Freedom of speech considered bad at Auburn University!
Bring a gun to a knife fight: After his superiors fired him as chair of the economics department at Auburn University because he had criticized the university’s policy of passing scholarship athletes for doing no work, professor Michael Stern sued, and has now won a $645K court case.
You can read his complaint here [pdf], and the jury verdict here [pdf]. The case hinged on the decision of Joseph Aistrup, the former dean at the College of the Liberal Arts, to fire him as department chair in May 2018 because Stern had publicly raised questions about the high numbers of athletics majoring in “Public Administration,” a program that seemed designed to give them a free ride. This conflict began on February 4, 2014:
Auburn University’s Faculty Athletics Representative (“FAR”), Dr. Mary Boudreaux, put on a presentation in the University Senate wherein she claimed that there was no clustering of athletes by any major at Auburn. Plaintiff [Stern] questioned her in relation to the Public Administration program and football, given the contrasting information Plaintiff was told by a colleague. (During the 2013 Iron Bowl, Dr. Randy Beard (Economics professor and Plaintiffs colleague) noticed that almost all of the star players on the football team had Public Administration as a major).
Dr. Joseph Aistrup (new College of Liberal Arts Dean at the time) ran up to Plaintiff on the way out of the Faculty Senate. He looked green and like he was going to cry. He said, “Oh my God, Mike, I can’t believe you mentioned our program. I’m going to hear about this.”
In reviewing the complaint, it appears that many officials at Auburn supported Stern, but in the end, after those officials had left the university, Airstrup was allowed to sabotage his career there. The wording of the jury ruling suggests that Airstrup, not Auburn, will be liable for the compensatory and punitive damages, but this is unconfirmed.
Though Stern has won his lawsuit, he has not regained his job as Economics Department chairman. He remains merely an associate professor, his career clearly damaged. At the same time, Airstrup is also gone, no longer dean of Liberal Arts College.
Whether this victory for free speech will change anything is hard to say at this time. The culture at Auburn appears increasingly unfriendly to free speech. In August 2021 for example the student government rejected a conservative student for office, merely because he was conservative.
The big concern is that this intolerance at Auburn is not the exception but has become the rule. This oppressive culture against free speech is spreading and growing everywhere in American academic circles. The light of freedom is going out, and there are only a few signs — such as Stern’s effort here — of anyone attempting to relight it.
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