by Kate Thayer
A former professor is suing Roosevelt University, saying he was wrongfully fired after telling a joke in his sociology class, poking fun at Arizona’s immigration policy.
Robert Klein Engler, 68, of Des Plaines, also names his former union, Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization, in the lawsuit filed earlier this week in federal court, claiming representatives did not adequately defend him and grievance procedures were not followed.
After 11 years as an adjunct professor in the sociology department at both Chicago and Schaumburg campuses, Engler was fired on Aug. 10, 2010.
In the months leading up to his termination, Engler learned he was under investigation for harassment claims, and hadn’t been assigned any classes for the upcoming fall 2010 semester, the complaint states. However, despite repeated attempts to find out details of the harassment claims from university officials, Engler did not learn until Oct. 5, 2010 – two months after his firing – that a joke was to blame.
Engler said he admits telling the joke, which he possibly overheard on a late night talk show, in his Spring 2010 City and Citizenship class in Chicago. Engler declined to comment about how the class reacted at the time he told the joke, which was used in a discussion about Arizona’s then new and contentious immigration laws.
According the complaint, the joke reads: “A group of sociologists did a poll in Arizona regarding the state’s new immigration law. Sixty percent said they were in favor, and 40 percent said, ‘No hablo Ingles.’”
Union officials claim Engler wasn’t fired specifically for the joke. Instead, he lost his job because he didn’t attend an Aug. 6, 2010, meeting to discuss the harassment claim.
“Mr. Engler was not terminated because of students’ complaints about a joke he told in class. He was terminated for not attending an investigatory meeting called by the university to investigate the students’ complaints,” Grievance chair Joseph Fedorko said in a statement. “We believe that this lawsuit by Mr. Engler will also be found to lack any credibility.”
Fedorko also dismissed claims the union did not adequately represent Engler.
A Roosevelt University spokeswoman declined comment, citing personnel reasons.
“Our position is…they wanted to get rid of him anyway. They’re using this as an excuse,” said Doug Ibendahl, Engler’s attorney.
Ibendahl also claims Engler should have been told of the reason for the harassment investigation before he was officially terminated — a violation of the union contract — and that union representatives did not do all they could to protect Engler.
Engler said he mostly wants his job back, but is also seeking back pay from the date of his termination, among other expenses.