"They So Despise Her Politics" - Do Conservative Faculty Candidates Get a Fair Shake?

Peter Wood

Two years ago the University of Iowa gained some notoriety after Mark Moyar, a highly credentialed and well-published historian, was passed over for appointment in the history department. It appeared then and still appears that Professor Moyar was sidelined because of his political views. It’s in the nature of academic life that allegations like this are extremely difficult to substantiate. Search committees, department chairmen, deans, and provosts have a myriad of evasions at hand to disguise political animus—if indeed animus is present. As it happened, Moyar was open about his Republican party affiliation and one of his books (Triumph Forsaken, Cambridge University Press) defended the U.S. war in Vietnam. Moyar was passed over for the position which instead was awarded to a dramatically less-qualified candidate.

Stories of this sort are distressingly common, and even more distressingly hidden from public view, usually because the victims decline to speak on the public record. Moyar’s case differed from the usual pattern in two ways. First, his qualifications far surpassed those of a typical scholar. Second, he was willing to go public.

Moyar’s courage in bringing to light what we believe is shabby treatment by the University of Iowa has inspired another unsuccessful faculty candidate to come forward. Teresa Wagner, a lawyer and former adjunct professor of law at George Mason, applied unsuccessfully in 2006 for a position as a full-time writing instructor at the University of Iowa College of Law. She was already employed at the College in a part-time position.

Wagner believes that she was denied the appointment on political grounds. Like Moyar she is a Republican. She was also outspoken in her advocacy of some conservative positions. None of this seemed to matter in a variety of professional positions she held before applying for the Iowa opening, and in fact Wagner seemed to pass through two rounds of interviews at the law school with flying colors. At that point, however, her appointment was blocked and the position was instead granted to an individual who had never practiced law or published, and who professed to “hate” Republicans and “right wingers.”

Wagner sued on the basis of discrimination, but a lower court judge granted the Dean’s Motion for Summary Judgment, stating the case raised no issues of fact for a jury and that the Dean, as a public official, was immune from suit.  Wagner is now appealing that decision.

The NAS is not a judicial body, and we do not profess to be able to judge the merits of this case. But such cases—cases in which a plaintiff is willing to come forward and have her documentary evidence laid open to public scrutiny—are sufficiently rare that we at NAS believe that they deserve attention. To that end, we are making available in PDF a number of key documents in the case.

The documents below are all a matter of public record and the University of Iowa is a public institution.

The case is now pending before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Wagner’s lawsuit has received attention from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog, Volokh Conspiracy, TaxProf Blog, The Faculty Lounge, the ABA Journal, as well as the Des Moines Register, the Iowa City Press-Citizen and the Daily Iowan.

If you have time to look at just one document, we recommend the first one, which is a half-page internal memorandum from the law school’s associate dean, Jon Carlson. Carlson expresses his puzzlement at the Faculty’s unwillingness to hire Wagner, even for a lesser position, and worries that this might have something to do with her political views: 

Frankly, one thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role in part, at least, because they so despise her politics (and, especially, her activism about it).  I hate to think that is the case, and I don’t actually think it is, but I’m worried that I may be missing something.

That’s as close to a smoking gun as one is likely to find in the academic world, but the associate dean leaves room to squirm, and if you have time for a second document, I recommend his “Two Years After” letter of January 27, 2009 to the Iowa City Press-Citizen.  Here Carlson executes an about-face, saying, “To my knowledge, no one on the faculty viewed Wagner’s political views as at all relevant to the decision being made.” 

That’s an astonishing change from “they so despise her politics.”  Moreover Carlson calls it a “smear” on Wagner’s part that she names the faculty member, Randall Bezanson, who appears to have led the opposition to her appointment. Bezanson now emerges as “a champion of the First Amendment and a strong advocate for political and intellectual diversity in the university and beyond.”

But if that thread interests you, read the lawsuit (3a) and be prepared to dive in to a tale of righteous faculty members who have remarkably poor memories.

1.   Associate Dean Jon Carlson Communications
a. At the Time of the Interview: Email to Dean Jones the Morning After the Faculty Vote
b. Two Years After Interview: Letter to the Editor

  1. Documents from the time of the Interview
    a. Student Reviews the Day of the Interview
    b. Faculty Reaction One Hour After Interview (“job talk”)
    c. Law Librarian Response to “job talk” the Day of the Interview
    d. Faculty Appointments Committee Recommendations

3.   Pleadings
a. Complaint plus exhibits
b. Answer

4.   Dean Jones Documents
a. Deposition pages of Dean Jones
b. Appointment Letters Authored & Signed by Dean Jones
c. Separate Slot for Dean Jones to Interview Candidates

5.   Other
a. Deposition pages of Randall Bezanson
b. Court Order of Mar 30, 2010
c. Plaintiff’s Brief in Support of Motion to Alter Judgment (1)
d. Plaintiff’s Brief in Support of Motion to Alter Judgment (2)

 For the full court file, see PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Documents) at www.pacer.gov (registration required and charges apply). 

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