Political Activism Versus Campus Diversity in Iowa — PT Law Faculty Member Denied Job Because of Political Beliefs

by Hans A. Von Spakovsky

The only place for discrimination in a law school is as a lesson in the classroom — where professors teach young legal minds about the importance of ensuring equal treatment under the law. The last place you’d expect to find it is in the school’s hiring practices.

That is unless it’s the University of Iowa’s College of Law.

Teresa Wagner (left), a graduate of the law school, sued when she was not hired as a full-time instructor or part-time adjunct despite her superior qualifications. Instead, the law school hired candidates whose resumes paled in comparison to Wagner’s experience. While the individuals hired were less qualified, they had a significant leg up on Wagner — their liberal political beliefs. On the other hand, Wagner was a registered Republican and had worked as a lawyer for the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion advocacy group, and at the Family Research Council. Despite her qualifications, however, Wagner’s conservative background and politics was a deal breaker to the faculty.

A lower court initially dismissed Wagner’s lawsuit, but on December 28, 2011 the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated the case. And as the federal court noted, the new hearing will provide the opportunity to get at the heart of the matter — “whether Dean Jones [the defendant] would have made the same hiring decisions in the absence of Wagner’s political affiliations and beliefs.”

Although the school may attempt to deny this despicable example of discrimination by arguing that Wagner was not the best candidate, the facts don’t support that assertion.

In fact, the university’s faculty appointment committee actually recommended Wagner, who had taught at another law school for two years, to the rest of the faculty to be hired for a full-time position because she was the most qualified applicant and had “the highest possible ratings” by students.

According to the court, the faculty hired an individual, Matt Williamson, who “had never practiced law, had no legal publications, and had no prior successful teaching experience.” He received student ratings lower than Wagner’s. But again Williamson had a big advantage — he had “portrayed himself as a liberal to other employees.”

Additionally, an associate dean told Wagner to conceal the fact that she had been offered a tenure-track position at another law school viewed as “conservative” and sent an email expressing his concern that members of the faculty “may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it).”

This statement doesn’t leave much to the imagination. It’s difficult if not impossible to rationalize the faculty’s decision other than to admit that Wagner’s politics were the reason for her rejection. One professor told Wagner he “had never heard of the faculty rejecting a candidate” recommended by the committee.

She was a conservative who had actually advocated against abortion. And that was especially problematic — the “primary, vocal opponent” to Wagner was professor Randall Bezanson, who “had clerked for Justice Blackmun during the time Roe vs. Wade was written, has written tributes to Justice Blackmun and his abortion jurisprudence and has published legal articles advocating a pro-choice viewpoint on abortion.”

The cards were unquestionably stacked against Wagner from the start. As the court observed, the Iowa “law school faculty at the university is viewed as being liberal. Only one out of 50 professors is a registered Republican” and the law school boasts about its “progressive history” on its website.

It’s not surprising then that Wagner continued to receive rejections — Wagner applied and was rejected four additional times by the College of Law and continued to watch lesser qualified candidates receive job offers (including a former research assistant to professor Bezanson with no legal experience).

No form of discrimination is acceptable, but it’s particularly appalling when tax money is used to fund it. It’s equally troubling — and particularly ironic — that the same people who engaged in discrimination are the professors who teach about its evils in the classroom.

Guess they don’t think they need to practice what they preach.

Because of their outright refusal and inability to set aside political prejudices, the faculty of the university’s College of Law did a disservice to their law students and all Iowans. Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the Iowa Legislature, which helps fund this university, should take steps to insure that such discrimination does not occur again at the state university.

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