Linfield University’s president and Board of Trustees chair are facing formal faculty votes of no confidence today after damning straw polls last week. The Pacific Northwest chapter of the Anti-Defamation League has expressed disappointment in the two men, and even the Oregon Board of Rabbis wants President Miles K. Davis and David Baca, the board chair, to step down.
How did things go so off the rails? They’ve been veering that way for a while, with Linfield facing allegations that it mishandled numerous sexual misconduct cases involving multiple trustees. But now Linfield is facing additional accusations of anti-Semitism — all involving Davis and other trustees.
The latter allegations came to light this month, when the board’s sole faculty representative, David Pollack-Pelzner, Ronni Lacroute Chair in Shakespeare Studies, shared on Twitter that he’d dealt with anti-Semitism and retaliation from board members, especially after pressing them to do more to prevent sexual misconduct.
In one instance, Pollack-Pelzner said that when he met Davis for the first time in 2018, he told Davis that he was teaching The Merchant of Venice and the various prejudices the play evokes. Davis allegedly responded that he understood what Pollack-Pelzer was getting at, because if one measured the size of the average “Jewish nose” and the average “Arab nose,” there was no discernible difference.
Pollack-Pelzner, who is Jewish, said he was taken aback and thought to himself that notions of measuring Jewish noses had “fallen out of favor around 1945.” But he also thought he had to give Davis, then a new president, the benefit of the doubt.
That was then. In the interim, Pollack-Pelzner said in an interview, Davis’s and other trustees’ insidious comments to and about him have become impossible to ignore. Two other faculty members have also reported that Davis, who is both the university president and a member of the board, once made a comment about not sending Jews to the shower with soap.
Also impossible to ignore, Pollack-Pelzner said, is Linfield’s continued acceptance of a culture of sexual harassment among trustees. Four board members have been accused of sexual misconduct by several students and a faculty member. Three of those trustees remain on the board.
“The most pressing concerns for the faculty are really protecting the well-being of our students and our colleagues, and saying that that abuses of power are not OK and harassment and retaliation against people who speak up about abuses of power are not OK,” Pollack-Pelzner said. “The refusal to acknowledge what’s wrong in defaming, intimidating and threatening people who speak up about sexual misconduct … I think that’s what’s at the heart of our concerns.”
Linfield has acknowledged that its board had a sexual misconduct problem — in the form of one longtime trustee, David Jubb, who resigned over what he called health concerns in 2019, amid allegations that he preyed on students at social events. His accusers total four students, including one who said Jubb groped her and her friends in a car in 2017, after Linfield's former president asked her to drive Jubb home because he'd been drinking at a university event. The same student has also said that Linfield broke its promise to her to keep Jubb away from events with students and alcohol, enabling him to grope another student under her skirt following a trustee dinner in 2019. Last year, Jubb was indicted in Oregon on seven counts of third-degree sexual abuse and one count of first-degree sexual abuse. He has pleaded not guilty.
Beyond Jubb, Linfield says it has investigated reports of misconduct involving other trustees, including Davis, the president, but that those trustees were not found to have violated university policies.
As for Pollack-Pelzner, Davis has accused him of launching a “smear” campaign against the university.
In response to a recent letter of concern from the Anti-Defamation League, Davis wrote that “Linfield has extensive and robust programs to educate and train students, faculty and staff on matters of discrimination, sexual harassment and misconduct, and intolerance.” He said that, as a Black man, he understands how important this work is, and that the work is not done. And, “Most important," Davis wrote, "you should know that Professor Pollack-Pelzner has been engaged in a smear campaign toward me and the administration at Linfield University.”
Pollack-Pelzner’s allegations on Twitter are “just the latest salvo in an effort that has caused harm to the university and our community,” he said.
In addition to the Anti-Defamation League memo, 23 Oregon rabbis called on Davis and Baca to resign last week, writing in a separate letter to Linfield, “It is a grave cause of concern that not only has the president failed to foster a climate of accountability, but that he has used this moment to levy anti-Semitic innuendos and disapprobations against a distinguished Jewish faculty member who, as Faculty Trustee, has attempted to restore trust on the campus at large.”
