him a gag order without any opportunity for him to meaningfully defend himself. Those are the central and incriminating facts of this case and they remain uncontested.
It’s notable that your letter states Professor Paxton has had “access to evidence directly related to the allegations” against him. The best evidence of what was said and done by Professor Paxton during his classes is the Zoom recording of them. As we understand it, Professor Paxton’s lawyer repeatedly requested those recordings to no avail and has only, in the past week – more than 6 months after the fact – received any recordings and even those have been heavily edited.
All of the above suggests that Pacific University is engaged in unfair and unprofessional conduct and is also not complying with Title IX.
I am familiar with FERPA and the need to keep student and personnel matters reasonably confidential. I am also familiar with the institutional tendency to invoke FERPA to stonewall inquiries and to avoid explanation of questionable actions. The latter seems to be at work here.
I am saddened but not surprised by the events of this case. As my prior letter noted, increasingly universities are favoring the short-term, expedient thing that appears to solve today’s problem, but which only undermines their long-term health and original purpose - to form thoughtful graduates of high moral character. Pacific University cannot do this if it continues to behave so dishonorably.
I reiterate my request that you reinstate Professor Paxton and also observe Title IX, including its most recent Rule. This is in the best interest of everyone, but especially in the best interest of Pacific University and its long-term health, including its integrity and reputation.
Neither I nor any staff member of the National Association of Scholars has been employed by Professor Paxton or his attorney. Our sole interest in this case is the public interest of ensuring justice. We have been doing this sort of work for almost 25 years and are familiar with every tactic and subterfuge that universities adopt to deflect scrutiny and blunt criticism. We are also familiar with faculty members and their advocates who exaggerate or otherwise mischaracterize situations. We attempt to provide the public with a full, fair, and reliable account of campus events, and we realize the difficulty of achieving that when the parties are locked in adversarial positions. We are also very familiar with the abuses of Title IX processes and the eagerness of some administrators to appease student complainants. You objected to the phrases in my first letter, “acceding to the demands of the mob” and “moral panic.” Objections and complaints raised by students should be taken seriously, but only in light of evidence. If the evidence indicates the probability of serious wrong-doing on the professor’s part, by all means the investigation should proceed. But if a complaint is based on mere animus against a professor or on efforts to turn small irritations into major infractions, the complaint ought to be rejected. Overzealousness on the part of administrators faced with such complaints is not unknown. The case against Professor Paxton appears to be an instance of this.
You may recall two young people in American history, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams, who once raised some complaints in their community. They were taken seriously, and by most accounts a little too seriously, first by Dr. William Gibbs, and then by magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne. Ultimately twenty people were put to death and another seven died in prison during the Salem witchcraft hysteria of 1692. After the fact, Cotton Mather decried the use of “spectral evidence” in courts of law, and the affair has haunted Americans ever since. ‘Professor Paxton’s words made me feel unsafe” is little more than 21st century spectral evidence. If that is all this case rests on, Pacific University has made a grave error.
National Association of Scholars
A PDF of Pacific University President Hallick's letter to Peter Wood is available here.
Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars.