Trial begins between former economics chair and former Auburn University officials
Former economics chair sues University alleging retaliation
Thursday, Nov. 10
By Destini Ambus | Editor-in-chief
The first witness to the stand Thursday morning was Steve Brown, a political science professor at Auburn University. Brown was the political science department chair from 2013-2016, serving only one term. He specializes in teaching American legal history, the First Amendment and church and state issues. The court completed both his examination and cross-examination today, along with the examination of other witnesses, including Amanda Malone. Malone is the director of budget resources in the provost's office.
- As established previously, Brown reiterated that there were talks of discontinuing the PUBA, or public administration major, in the 2012-2013 time frame. An Academic Program Review was conducted of the program in March 2012.
- According to Brown, the reviews were glowing: the faculty was doing "awesome" for the resources they had but were stretched then because of lack of resources. The recommendation was made to downsize — fold the PUBA major into political science, or take out the health administration major entirely since in other institutions it can be found in the business school.
- In April/May, Political Science chair Gerry Gryski and the dean at that time Anna Gramberg recommended the major would be closed. Instead of an in-person conversation about the fate of the major, Gryski emailed the department faculty asking them to vote on the program’s closure. 13/22 faculty members voted to unanimously close PUBA.
- Former CLA Dean Joe Aistrup arrived in September 2013, and there was discussion with his arrival and Brown's appointment as chair to keep the major open. None of the discussion, according to Brown, was to keep it open for the sake of the athletes or because of pressure from the Athletics Department.
- Brown said it was "the most racist thing" he had ever heard, "to say that you're [the student-athletes] are not smart enough to pick your own major" in reference to the fact that most of the student-athletes in the public administration major were Black.
- On Oct. 3, 2014, Brown sent an email to the political science department faculty about student-athlete behavior he had observed in a class taught by a graduate student. It was a follow-up to an email/conversation between Brown, basketball coach Bruce Pearl, former football coach Gus Malzahn, former liaison Gary Waters, and former AD Jay Jacobs. The email detailed some of the behavior of the athletes in class: one athlete had no notes, and left class 15 minutes early; one had no notes, no book, and was on an iPad playing games/watching game footage; one was late to class, no notes, slept, left class 30 minutes early. He had observed only one student with an open book, answering questions, etc.
- He asked the coaches/professors that students should and would do the following: show up on time, come prepared, answer questions, put up their phone, come with their own notes and show respect to their professors.
- At the Feb, 4, 2014 University Senate meeting, Stern, according to Brown, said something negative about the PUBA major. It was revealed later in Brown’s testimony that Stern said one thing about the major, and that he and other economics professors had observed that there was "clustering" in that major. Specifically, Stern asked "what percentage of football players who had significant playing time this season were PUBA majors" and said that it was twenty times more likely that they were a PUBA major at the time.
- Some professors in the political science department were upset, an email was sent from Gryski[JA1] stating that Stern had gone on an "unsolicited and scurrilous rant that indicted the academic integrity of our PUBA major.” Gryski also said that he was "appalled on the baseless affront on the major", and that it "degenerates the exemplary efforts and achievements" of students.
- Gryski also said that he still supported the shuttering of the major, given the "extraordinary" demands that were placed on the faculty. Brown also sent an email to the faculty stating that he had talked to Stern. Stern told Brown that his comments were an indictment of the Athletics Department. Brown testified that Stern told him in that 2014 phone call that Stern thought the PUBA program was "clean.”Brown said Stern now is of the opinion now there areacademic integrity issues in the PUBA program.
- Brown said Stern’s comments had a major impact on the reputation of the major as a "worthless" major, and it was hard to recruit faculty or students.
- Brown said Stern never came to him directly before or after with his concerns about the major, but that it his right to speak on public matters aBrown said Stern’s comments in Senate are considered "protected speech" under the First Amendment. Brown later said that the fact of clustering in a major was not of "public concern", which has been one of the main issues in the trial, and a fact for the jury to ultimately decide on.
- Brown said, specifically "who cares?" about clustering in the majors, and it wasn't something that people just sit around talking about. "No one cares if they cluster in Mexico or McDonalds."
- One faculty member for political science said that Stern owed the department a public apology, and Dean Aistrup should ask Stern to resign.
The defense called in Amanda Malone.
- Malone worked with the budget activities for all 12 colleges and offices that reported to the provost's office, including the department of economics for the short time they reported to the provost's office.
- She worked with Stern to establish a budget, there was a budget mock-up made, one that showed the estimated amount of money the department would have if they were an independent School of Economics for the following fiscal year. The total would've been around $8.3 million before expenditures, but the budget was never formally approved.
- Stern said his budget (the aforementioned budget) was blocked/replaced with absolutely nothing. Malone said she looked and it wasn't true, they had about $3 million in their budget. This was the same amount that they usually had, and the amount they had for the Oct. 2017 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2018. Stern never had an $8.3 million budget because the independent School of Economics was never approved.
Wednesday, Nov. 9
By Callie Stanford | Sports Editor and Ethan Flynn | News Writer
Throughout Wednesday, the defense continued their cross-examination of plaintiff Michael Stern.
- The defense alleged that Stern was disgruntled with the university because it did not support an independent School of Economics. They also alleged that Stern refused to follow orders as the department head.
- The defense recalled email threads and a 2017 memo expressing why it was outside the university's interests to create a School of Economics.
- The memo stated that the Department of Economics receives adequate financial aid from CLA and that allowing a new school would “set a dangerous precedence” by inspiring other departments to seek independence.
- Defense attorney John Smith introduced a new document for the court's consideration. The document was an email sent to The Chronicle of Higher Education by Stern. Smith alleged that Stern did not authentically care about clustering saying, "you just wanted a headline, didn't you, Dr. Stern?"
- Smith continued to paint Stern as subverting university leadership when he did not hire two instructors on Aistrup’s orders. Stern countered by stating that the department did not need two instructors. Instead, it required more tenured faculty.
- Stern stated that the department was at risk of failure if it did not get the tenured faculty needed. Smith asked if he thought university leadership would sacrifice its Department of Economics "just to get to [Stern]?" to which Stern said yes.
- The defense finished their cross-examination by alleging that his insubordination sabotaged the Department of Economics. Stern responded, "Nobody sacrificed economics other than Joe Aistrup.”
Once the defense finished the cross-examination, the de swiftly moved into a redirect examination to clarify confusing testimony.
- Denying Stern’s request for a School of Economics was the defenses' first concern because the issue was not one of Stern's accusations of retaliation.
- Judge Corey L. Maze added the issue was only permitted because it helped the jury understand the university's motives more clearly. Additionally, he reiterated that Stern is not accusing the defense of withholding the proposed School of Economics as retaliation.
- The defense submitted a new document, a 2014 article from The Auburn Plainsman, to express the conditions of the Haley Center basement while it housed the Department of Economics.
- The defense also countered an argument made by the defense; that Stern had complete control of the department’s budget. Stern needed to make purchase requests for mundane equipment because Auburn University is a state school.
- The defense clarified policies that govern the 5-year review and those that govern the removal of a department chair.
- The defense ended the redirect period by pointing out that Aistrup began adding members of Auburn's general counsel (lawyers who work for Auburn) to emails to Stern before he was removed from the department head position. These emails included daily operations and “mundane job duties” beginning in 2017.
To end the evening, the defense introduced their final witness of the evening, Jennifer Bruno, former administration associate for the Department of Economics.
- Bruno’s last day working at Auburn was Oct. 23, 2021. She worked for the university for “a little over ten years” and worked for the Department of Economics from April 2011 to June 2019.
- Stern was her supervisor in the department, and she worked with him on a daily and regular basis.
- During direct examination, Bruno described Stern as "one of the best managers I have worked for" while noting his dedication to students.
- Colleagues notified Bruno that Stern had been removed as department head via a text message the Friday Stern was fired. Lori Bush, the CLA human resources representative, announced his removal again via a note posted on her office door the following Monday.
- Additionally, Bruno also stated that she was unable to log onto her computer, and Bush did not provide Bruno with an explanation why.
- In May 2019, Bruno stated she had a telephone conversation with then Dean Aistrup instructing her to contact the economics department's Ph.D. students and tell them not to speak with Stern or Seals.
- In a brief cross-examination, the defense addressed an affidavit signed by Bruno that stated that Aistrup had not compelled Bruno to contact those Ph.D. students.
- The day ended with a redirect examination of Bruno. The defense requested Judge May permit Bruno to read the rest of the paragraph in her affidavit that addresses her telephone conversation with Aistrup.
- Judge May allowed it, and Bruno described the conversation as disturbing, unusual and that a dean had never instructed her to keep students away from professors.
Tuesday, Nov. 8
By My Ly | Content Editor
On Tuesday morning, the court reconvened at 7:45 instead of it's usual 8 to allow jurors time to vote at their individual polling locations in light of the midterm elections. Plaintiff Michael Stern testified and was cross examined by the defendants during the entirety of the five-hour-day.
- During direct examination, Stern stated that he met with former President Gogue to discuss his concerns that took place in 2016. Stern stated that he was concerned over his low one time merit raise and the fact that the economics department was not moved from the Haley center to Miller hall.
- Stern expressed his worries to Gogue and was concerned that after Gogue's retirement, the alleged retaliation would continue.
- Stern stated that under former Provost Tim Boosinger in 2017, the economics department was not getting proper funding it needed for hiring and research.
- During Stern's cross examination from the defendant's lawyers, they outlined Stern's duties as the chair of the economics department as evaluating faculty, hiring, offering salaries and raises, which Aistrup previously testified that Stern was not fulfilling.
Monday, Nov. 7
By Callie Stanford | Sports Editor and Kristen Carr | Operations Editor
Associate Provost Emmett Winn took the stand to finish his examination and cross from Friday afternoon.
- Winn was copied on an email about creating a school of economics, but didn't recall an actual effort to do it. This has been a point that has continuously come up during examinations — Stern was interested in creating a school of economics outside of the College of Liberal Arts, that would fall under the provost's office.
- They spoke about budgeting for the potential school of economics, but Winn said he wouldn't have approved a budget, personally, because it wasn't his "thing".
- In Jan. 2018, Winn received a call from Hardgrave stating that Aistrup said that Winn was "no longer allowed to communicate" with Stern.
- According to Stern's lawyers in May 2016, Stern received a five-year review from the provost's office. In August 2016, Randy Beard emailed Andrew Gillespie, asking about this review being missing. Winn responds the next day, taking accountability for not getting the review to Aistrup, who in turn goes over the review with Stern.
- In Nov. 2017, a bonus was given to Stern via Aistrup. In December, Winn believed he learned of Stern's bonus, and said that it seemed "unusually low," but didn't further investigate why or ask Aistrup.
- In July 2017, Winn sent a memo stating that the economics department would remain under CLA and the department chair would report to Aistrup.
- Stern's lawyer asked questions about the University Senate meeting to Winn, who didn't recall being there. The University Senate meeting explored academic integrity relating at athletics and the PUBA major.
Friday, Nov. 4
By Destini Ambus | Editor-in-chief and Daniel Schmidt | Assistant News Editor
Former Auburn University Provost Timothy Boosinger was called to the stand after lunch Thursday afternoon. The line of questioning followed closely to that of the examination of former provost Hardgrave. Provost Boosinger has dismissed from the stand at the end of the day at 5 p.m. Former University President Jay Gogue was called to the stand, and crossed Friday morning, Nov. 4. The following are highlights of both of their examaniations.
- Stern’s Lawyer Wilkenson asked Boosinger to give his own definition of clustering, which he defined as “when a group of students, with similar interests are in the same major.” Later, he expanded on this definition by stating that clustering in and of itself isn’t necessarily an abnormal thing: students who have to pay their way through college might also choose majors that allow for flexibility in their schedules in the same ways student-atheletes do.
- Boosinger also later in the examination said that it was true there was clustering in the PUBA major and in the courses, and to imply that there’s something inherently wrong with that wasn’t true.
- He said of the examination of the major done in 2013, that the committee that evaluated the major said they didn’t have the resources they needed to teach all the sections they needed for the number of people in the major. The Athletics Department at Auburn did offer to provide some additional support for faculty.
- He was also asked to give his definition of academic integrity, to which he responded that it means to ensure that the major and courses being taught are being taught appropriately, to ensure there’s no cheating or no ones giving special consideration.
- The plantiff’s team also shared Stern’s five-year review document with the jury, which was a document reviewing Stern’s performance over the period of 2010-Feb.2016, 2010 being around the time when he first became chair. The document had what his team would describe as “glowing” scores, almost perfect. The review included a survey given to those in the economics department, and several people commented that he was “the best chair they’d every had”, “always available”, “loved by students”.
- On the same document, with comments from staff in the economics department the summary said that some of the faculty and staff allegedly appear to believe that Stern could do more good in his position as chair, “as one might possibly do more to expose corruption among upper administration at Auburn, for example the CLA dean and the provost, as the misconduct of these officials pose the greatest threat to our department at the University.”
- Boosinger said he felt this was an unfair characterization.
- Another faculty member of the economics department apparently commented that he needed to become “less tolerant of the corruption and incompetence exhibited by the provost office.”
- Gogue moved the economics department to report to the provosts office, particularly the Associate Provost Emmett Winn in January 2017, roughly five or six months after the five-year review was published.
- Stern’s lawyer suggested that Gogue did it to “protect” Stern from being retaliated against by the provost (Boosinger) and the CLA dean (Aistrup).
- Boosinger said it was “to reduce the tension between the economics department and the College of Liberal Arts.”
- For both days, Boosinger and Hardgrave mentioned that there were some tensions between the College of Liberal Arts, the economics department and some professors in the political science major.
- During the cross-examination, the lawyer representing Boosinger stated that there was only one claim against him and that was the fact that Stern didn’t give him an evaluation in spring 2017 for the year prior, 2016. For that to happen, he said, the provost's office would’ve had to have some type of supervisory role over the economics department, and Stern for 2016, which they did not.
In an hour’s testimony on Friday afternoon, Associate Provost Dr. Emmett Winn provided details surrounding discussions around the transfer of the Department of Economics as well as Stern’s performance between January 2017 and July 2017.
- As associate provost since 2009, Winn has been in charge of academic affairs, which includes overseeing faculty among other miscellaneous responsibilities.
Winn oversaw the Department of Economics for roughly a year while it was preparing to move from the College of Business to the College of Liberal Arts.
- Winn recalled having a conversation with Gouge and Stern in early January 2017 concerning the proposal of a freestanding School of Economics, which never came to fruition after Gouge retired in July 2017.
- Supported the creation of a separate School of Economics along with then-Provost Dr. Tim Boosinger.
- On June 12, 2017, Winn, Gouge, Boosinger and Stern collectively discussed the future possibility of the Department of Economics leaving the College of Liberal Arts as well as the allocation of resources and continued use of non-academic staff members.
- On July 5, 2017, a memo stating that the Department of Economics would remain in the College of Liberal Arts was circulated.
- Before the circulation of that memo and his retirement, Gouge discussed the possibility of moving the department to either the University College – which no longer exists – or to an uncreated school of social sciences.
- Winn said that Provost Boosinger was heavily involved in the process to keep the Department of Economics within the College of Liberal Arts.
- On July 26, 2017, Winn sent an email to College of Liberal Arts Dean DJoseph Aistrup that he should extend an “olive branch” and mend his “professional relationship” with Stern.
This email stemmed from contentious communication on the previous day from Aistrup to Stern concerning Stern’s failure to attend a mandatory CLA meeting on July 10.
Thursday, Nov. 3
Updated 12:38 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3
By Tucker Massey | News Editor
Going into the fourth day of the trial, the cross-examination of former Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Joseph Aistrup continued.
The initial line of questioning targeted the means by which Stern took to bring attention to his alleged "clustering of student-athletes."
While it was acknowledged that Stern could say what he wanted, Aistrup said he believed the matter should have been taken up by the Dean's Office before the faculty senate meeting.
Aistrup and Stern spoke to one another after an event at Callaway Gardens. In this encounter, Aistrup said that he asked Stern what he was trying to accomplish by bringing attention to the PUBA major's clustering of athletes, but he did not recall Stern's response.
Aistrup allegedly continued trying to work with Stern on the issue and asked for a copy of one of his presentations on the matter. Stern declined to show Aistrup the presentation.
The line of questioning then changed to Aistrup's evaluation of Stern as the chair of the Department of Economics. It was noted that Aistrup provided Stern with a good Faculty Annual Review for his work in 2015.
"As chair, he did a good job," Aistrup said.
Despite Stern's work as chair, Aistrup did go on to mention that he was worried about Stern's performance in other areas. He said that he felt Stern's focus on being chair led to him not thrive in areas such as scholarship and that he wanted Stern to pursue a full professorship.
Following this, questions arose surrounding a clerical error in a raise for Stern. Aistrup had evaluated Stern and granted him a 5% raise, however, the clerical error led to Stern only receiving a 2% raise.
The issue was resolved after Aistrup emailed Stern an apology and apologized to him in person. However, Aistrup was aware of complaints about him from Stern regarding the incident from authorities above him and said that Stern never reached out to him to question the error.
The questioning switched focus again to the move of the Department of Economics out of CLA. Aistrup said he did not like the move because the department had produced good enrollment numbers for the college, along with other factors.
On July 5, 2017, just about six months after the department's removal from CLA, Aistrup worked with former Provost Timothy Boosinger to smoothly transition the department back to CLA after former President Jay Gogue retired.