The rabbis also asked that Linfield strengthen its policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment and retaliation reports, adopt antibias training for trustees, and improve general transparency on these issues.
According to The Oregonian, another trustee, Steve Bils, called the Oregon Board of Rabbis upon receiving the letter and told a staff member that Pollack-Pelzner was a “liar” who was using “this affiliation” — his Jewish identity — “to give his cause leverage.”
Pollack-Pelzner said the university’s responses to his account thus far demonstrate what he’s faced since meeting Davis in 2018 and becoming a faculty trustee in 2019, in particular.
“You’d think that wouldn’t be what you’d say if wanted to deflect allegations of anti-Semitic views,” Pollack-Pelzer said of Bils’s reported comments. “And of course the board wants to present this as just being, you know, one angry professor versus well-intentioned leaders.”
Despite his new reputation as a troublemaker, Pollack-Pelzer said he naively joined the board as the sole faculty trustee in late 2019 to try to improve trust between the faculty, board and administration. By that time, many faculty members were already unhappy with Davis’s academic prioritization plans, among other issues.
The gravity of Pollack-Pelzner's new role hit him immediately after his first board meeting. That’s when a faculty member who has since publicly identified herself as Jamie Friedman, associate professor of English and gender studies, told Pollack-Pelzner that she and students had experienced inappropriate touching by trustees at social events. Friedman didn’t want to file a formal report, in part because she’d tried that previously and, she's said, was told that that’s just how men are. But Friedman asked Pollack-Pelzner to encourage the board to get some sexual harassment training, develop guidelines for conduct and rethink planning late-night, low-lit social events with alcohol flowing.
Pollack-Pelzner contacted the university’s then-general counsel about these requests, but nothing ever came of it, he said. A month later, the student who accused Jubb — who had since retired — of putting his hand up her skirt twice went public with her allegations. Pollack-Pelzner wrote to the general counsel again, as well as Davis and Baca, the board chair, and said that he couldn't encourage colleagues to socialize with trustees if changes weren’t made before the next board meeting.
When faculty members were then asked to host trustees at their homes for dinner on Valentine’s Day evening 2020, Pollack-Pelzner wrote to his fellow faculty members to say he didn't support the plan.
The next day, Baca summoned Pollack-Pelzner to his Portland law office and accused him, in Pollack-Pelzner’s retelling, of having some kind of “secret agenda” and seeking to “grab power.” When Pollack-Pelzner said he was just seeking some guidelines for trustee behavior and a different format for events, Baca allegedly responded that board members weren’t going to become “Puritan, just because some students and professors said they were uncomfortable being touched.” Baca also allegedly said he refused to wear a “hair shirt” and punish himself over these complaints.
“It was a striking way to frame this issue: that agreeing to take sexual harassment training or adopt guidelines or reconsider the format for a social event would be a metaphorical form of punishment, a physical torture — like wearing a skin-tearing hairshirt — or a renouncing of worldly delights on the model of the pleasure-loathing Puritans,” Pollack-Pelzner recalled in a recent letter to his colleagues about his experiences. “It was also striking that Baca seemed focused on the pain that trustees themselves might undergo, not the pain that they had caused faculty and students.”
Baca did not respond to a request for comment.
Of course, Pollack-Pelzner said, the issue was also one of power, namely the trustees feeling they were asked to give up some of theirs. Pollack-Pelzner wrote in his account to his colleagues that the "central issue in sexual harassment is power. Contrary to Linfield’s messages, what matters is not which body parts are touched, but whether the person you’re touching has given consent, and whether, given the power differences between you, they can meaningfully resist.”
Quoting Linfield’s own definition of sexual misconduct, Pollack-Pelzner said that nonconsensual sexual contact was “any intentional sexual touching, however slight, with any object or body part, by any person upon any other person, without consent.” It doesn’t matter, he continued, “if it’s the leg or the chest or the back, a grab or a squeeze or a rub. Sexual misconduct is using your power to erase someone else’s control over their own body.”
