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Former economics chair sues University alleging retaliation

The lawsuit is yet another chapter in an ongoing dispute between former Economics Chair Michael Stern and University administrators over athletics influence on academic decision making

The Auburn University campus on Aug. 22, 2018.
The Auburn University campus on Aug. 22, 2018.

The former chair of Auburn's department of economics, Michael Stern, is suing the University, alleging administrators took part in a drawn-out effort to retaliate against him for what he characterizes as an appropriate use of his First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit is yet another chapter in an ongoing dispute between Stern and University administrators over athletics' influence on academic decision-making.

Stern, who was removed from his post as chair of the economics department in May, alleged in filing in federal court that administrators diminished his bonuses, withheld raises and removed him from his chairmanship because he spoke out against top administrators' decision to keep a public administration major active even after a faculty committee suggested discontinuing the major in 2013 because of poor enrollment numbers.

"They have repeatedly committed to violating my First Amendment right and retaliated against me for speech I engage in as a citizen," Stern told The Plainsman. "They can't tolerate that public institutional criticism. It's repeated. It's a long-term pattern. It's very consistent behavior."

A University spokesman said Wednesday that Auburn had not yet been served with the suit, but "Auburn is fully committed to free speech, intellectual diversity and robust discussion of ideas."

Since 2015, several articles from The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal and the blog of former Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman and mathematician John Urschel alleged Auburn Athletics officials lobbied academic officials to keep the major afloat and even went so far as to offer athletics department funds to the College of Liberal Arts in exchange for keeping the major open.

Statistics published by the Wall Street Journal at the time found that more than half of enrolled public administration majors were athletes. The stories that ran in The Chronicle and The Journal showed a powerful athletic department and the way it pressured the academic sphere of the University.

A 2015 committee former by then-Provost Timothy Boosinger confirmed the Wall Street Journal report that Auburn Athletics offered money to keep the major alive, but the committee found the offer was not accepted.

As The Chronicle noted in a February story, "The public-administration episode would quickly have faded from memory if not for Michael L. Stern," who was the first to raise concerns about the disproportionate number of athletes who were picking public administration as a major.

Stern began questioning the major and its enrollment as far back as a Senate meeting in 2014, when Stern challenged a report from Auburn's faculty athletics representative that stated that there was no "clustering" of athletes into any particular majors.

But at one point, more than a third of the football team was listed as public administration majors when less than 1 percent of Auburn students writ large had chosen that major.

According to The Chronicle, football players flocked to the program in 2013 during the time when faculty committees were moving to disband the major. It reached a peak in 2013 when 33 players — or 40 percent of scholarship athletes — were enrolled.

Urschel calculated in his "Math Meets Football" blog in December 2014 that the density of football players in the public administration major would have occurred randomly at roughly 1 in three undecillion (36 zeroes).

Boosinger, who retired in January, eventually reversed the faculty's recommendation to discontinue the major. Stern thought it suspicious.

Stern researched the scandal and questioned college and university administrators publicly and privately about their decision to keep the major, filing several public records requests and using the documents he received in response to help reporters supplement their own reporting, according to court documents.

Stern was hired at Auburn in 2004 and became Economics Department chair in 2010, serving in that position until his removal earlier this year.

He remains a tenured faculty member in the department.

The lawsuit provides a deeper look at the tumultuous relationship between the Economics Department and University administrators.

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Following his public criticism of the program, Liberal Arts Dean Joseph Aistrup fired off "intimidating" emails to Stern, Stern alleges in the lawsuit, and in 2014, Aistrup told Stern to step aside as economics chair. He didn't, and things only got worse.

"At the end of the (2015) CLA leadership retreat at Callaway Gardens, Georgia, Aistrup began to verbally assault Plaintiff (Stern) over his pursuit of the PUBA (public administration) scandal and used some of the other department chairs to threaten Dr. Stern," the lawsuit alleges.

It escalated to a point when Aistrup allegedly confronted Stern in the parking lot, got in Stern's face and yelled at him about speaking to reporters on sensitive topics, according to the lawsuit. 

According to Stern's account, he avoided any physical confrontation and left with his wife to drive back to Auburn.

Aistrup and Boosinger have not yet responded to requests for comment sent late Tuesday.

Throughout that time, Stern alleges Aistrup and Boosinger withheld resources from the Economics Department, avoided hiring new professors to replace departing faculty, delayed his re-appointment as chair and reduced Stern's raises and bonuses despite positive performance reviews.

Eventually, former Auburn President Jay Gogue stepped in on January 11, 2017, shortly before his retirement, and initiated a plan to move economics under the provost's control and out from under the College of Liberal Arts.

In a memorandum on presidential letterhead, Gogue recommended the department "no longer be a part of the College of Liberal Arts."

The Department of Economics would be its own independent school, according to Stern's account.

And instead of reporting to Boosinger, with whom Stern had his own set of troubles, Stern and the new school would report to Associate Provost Emmett Winn.

But it was only a temporary fix, and Stern says Gogue warned him that when his term as president ended, "they would be out to get" him.

The plan for an independent school never formalized, but the Economics Department was temporarily made operationally independent from Liberal Arts. By July of 2017, less than a month after Gogue's retirement, the plan was reversed and the Economics Department was moved back under Liberal Arts and Aistrup's control, though it was allowed to make a long-awaited move from the Haley Center basement to a new location in Miller Hall.

Stern said the retaliation against him worsened under Leath and the new provost, Bill Hardgrave.

"Jay Gogue tried to protect me but was unable to anymore after he left office," Stern said. "So with him no longer as president, I have no confidence in this administration as they carry out these acts. It's not just me. It's others around the institution who are afraid to speak for fear of being retaliated against."

The tumult reached a peak at a May 15 Faculty Senate meeting when a new faculty athletics representative made another presentation about the student-athletes academic performance. Stern countered with his own slideshow showing the potential role the public administration scandal played in student-athlete academic performance.

Less than two weeks later, Stern was quickly shut out of his office, locked out of the computer system and removed from his post by Aistrup, Stern says in the lawsuit.

The bad blood between administrators and Stern dates back to the fall semester of 2008, when Stern said he worked with a local reporter at The Auburn Villager to expose what Stern described as "rigged hiring in exchange for money" within the Department of Economics and the College of Business.

At the time, the Economics Department was housed within the College of Business. 

Stern alleges in the lawsuit that the University "sold out" to the right-wing Koch Foundation and hired Koch Foundation supporters into tenured positions in the Finance and Economics Departments in exchange for money to launch a new business center in the College of Business.

After back and forth with administrators during the fall of 2009 and spring of 2010, Stern's lawsuit alleges the Department of Economics moved into the College of Liberal Arts and the "windowless Haley Center basement" as retaliation for Stern and the wider department's opposition to the Koch Foundation influence.

Stern sees the conflict as but one of many examples of University administrators cracking down on criticism from within.

"The defendant intentionally and willfully retaliated against the Plaintiff for his constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment, to include stripping him of his Departmental Chairmanship and awarding lower than justified raises in salary," the lawsuit reads.

Stern is seeking back pay he would have received had he not been demoted and to be re-appointed as department chair in addition to attorneys' fees, costs and interest.

Chip Brownlee | Editor-in-chief

Chip Brownlee, senior in journalism and political science, is the editor-in-chief of The Auburn Plainsman.

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