"I would have opposed the move at any time," Aistrup said.
At this time, the focus was shifted towards the removal of Stern and Seals from chair and GPO, respectively.
Of Seals' email to former President Steven Leath in which he said he could not in good-conscience recruit graduate students to the department's program, Aistrup said he was shocked by what he had said and knew then that he would remove Seals from the position.
This occurred in March 2018, and Seals was removed two months later. Aistrup said he waited only because there was too much going on at the time of the email and thought it would be best to wait until the end of the academic year.
He also said that had he removed Seals in March, it would have likely raised red flags for Stern as chair. He finally said that he also did not consult with the Department of Economics faculty for similar reasons.
Stern's attorney John Saxon then returned to further question Aistrup. He began by noting Leath's involvement in an email chain that spoke on the returning of the Department of Economics to CLA.
In an effort to stump Aistrup, Saxon pulled Auburn University's announcement of Leath's presidency to show that when the email chain began, Leath had not assumed his duties as president.
He continued by asking Aistrup if he had been insubordinate to his bosses at the time because of a memo from Boosinger that said that CLA would support and independent School of Economics after Aistrup noted he did not support that initiative.
Saxon then pulled an email from Steve Brown, chair of Political Science at the time. In the email, Brown noted that he had observed several disruptions from student-athletes in one class and that they would be working to fix those issues and hold those students to the same standards as other students.
The conversation then returned to the encounter at Callaway Gardens. Aistrup reiterated that he spoke to Stern briefly, but that he spoke with him again the day after to see if Stern had been recording their conversations after learning of similar actions being taken against Brown.
Saxon followed up by returning to a self evaluation from Stern from 2015. Aistrup continued to note that he was concerned with Stern's lack of focus on full professorship, but that he was happy with his performance as chair.
Aistrup was concerned with how Stern was directing his faculty, particularly after Seals' email about the graduate program. During this, Aistrup said that the timing of Seals' removal as GPO nothing was going on, despite Seals having said that he was administering an exam to potential graduate students at the time.
Aistrup said the timing of the exam was unusual and that he did not expect for it to be going on at the time of Seals' removal.
John Smith, the defendants' attorney, returned to question Aistrup. He began by asking about Stern's pay as chair, particularly when it ended.
Aistrup said he was paid for the full term because he knew that Stern, like anyone else, had likely planned on that income and did not want to stifle any plans that he and his family may have had that relied on that income.
Smith carried on by asking about Stern's replacement as chair, Dr. Hyeongwoo Kim. Aistrup said that after finishing Stern's incomplete term, Kim was reelected by the Department of Economics faculty in 2019.
Smith then observed a line from Stern's self evaluation. In this, he said that he regretted not obtaining better office space for the department and that for the first time, he followed the "chain of command" and did not receive what was best for his faculty.
He claimed that this was proof of Stern's insubordination, and he followed with the fact that once the department moved to Miller Hall, all renovations were paid for by CLA and the Provost's Office, which showed that Aistrup and Boosinger were not retaliating against Stern.
Aistrup testified that as Dean, he could have removed Stern at any time. Smith then went through a timeline of Stern's presentations against PUBA and noted that Stern could have been removed as chair after any of those presentations but instead was removed after years of these presentations.
Saxon returned briefly to end Aistrup's questioning. He opened by implying that Aistrup had waited for Gogue to retire before pushing for the Department of Economics to return to CLA.
"Stern had a great relationship with Dr. Gogue," Aistrup said.
Aistrup also said that he did not wait a heartbeat to reengage with the department when the opportunity presented itself.
Saxon finished by addressing Aistrup's notion that he paid out Stern's full term for family matters. Saxon questioned Aistrup's generosity and implied that he was contractually bound to pay out Stern for his full term.
Aistrup was then dismissed and Boosinger was called to the stand.
Wednesday, Nov. 2
Updated 3:01 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2
By Daniel Schmidt | Assistant News Editor
Testimony provided by former Auburn Provost Dr. Bill Hardgrave on Wednesday struck at the heart of communications between himself, fellow administrators Timothy Boosinger, then-President Steven Leath and Joseph Aistrup and plaintiff Michael Stern.
Stern, the plaintiff in the case, has alleged that the clustering of Black student-athletes in the public administration program was racist as their alleged placement in the program was intentionally done by the university and ultimately harmed educational and professional outcomes post-graduation.
