Mediator's Ruling Favors Conservative Professor in Dispute at U. Montana · 26 August 2004

By Jennifer Jacobson--Chronicle of Higher Ed--08/27/04

A law professor at the University of Montana who said he had long been denied his wish to teach constitutional law because of his conservative political views will now get a chance to teach it, under a ruling issued by an outside mediator.

The professor, Robert G. Natelson, had appealed the School of Law's most recent decision to deny his request, charging that the administration had allowed only liberal professors to teach the course.

However, Donald C. Robinson, a Montana lawyer who mediated the case this summer, did not consider the question of whether Mr. Natelson had been discriminated against based on his politics. Mr. Robinson found only that the professor had been treated unfairly and decided that he should be permitted to teach constitutional law, on a trial basis.

"The decision of the hearing officer was really a clarion call for fairness," Mr. Natelson told The Chronicle after Mr. Robinson announced his ruling, on Thursday. "If everyone is treated fairly in academia, there will be no political discrimination."

Mr. Natelson, who ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for governor in 1996 and 2000, said he was "really happy" about the decision. "It's good for the law school," he said. "I really look forward to working with students in constitutional law."

In a letter to Mr. Natelson and E. Edwin Eck, dean of the law school, G.M. Dennison, the university's president, said he accepted Mr. Robinson's recommendations. Those include that Mr. Natelson be allowed to teach constitutional law in the spring semester and that Mr. Eck establish an independent committee to evaluate Mr. Natelson's teaching, scholarship, and service, and to decide whether to assign him to the course permanently.

In his grievance, Mr. Natelson, who has taught courses in property and real-estate law and legal history, argued that allowing senior faculty members to move from courses they have taught into vacant ones was a common practice.

On Thursday he said that he welcomed an objective evaluation of his performance, and that he had struggled for years to get one. Four times the law school had denied his request to fill a vacancy in teaching the course, he said.

Montana officials praised Mr. Robinson for choosing not to judge the dispute's political dimension.

"I was pleased to see the president noting there was no finding of political discrimination," Dean Eck said, referring to Mr. Dennison's letter. In it, the president wrote that Mr. Robinson had found "personal animus" on the part of several law professors toward Mr. Natelson, but not political discrimination.

Even so, "there's no question I am disappointed," said Mr. Eck, who described himself as a conservative Republican. The mediator's recommendations, he said, limited his discretion in considering teaching evaluations in assigning professors to teach courses. Some evaluations, he said, had criticized Mr. Natelson for a lack of collegiality with both students and professors.

Even so, Mr. Eck said that he and his colleagues plan to put the dispute behind them.

"Fairness is a good beginning for building a collegial working relationship," Mr. Natelson said, echoing his dean's sentiment. "My hope is we can go forward at the law school with such a relationship. I'll do everything I can to foster that."