Judge finds WWU acted illegally

By On
• In Bellingham, People, WWU,

Western Washington University administrators - starting with President Karen Morse - have been abusing their power for years. Below is an example. This article first appeared in slightly different form in the November 29 issue of the Whatcom Independent. It is written by Paul de Armond who has followed this particular case closely from the beginning. Paul is the respected political investigator who ran the website Public Good for years.

Court papers and university documents obtained through public disclosure requests are available online at perrymills.blogspot.com – a website maintained by Mills’ supporters.

Judge finds WWU acted illegally but upholds professor’s suspension
By Paul de Armond (Bellingham)

Following a 90 minute hearing on November 21, Whatcom Superior Court Judge Steven Mura upheld Western Washington University’s continuing 2004 suspension of a professor for use of inappropriate and intimidating language. In his oral ruling, Mura also found the university violated the law by holding closed hearings on the charges against Assistant Professor Perry Mills. The court case opened the door into a long-concealed controversy over alleged embezzlement in WWU’s theater department and the university’s imposition of secrecy on hearings that should be open to the public.

In October 2003, Mills reported to the university auditor the disappearance of over ten thousand dollars of student funds at the theater department. The money had been collected as mandatory fees for a course he taught. The university prepared an audit in July 2004 that showed the funds had been misspent, but claimed no wrongdoing had occurred. The audit was immediately contested as omitting important facts.

In September 2004, Mills was suspended with pay from his position in Western’s theater department. For the next nine months the university attempted to negotiate Mills’ voluntary retirement without making a formal statement of charges. In response to a lawsuit filed by Mills in federal court, university prepared a statement of charges and instituted a hearing process to determine if the suspension was justified.

In October 2005, the university convened a faculty panel to hear the charges. Over the objections of Mill’s attorney, the proceedings were closed to the public and this reporter was compelled to leave. The entire matter was kept in secrecy until the recent superior court case was filed. The hearing panel found several charges which precipitated Mills’ removal from campus were not deserving of suspension. The panel found Mills had spoken to theater department faculty and staff in a rude and intimidating manner on three instances years earlier. The panel ordered Mills’ suspension without pay for two quarters to be followed by counseling and retraining.

For the next year, the university administration attempted to fire Mills instead of suspending him, but the faculty panel held that Mills did not deserve termination. In June 2006, the trustees authorized a two quarter suspension without pay. The suspension without pay began in January 2007 and ended this September.

n November 2006, Mills’ attorney, James Lobsenz, asked Whatcom Superior Court to review the university’s action. In a brief hearing this September, Judge Mura questioned Mills’ allegation that his suspension was in retaliation for reporting the misuse of course fees. In court papers, Mills’ attorney described it as “the clearest case of embezzlement we have ever seen.” University counsel said the embezzlement issue was “an enormous red herring.” Mura said that the mandatory student course fees were “misspent” but that the diversion of thousands of dollars was not embezzlement because records were not falsified. After this brief discussion, the hearing was continued to this month.

The hearing on November 21 saw the final arguments made by both sides and Judge Mura’s ruling on the case. Judge Mura began his ruling by upholding the university’s actions. At the same time, he found that the university had violated the law in closing the hearing to the public and press. Judge Mura said the university’s illegal hearing procedure did not matter because the state’s Administrative Procedure Act had no provisions for a remedy. Therefore, the violation of the law had no effect on the university’s actions.

In court documents, the university’s counsel, Assistant Attorney Wendy Bohlke, stated that the suspension would continue indefinitely until the legal issues were resolved. No date has been given for Mills to resume teaching.

Mura rejected Mills’ claim that his rights of free speech and academic freedom were violated by the university, saying that professors’ comments to a class must be restricted to the content of the course material to be protected by the First Amendment and that the taking of the funds could not be described as embezzlement.

Mura also said he would be interested in how the appeals courts interpreted his ruling that the state’s constitutional requirement for the open administration of justice does not apply to administrative hearings.

No date was given for the final written ruling. Once Judge Mura’s ruling is filed, it is expected to be appealed. Because of the constitutional issue, the appeal may be filed in either the Court of Appeals or the state Supreme Court.

About John Servais

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]