Pollack-Pelzner said, for instance, that he’d received an anonymous letter from a student describing how a senior trustee approached several graduating seniors at a 2019 social event and asked, “What’s a group of beautiful young girls doing over here by yourself?” The trustee then squeezed the woman and winked at her.
The student wrote that while she hadn’t been repeatedly groped, unlike her fellow student, “it is indicative of what I would describe as a larger culture at Linfield, most present within the Board of Trustees, in which individuals who hold power are able to utilize it in order to obtain what they want, and if they do not receive it, to shame and silence the individuals with less power who are on the other end.”
Friedman, the professor who accused Davis and other trustee who is not Jubb of sexual misconduct, described similar experiences. In one instance, in 2018, when she was still untenured, she said Davis approached her from behind at a crowded theater event, rubbed her arms up and down, and whispered in her ear that he was looking forward to seeing her at their next meeting.
At a trustees’ dinner in 2019, Friedman said, another trustee seated next to her put his hands on her bare arms, her back and her thigh, and asked if she was married and if she wanted to go out later that evening. Friedman — who was up for a tenure vote the next day — said she repeatedly tried to bring the conversation back to Linfield.
“My feeling at the time was that my place as a female faculty member was such an anomaly to the people around me that they had no experience of engaging with me or my body, professionally,” Friedman recalled last week. “The avenue that was most familiar to them was to engage with me as an object of physical pleasure or visual pleasure or whatever.”
Friedman said that Linfield has played down the nature of her reports, to make it seem as if she overreacted merely to being touched.
Asked about Friedman's complaint against Davis, Scott Nelson, a spokesperson for Linfield, said via email that Davis "is accused of touching a faculty member on her shoulder to get her attention and saying he looked forward to seeing her at a meeting the next day. The event took place at a theater event attended by Dr. Davis’s wife and daughter."
Friedman said the incident was eventually investigated, with disappointing results. A summary of the independent investigation says that the behavior in question probably happened but didn't rise to the level of violating any university policy.
Nelson said that "no one at the event remembers seeing any interaction that was unseemly. What the investigation concluded was that he may have touched her shoulder and said he looked forward to seeing her, but there was no sexual element to it and therefore did not violate university policies.”
Regarding the second incident, involving Friedman and a third trustee, another independent investigation substantiated Friedman's account but found that it didn't rise to the level of violating any university policy.
In his recent note to colleagues, Pollack-Pelzner wrote, “Maybe there was a time when it was considered OK for a senior trustee to go up to a group of graduating seniors, call them beautiful young girls, and give one a squeeze and a wink. Maybe there was a time when it was acceptable for a trustee to sit next to a professor, put his hand on her thigh, ask if she was married, and invite her to go off-campus with him. Maybe somebody once thought it was acceptable for a member of the board to get in a car with students, grope their bodies, and remain a trustee, which is what allegedly happened with Dave Jubb.”
But nowadays, he said, all of these actions constitute sexual misconduct, according to Linfield’s own definition. In all, he continued, four trustees have been reported for some type of sexual misconduct in recent years and three remain on the board.
"Every sexual misconduct allegation that has been investigated has been substantiated," Pollack-Pelzner wrote. "And yet Linfield claims that no policy violations have occurred.”
Linfield is associated with the American Baptist Churches. Pollack-Pelzner said that Davis often quotes the Bible in board meetings, and that that’s fine. Yet Davis’s tone at the February 2020 board meeting was less biblical than retaliatory, he said.
Pollack-Pelzner knew he was on shaky ground with Davis at the time, as 10 days earlier the president allegedly told him that a set of notes he'd written about sexual misconduct allegations against trustees would “destroy” Linfield. But he said he was still shocked to hear Davis say at the meeting that he knew that all the world's the great empires had been destroyed by “disloyalty” from within — and that Linfield would also be destroyed from within unless its critics followed the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.
It was a dark, full-circle moment for Pollack-Pelzner, who said he'd already had the strange conversation with Davis about anti-Semitism in The Merchant of Venice.
“I’ve got to admit, I felt like Shylock,” Pollack-Pelzner remembered, referring to the play's Jewish character. “I was being cast as this alien presence [whose] forced conversion was being staged for an audience.”