While the plaintiffs’ legal team focused on the alleged clustering, the trial was focused on potential retaliation by the university against Stern by withholding a pay raise and bonus in 2019 for lobbing those accusations, which would be considered a violation of his First Amendment rights.
For three hours, the jury intently listened to testimony from Hardgrave about written and verbal communication between administrators and Stern during the Spring 2018 semester.
According to testimony provided by Hardgrave, the reason Stern did not receive a raise or bonus in the fall of 2018 was due to insubordination through a routine inability to follow established chains of communication, not adhering to formal processes to report alleged retaliation and not submitting annual faculty activities report three months after it was due, which resulted in Stern receiving an unacceptable evaluation.
On top of failing to turn that report in, Hardgrave recalled having difficulty getting the Department of Economics to cooperate in the 2018 Academic Program Review.
Additionally, Hardgrave claimed that Stern told administrators that he would no longer recruit students to join PUBA, which he said was a core component of his responsibilities as chair of the Department of Economics.
After being removed as chair of the Department of Economics by Aistrup in an email on May 25, 2018, Stern was notified that he would continue to receive a salary at his current rate at the time until August 2019, which would have been the time his term as chair ended regardless.
Hardgrave said that any faculty member who received an unacceptable evaluation would not have received a pay increase or bonus and that the process followed criteria in an April 6, 2018, memorandum concerning evaluations that was sent to all 12 deans and applied to all 2,000+ faculty members at the time.
The plaintiff’s counsel turned to the decision to temporarily transfer oversight of the Department of Economics to the office of the provost, the removal of ally Dr. Alan Seals as graduate program officer 18 minutes after Stern was let go as chair and the failure of the provost’s office to investigate alleged discrimination against Stern as key evidence that the university retaliated against him.
On Jan. 6, 2017, the Department of Economics was transferred from the College of Liberal Arts to the direct supervision of the Office of the Provost, a move that was characterized as unusual but not unheard of. The department was subsequently returned to CLA on July 5, 2017.
The plaintiff’s legal team then spun the decision by then-Provost Boosinger to ignore Leath’s recommendation to allow the Department of Economics to become a separate school as nefarious, although Hardgrave pushed back claiming that recommendations from university presidents are not always necessarily followed by administrators.
It was also implied that Seals, who had raised similar complaints concerning the clustering of Black student-athletes in PUBA, was removed as GPO in the middle of a graduate examination held that May 25 due to his proximity to Stern.
Hardgrave believed that while the timing to let Seals go as GPO was “unfortunate,” he considered it a well-thought-out decision and not a last-second vindictive whim.
However, it was the belief that Hardgrave’s office did not investigate Stern’s allegations of discrimination that played the most prominent role in the complainant’s questioning.
For the better part of an hour, Hardgrave’s insistence that Stern should have filed formal complaints with the Office of Affirmative Action and Equal Employment was continuously questioned.
An email from Leath to Stern on March 26, 2018, indicated a willingness to meet and discuss the issues Stern raised in numerous university senate meetings between 2014 and 2018 as well as two separate stories published in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 29, 2015, and The Chronicle of Higher Education on Feb. 16, 2018.
However, Leath allegedly changed his mind to only hold the meeting with Stern if Aistrup was present.
Comments in The Chronicle’s story provided by Dr. Tommy Jackson, a member of Auburn’s undefeated 2004 football team and a Black man that graduated with a degree in public administration, undermined the plaintiff’s claim that Black athletes were funneled into the program and had their careers negatively impacted.
Jackson, who later became Director of University College Advising at Kennesaw State University, said he never felt pressured to join the program, although that was long before Stern raised his concerns.
Later in the afternoon, Aistrup was brought to the stand to account for his perspective on the events that led to the ouster of Stern as department chair.
It began with a Feb. 5, 2014, email following Stern’s initial efforts to bring the alleged clustering to the attention to the university senate the previous day. In the email presented by Stern’s legal team, Aistrup characterized the performance as lacking diplomacy and that it caused “collateral damage” to the PUBA program.
At the time, there was a similar controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill concerning the funneling of student-athletes, primarily football players, into courses within the Department of African and Afro-American Studies that were rife with fraud.
Although Aistrup claimed during his testimony that he had no knowledge of what went on at UNC, conversations with Dr. Ted Becker on the same day he sent the email to Stern indicated the scandal was at least on Becker’s mind.
Becker was quoted by Stern’s legal team from an email to Aistrup saying that if ESPN or The New York Times did not pick up the story and turn it into a “scapegoat,” similar to what happened with the university’s sociology department when it was reported in 2011 by The Atlantic that football players graduated with degrees in sociology without actually taking classes in the department.
