URBANA — The dismissal case of a longtime engineering professor has been forwarded to University of Illinois trustees for a final decision, The News-Gazette has learned.
After receiving notification from the university that President Bob Easter had sent his dismissal case on to the UI Board of Trustees, Professor Louis Wozniak has requested a hearing before that body, Wozniak told The News-Gazette.
After the president reviews a dismissal case, faculty have the right to request a hearing before trustees, according to university statutes. A case moving this far up the ranks is rare for the university, which has not seen a faculty-dismissal case like this since at least the 1970s. Before escalating to a hearing, most dismissal cases are settled quietly.
The embattled professor, whose run-ins with university administration date back to the 1990s, refuses to comply with what he characterized as a muzzling order from a faculty committee, which recommended he keep his job if he meets certain conditions.
After conducting a year-long review of the case, the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure concluded that although Wozniak may have behaved inappropriately, he should not be fired, The News-Gazette reported last week. The teaching suspension imposed on Wozniak since 2010 was commensurate with the alleged misconduct, the committee found.
The panel said the suspension should be lifted if he meets certain conditions, such as refraining from talking to students about his eligibility for a teaching award. (In 2009, Wozniak accused the engineering college of botching the awarding of a teaching prize he says should have been given to him.) The committee also said Wozniak should remove any public references to his private conversation with a student about the award. His failure to comply with the conditions can be cause to dismiss him, according to the report.
"They're trying to muzzle me. Talking to you will be my epitaph," he told a News-Gazette reporter.
Wozniak said he is interpreting the president's move of forwarding the dismissal case to trustees as the administration's decision to push him out, despite the committee's recommendation.
University spokesman Tom Hardy declined to comment, saying the UI's policy is not to discuss personnel issues.
Wozniak said the university has asked him to take down a website, http://www.illethics.com, where he has posted hundreds of pages of documents, correspondence and transcripts from the hearing.
He said he has attempted to remove all references to student names in the reports he posted on his site. Being told not to talk about his case violates his freedom of speech, he said.
The 74-year-old Wozniak said he wants to return to teaching engineering and for the university to reimburse him for his legal bills, which he estimates at close to $100,000 now.
"I want to get back to teaching. That is what I love to do and it is what students love me for," said Wozniak, who graduated from the UI and has been a professor there since 1966.
Wozniak also said he wants an engineering employee fired for he what took to be interference in the awarding of a teaching prize.
It was that teaching prize that sparked Wozniak's recent run-in with administrators. The university claimed that Wozniak, after learning he received the most student votes for a teaching award in 2009 but was not given the award, disclosed a student's grade to others and sought student support for his grievance; videotaped students without written consent; appeared before a class after he was suspended from teaching; and violated university policy by sending an email to students in which he said students, upon returning to campus, should remind him of their names because "I only remember the names of GKs I've had sex with," referring to the students as "grandkids." He said it was a joke and apologized to students shortly after sending the message. In its conclusion, the committee said the email, while “a stupid effort at a joke,” did not give cause to discharge. In its final report, the committee cleared Wozniak of all but one of the 12 charges the university filed.
The last time Wozniak butted heads with administration was in the 1990s, when he refused to turn in student grade books, saying it violated his academic freedom as well as student privacy rights. At the time, students rallied around Wozniak, but he was suspended from teaching. He became involved in the college's website and a variety of outreach activities. The suspension lasted for seven years. He returned to teaching in 2003 and taught classes on topics such as control systems (including cruise control and aircraft guidance) and won teaching awards. As an associate professor, he earns about $85,000 a year.
Since the recent suspension, Wozniak said, he is no longer involved in research activities and has focused his time on the dismissal case. A member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Wozniak said he is winding down his public service activity.
"I'm trying to prepare for the hearing," he said.
Wozniak said he does not know when the hearing before trustees will take place.
He said he wants to continue teaching for a few more years, retire, then be rehired back at a 20 percent teaching appointment.
Hardy said university attorneys have handled most of the legal work on the case, but an outside law firm has been brought in to help. An estimate for UI costs for Wozniak's case was not immediately available.
Wozniak's is one of a handful of cases in which the university has attempted to fire a member of its faculty. In 1975, the university brought a variety of charges against veterinary medicine Professor Frank Romack. The faculty committee concluded that Romack should not be dismissed, according to News-Gazette archives.
In the 1960s, assistant biology Professor Leo Koch was fired after he advocated for premarital sex in a letter to the student newspaper. At the time, the American Association of University Professors censured the university for what it said was a lack of due process. Also in the 1960s, classics Professor Revilo Oliver was taken before the faculty committee for authoring inflammatory articles about President John F. Kennedy. The committee did not recommend dismissal, and the president and trustees at the time agreed with that decision.