Around the same time, Pollack-Pelzner said, Davis also told Linfield’s Faculty Assembly that those who had asked for a strong institutional response to swastikas popping up on campus shouldn’t be so alarmed.
All this prompted Pollack-Pelzner to take his concerns about anti-Semitism and to human resources. There, he says an administrator told him that she had a very nice neighbor who was Jewish and she was therefore certain that Jews did not have a secret agenda.
The university hired an outside investigator to formally investigate Pollack-Pelzner's claims, but that person had shared social media posts criticizing feminists, Pollack-Pelzner said. The second investigator was better, but Linfield limited the scope of her investigation to exclude Baca — whom Linfield allegedly contended was not an employee — and any of Pollack-Pelzner’s communications with the board. These talks, Linfield contended, fell under attorney-client privilege. Pollack-Pelzner said he was also blocked from telling the investigator that he’d been censured by the board for speaking out and had even been banned from its executive sessions.
According to a summary of the investigation, Davis denied ever making a comment about Jewish and Arab noses, making it a “‘he said, he said’ situation. This complaint could not be substantiated.”
Davis also denied Pollack-Pelzner’s allegation that Davis had accused him of destroying Linfield from within. The investigator found the complaint to be “partially substantiated,” in that Davis had said Pollack-Pelzer’s trustee's notes about sexual misconduct were “not in the best interests of the institution," according to the report. Davis did “forcefully” convey that Pollack-Pelzner was being disloyal to Linfield by disclosing the allegations in his report. Witnesses at the board meeting did not corroborate Davis’s alleged comments about being more like Jesus, however.
The report continues much like this: Davis mentioned racist incidents on campus to the Faculty Assembly, but witnesses didn’t recall him mentioning swastikas, and so on. Over all, the investigation found that Pollack-Pelzner had “endured significant resistance from President Davis and other Linfield leadership,” including “several tense conversations.” But the complaints that were substantiated “did not meet the threshold for unlawful harassment or unlawful retaliation.”
Pollack-Pelzner “subjectively” believed anti-Semitism to be behind comments made to him, the report says. But two additional faculty members have also said that Davis made, at best, highly insensitive comments about the Holocaust. In independent accounts to The Oregonian, Jennifer Linder and Tanya Tompkins, both professors of psychology, recalled that Davis said during a 2018 discussion on transparency about possible staff cuts, "You don’t send Jews to the showers with soap.”
Davis told The Oregonian that he didn’t recall making such a statement but that a former professor of his once said some actions by human resources personnel, “when helping companies fire people, was like giving soap to Jews as they entered into the gas chamber.”
In his own statement to Inside Higher Ed, Davis said that Pollack-Pelzner’s allegations “are false. I am not anti-Semitic, and respect all religious faiths. Nor have I retaliated against him.”
Nelson, Linfield’s spokesperson, said that “President Davis is not Christian and has never been Christian. Dr. Davis has a long history of interfaith work and has demonstrated and espouses respect for all religions. President Davis has never suggested that anyone needs to follow the teachings of Jesus.” Nelson did not share Davis’s religion.
Pollack-Pelzner has said that while he didn’t think waving red flags about the trustees’ conduct would endear him to the board, he still finds it “staggering” that the trustees have devoted so much attention to him and not their bigger problems.
“I recognize that it’s easier to blame the messenger than to do the harder work of creating a safe and welcoming community,” Pollack-Pelzner wrote in his faculty email. “And I understand the defensive response to say that I’m causing harm by reporting, rather than having to face the harm that’s being reported. But I hope that letters like the ADL’s will, even if slowly, help Linfield to engage in the self-scrutiny it needs to educate and heal.”
Pollack-Pelzner said that the trustees are now contemplating eliminating both the faculty and student trustee seats on the board.
Asked about that, Nelson said no decision has been made, but that trustees are looking for meaningful ways to increase both faculty and student participation in shared governance.
"No trustee vote in Linfield history ever came down to a single vote from the faculty or student trustee," he said.
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