According to figures included in The Chronicle’s story, 24% of the 2014 football team and more than half of the more than 100 students in the program at the time were athletes.
Additionally, 37% of all Black male student-athletes were enrolled in PUBA, whereas 0.003%, or two of the 581 Black non-student-athlete males, were enrolled in the program.
Tuesday, Nov. 1
Updated 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 2
By Tucker Massey | News Editor and Destini Ambus | Editor-in-chief
The second day of the Stern v. Auburn University trial saw the testimony of several key witnesses, including economics professors, Alan Seals, Randy Beard and former Provost Bill Hardgrave.
The cross-examination of Seals, which began yesterday, was continued as the court reconvened. The defendants’ legal team pressed seals on topics regarding a potentially hostile environment created against the defendants by Seals and Stern.
Chuck Burkhart, who is representing the defendants, pushed Seals on a collage of images that were posted on his door when the offices of many in the Department of Economics were located in the basement of the Haley Center.
Photos of former Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Joseph Aistrup, former Provost Timothy Boosinger and former Provost Bill Hardgrave, among other officials, were placed in the collage with several notorious dictators and criminals. Seals said these individuals had all “violated the public trust.”
One image on the door was of Aistrup and former Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs. It was implied that this photo symbolized the alleged collusion between the Athletics Department and the PUBA major.
Burkhart continued to press that actions such as this, along with the submission of the article published in the Wall Street Journal, were undermining the goals of the college and damaging its reputation.
Seals pushed back against these notions. He said that going public with the issues between the upper administration and the Department of Economics was a last resort.
The conversation then shifted back to the main focus of the trial. Seals said that no issues were raised until they were lied to by the Faculty Athletic Representative about obvious student-athlete clustering in the PUBA major.
While they briefly discussed the main issue, they soon returned to the notion that Seals and Stern acted in hostility against the University and their college.
In an email to former President Steven Leath, Seals, as Graduate Programs Officer, said he would begin advising students to attend graduate school elsewhere because the University had supposedly abused the economics program after Leath took office.
Burkhart said this was an obvious attempt to undermine the University, but Seals said that the current environment in the department at the time, along with a lack of proper resources, would negatively impact any potential graduate students and damage the department’s reputation.
The dispute over proper resources came after Aistrup had allowed the department to hire instructors that were needed within the department, but was of no benefit to the graduate program that needed either junior or senior faculty and was short-staffed.
Stern’s legal team then returned to question Seals further. John Saxon, one of Stern’s attorneys, began by asking about Stern’s performance as chair of the Department of Economics.
Seals responded by saying any disagreement within the department was typically never personal, rather, it had to do with the economic subject matter.
“In the environment, we were in, I couldn’t imagine anybody doing a better job,” Seals said of Stern’s performance.
Seals continued speaking on matters such as the retracting of funding from the department after Leath decided that the department would not become the School of Economics and unfavorable working conditions due to unnecessary construction during exams and lectures.
He also noted that since Stern’s removal as chair, no senior faculty searches have been conducted.
Saxon ended his questioning of Seals by showing a Year in Review from 2017 and 2018 from the CLA. In this review, the Department of Economics ranked in the 91st percentile of faculty scholarly productivity, making them the college’s top producer of research and scholarship.
Seals was dismissed and Dr. Randy Beard, a former professor in the Department of Economics, took the stand.
Stern’s team questioned him first. Beard was the first to notice the disproportionate amount of football players in the PUBA major.
Beard said that he found it strange that so many prominent football players were majoring in PUBA because it was a relatively small major.
Beard said his concern with this alleged clustering came because this was “probably not an uncommon thing to happen.” While Beard was not actively involved in the questioning of the FAR during the Faculty Senate meetings, he was aware of some of Stern’s doings at the time.
He did help pay for the FOIA request because if the University’s academics and athletics were colluding, it would be “an issue of the academic integrity of the University.”
Beard recalled Aistrup requesting a meeting with the Department of Economics faculty in which he proposed that an external chair replace Stern.
He said that 14 faculty members opposed the proposition while none favored it. He also said that he felt that the external chair was going to be used to “sideline” Stern.
The external chair was allegedly going to make $200,000. After the faculty opposed the request, this money was not reallocated anywhere else in the department.
Former Auburn University Provost Bill Hardgrave was called to the stand for the last hour of the day by one of Stern's lawyers, Cynthia Wilkinson.
