FIRE's Letter to Albright College
July 16, 2001
As you see by our Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across a broad political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, and, in the case of Professor Achal Mehra, freedom of expression and due process on America's college campuses. Our web page, www.thefire.org, will give you a fuller sense of our identity and our activities.
We are writing to you in your capacity as a trustee of Albright College, as we are writing to the other members of the Board of Trustees. The trustees of an institution of higher learning have a solemn fiduciary obligation to pass along to the next generation a university as free, honest, and decent as the institution it inherited from its predecessors. When academic freedom and fundamental fairness are threatened at that institution-particularly when the faculty and administration have defaulted on their obligation to protect these time-honored principles-it is incumbent upon the trustees to exercise their legal and moral authority to take corrective action.
You know the obvious issues here. Professor Mehra-joined in this by many independent investigators-believes that President Zimon falsified his curriculum vitae in applying for the presidency of Albright College. In arguing on behalf of his allegations, Professor Mehra has proffered a large amount of evidence, including data gathered under the Freedom of Information Act, and he has argued vociferously that deep academic dishonesty, which he asserts is beyond the pale, has occurred in this instance. He believes that the soul and reputation of Albright College are on the line.
This affair has created great tensions at Albright College and great interest nationwide. The Chronicle of Higher Education has examined both the claims against President Zimon and the threats to Professor Mehra. Some members of the Board of Trustees and the faculty have resigned in sympathy with the positions taken by Professor Mehra (we have copies of their letters in our possession), and some administrators, faculty, and students filed charges of "harassment" against Professor Mehra, calling for his dismissal, with the Committee on Rank, Tenure and Sabbatical Leave. Those charges were sent to the Faculty Executive Committee, which had to ask both parties if "truth" were a satisfactory defense against the charges. Remarkably, the reply, on behalf of all the complainants, came from Albright's outside legal counsel. Do all complainants at Albright get free legal counsel from Klett Rooney Lieber & Schoring, or only those associated with President Zimon? The law firm instructed the FEC that it must prosecute the case against Professor Mehra, that the truth or falsity of his charges were not "central to the complaint and the statement of charges," and that it must find that Professor Mehra was guilty of "moral turpitude for which Dr. Mehra should be terminated." The law firm further informed the Committee that the issue of the College paying counsel for the complainants, counsel that would take an active role in the proceeding, was "immaterial and beyond the jurisdiction of the Faculty Executive Committee."
FIRE is profoundly concerned with the assault both upon Professor's Mehra's right to due and impartial process to which Professor is entitled and upon his academic freedom to criticize the university and its president, above all on a matter of the most intense public concern and importance. If Professor Mehra has defamed President Zimon, the president has been free to sue him for defamation. Retaliation by means dismissal for criticism that is labeled as "harassment" seems unconscionable.
To make matters worse, Dean Thomas Brogan has ordered Professor Mehra to cease all communication to the Board of Trustees, defining that as inappropriate ex parte communication. The legal analogy is, to say the least, stretched, given the role of the trustees as the informed guardians of Albright College, with fiduciary obligation not only to its legal and financial status, but, above all, to its status as an academically free institution within a free society. The Mission Statement of Albright College proclaims its "dedication to a values-based education in an atmosphere of academic freedom." Albright's Commission on the Future proclaims, "Values are crucial to the way we live." Professor Mehra is claiming that this mission has been betrayed. A hearing of his charges, not his silencing, is the appropriate means to deal with this crisis.
If one accepts the legal analogy, however, then the appropriate solution to Dean Brogan's complaint is not to prohibit communications to the Board of Trustees, but to inform Professor Mehra of whom else should be copied on his correspondence. The Board of Trustees, note well, is not an ordinary judge or court of appeal, but the highest board of moral and legal authority at this institution.
FIRE was prepared to act in May, but we desisted when the Faculty Executive Committee suspended its proceedings against Professor Mehra. We appeal to your sense of academic freedom, honor, and conscience in this matter, and ask for an end to the attempt to silence and punish Professor Mehra for his criticisms of the leadership of his college. If the case against him is pursued, however, we will be at this side on the question of academic freedom and due process, we shall seek the widest possible diffusion and dissemination of the materials relevant to this case, and we shall help him secure appropriate legal representation so that his case in not the occasion for the betrayal of academic freedom.
Looking forward to hearing from you, and trusting in your conscience, I am,
Alan Charles Kors