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Federal Trial Begins—Iowa PTer Claims Political Beliefs Kept Her From Getting FT Jobs

By Ryan Foley

In a January 2012 article, AdjunctNation reported:

Teresa Wagner 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.”

Now, Wagner is finally getting her day in court.

Praised by colleagues as smart, friendly and passionate about the law, Teresa Wagner (below, left) was a leading candidate when two jobs came open to teach writing at the University of Iowa law school. An alumnus, she was already working part-time at its writing center and received positive reviews from students and a key committee.

But after she interviewed with the faculty in 2007, one job went to someone without teaching experience and the other wasn’t filled. She was passed over for other jobs in the coming years. She now says she was blackballed because of her legal work against abortion rights and will take her complaint to a jury this week. The case is being closely watched in higher education because of longstanding allegations of political bias at left-leaning law schools. Conservatives have maintained for years that they are passed over for jobs and promotions at law schools because of their views, but formal challenges have been rare, in part because of the difficulty of proving discrimination. Wagner’s case is considered the first of its kind.

Spotlight on ‘injustice’

“This will put a spotlight on a terrible injustice that is being perpetrated throughout American higher education,” said Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, who says he routinely hears from rejected conservative professors. “What makes Teresa Wagner’s case so extraordinary is she came up with the documentary evidence of what was really going on.”

But some scholars worry that challenges like Wagner’s could force law schools to begin openly considering the political views of job applicants, opening the way for more lawsuits and court interference in hiring.

At a federal trial that starts in Davenport, Wagner will argue that the law school faculty blocked her appointment because she had opposed abortion rights, gay marriage and euthanasia while working as a lawyer for the Family Research Council and the National Right to Life Committee in Washington.

Wagner says the opposition to her was led by professor Randall Bezanson, a law clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun when he wrote the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973 — an opinion Wagner spent her earlier career opposing. She says 46 of 50 faculty members who considered her appointment were Democrats, while one was Republican. Wagner will offer as evidence an e-mail from a school official who backed her candidacy warning the dean that some opposed her “because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it).”

Wagner declined an interview request before trial, but told Fox News in April that liberals were protective of prestigious faculty appointments. “Republicans need not apply,” she said.

Lefty lawyers

Lawyers representing the law school will argue that Wagner was passed over after botching an answer during a 2007 job interview with the faculty, a claim her attorney calls a pretext.

A number of studies in recent years have examined party affiliation, ideology and donations to candidates and concluded that law professors are overwhelmingly left-leaning.

Many law schools recruit conservative scholars to join their faculty and top law schools pride themselves on having prominent representatives of different perspectives. Some law schools, especially those affiliated with the Catholic church and other religions, also lean strongly conservative. Still, many liberals concede they outnumber their colleagues on faculties around the country but say reasons such as career choices may explain the disparity, not discrimination in hiring.

Walter Olson, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, said business conservatives with expertise in regulatory and antitrust law are well-represented on faculties. But he said he would be hard-pressed to name any professor at a non-religious school who opposed the Roe decision before winning tenure.

As a lawyer for conservative groups, Wagner wrote papers and books and filed court briefs on behalf of conservative social causes after graduating from law school in 1993.

She moved back to Iowa City with her husband and four children in 2006 to raise their family. She says she had the necessary experience for the law school openings because she had taught writing at George Mason law school in Virginia and an ethics class at Notre Dame. In 2002, she’d turned down a job offer from Ave Marie Law School, a conservative Catholic institution then located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“I thought she was going to be dynamic in the classroom,” said Ave Marie dean emeritus Bernard Dobranski. “She was very lively and vivacious.”

But Wagner says an associate Iowa dean told her to conceal her connection to Ave Maria during the interview because it would be viewed negatively.

 

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  • AdjunctNation Editorial Team: @Jeffr thanks for pointing out the distinction.
  • Jeffr: Note that adjunct faculty are considered to be on a “term” basis and receives no protection except...
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  • Freddi-Jo Bruschke: An excellent description of this editorial.