Wilkinson began her line of questioning with asking about general information from his last five years as provost: his job, pay, responsibilities and the definition of retribution or retaliation, in line with University policy. Under Auburn's policy, Hardgrave said, it was taking action against someone, based upon an action they had done.
During the timeline of the alleged retaliation against Stern, Hardgrave served as the dean of the Harbert College of Business in 2010 through December 2017. He became the provost in January 2018.
The three alleged acts were listed to have occurred some in 2016-2017, when Stern received a 3.4% raise from the 2016-2017 year, while other chairs received higher raises. Stern claims that he earned at least a 4.5% raise, but was given a lesser one by former College of Liberal Arts Dean Joe Aistrup and Provost Timothy Boosinger, as retaliation for his protected speech in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 and at University Senate in the same year.
The second act, was the failure to receive an annual evaluation in March 2017, which is attributed to the fact that in that year, Stern reported to specifically, Associate Provost Emmett Winn, instead of to Dean Aistrup or Provost Boosinger. Stern suggests that this led to him not getting any raises going forward.
The last act was not receiving a raise and a one-time bonus in the 2017-2018 academic year in December 2017, a month before Hardgrave become provost for the University.
Nevertheless, Stern's team argued that Hardgrave had a responsibility to respond to allegations of retaliation from Stern about Aistrup. Hardgrave said, in response, that if anyone came to him directly or if he heard indirectly that there was retaliation it would be his job to refer them to legal, and that it was not his job to determine whether or not it was actually taking place.
He also said that if someone thought they were being retaliated against, they should report it to their supervisor, and then to their supervisor's supervisor if that was the person who was doing it.
Wilkinson asked if Hardgrave had ever done anything specifically to make sure Aistrup was trained on retaliation if he had ever asked if he had been trained on that. She also asked if he knew that Stern had raised issues about retaliation prior to filing the lawsuit in Fall 2018. Hardgrave didn't recall the time period that he had been notified about the retribution allegations, whether that was prior to or after the lawsuit was filed.
She went on to ask him more questions about pay, particularly raises and the approval process. According to Hardgrave, his team looked at the raises that deans and chairs of departments received, and he "may have" signed off on a form for approval. He didn't remember around what time he became aware that Stern was receiving no raise, but he knew the reason why although he never investigated it.
Shortly after Wilkinson asked him about establishing a uniform policy across colleges to prevent the removal of a department chair from a dean. There are no written guidelines, according to Hardgrave, about what a department chair has to do in order to get removed from a position, and further no baseline specifications about how long a chair could serve. It was left up to the discretion of each individual college, dean and department.
The questions shifted to the Wall Street Journal article published in 2015 about the "clustering" in the public administration major, and if Hardgrave was aware of the racial discrimination allegations presented in it. Wilkinson asked Hardgrave if he agreed that the arguments presented in the article by Stern were a matter of "public concern".
Wilkinson alleged that the article was about clustering impacting Black student-athletes in a bad way and that the clustering in the major was treating them in a matter that was worse than white athletes. Hardgrave was not the provost at the time the article was published, but a month after he became provost a similar article was released from The Chronicle of Higher Education, in which Stern raised issues about Black student-athletes being treated less favorably because of their race.
Hardgrave said that he read the article, but thought it was just a rehash of the 2015 WSJ article, which he thought had already been investigated and resolved.
Stern also mentioned this concern about Black student-athletes at a University Senate meeting in March 2018, which Hardgrave was in attendance at. Wilkinson suggested that at the meeting, Hardgrave should've looked further into these allegations of race discrimination since he was the "highest ranking" person at the meeting.
Hardgrave said that he didn't feel it was his sole responsibility to; there were other people at the meeting — the president, if he was there, his counterpart on the non-academic side, someone from human resources. He said since it was a public forum he didn't feel compelled to make sure that someone from the proper channels looked into it.
In a later senate meeting in May 2018, Stern mentioned racial discrimination against Black student-athletes again, and for the last time before he was removed as chair ten days later. Specifically, according to the notes from that meeting, he said the following:
"First, I want to make clear since Beverly is representing the Intercollegiate Athletic Committee, I'm representing no one but myself. So any of those that wish to continue retaliation against me, it should be directed at me."
Wilkinson argued that should've been a red flag, the mention of "continued retaliation" to Hardgrave, and he should've investigated the claim. Hardgrave said he didn't recall him saying that, and he didn't report it to anyone.
The Plainsman will continue to cover this trial until its conclusion.
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