English professor joins lawsuit against Chancellor, Provost

Sophia Voight, Assistant News Editor

Picture of Provost Koker
Courtesy of UWO Flickr | Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and Provost John Koker are being sued by a UWO professor who claims that they illegally imposed sanctions after improperly investigating a complaint against him.

UWO English associate professor James “Duke” Pesta has filed a court motion to participate in a lawsuit against Chancellor Andrew Leavitt and Provost John Koker over claims of improper disciplinary actions.

UWO Education associate professor Peter Meyerson is currently suing Koker and Leavitt claiming that they wrongfully handled an investigation regarding a formal complaint made against Meyerson and illegally imposed sanctions after the complaint was dismissed.

The complaint, made in February 2020 by Dean of Students Art Munin and Associate Dean of the College of Education and Human Services Eric Brunsell, states that Meyerson has issues with anger and uses intimidation in the classroom, “frequently targeting female students.”

A document from Brunsell stated Meyerson’s hostile behavior “took place in multiple class sessions and was not isolated,” and he also has a history of “aggressive behavior toward women in the department.”

While the complaint was dismissed by Leavitt after investigators found no violation of faculty policy, Koker informed Meyerson that the university would monitor his behavior in the classroom and in meetings.

Meyerson filed a lawsuit in September 2020 against Koker and Leavitt, claiming they ignored the requirements of a complaint dismissal by initiating disciplinary actions.

Back in October, Pesta filed a motion to intervene and participate as a plaintiff, claiming he has been aggrieved by similar issues as Meyerson by Koker and Leavitt.

The UWO faculty handbook states that the chancellor is given 20 working days after starting a formal review of a complaint against staff or faculty to decide if the complaint should be prosecuted or dropped.

According to Meyerson’s lawsuit, Leavitt disregarded this rule by taking 134 working days to dismiss the complaint after beginning the formal investigation.

According to Pesta’s motion to intervene, Leavitt also failed to abide by the “20 working days” rule when investigating complaints made against him by students.

Pesta claims Koker has also improperly imposed disciplinary sanctions against him after a student complaint for discriminatory harassment was filed against him in April 2019 and later rescinded, according to the motion.

This is in regard to a written reprimand Koker wrote against Pesta for the alleged inappropriate classroom conduct.

The motion also says that Koker is requiring Pesta to undergo behavioral modification training following the complaint of harassment in the classroom.

Pesta is seeking to join Meyerson’s lawsuit against Leavitt and Koker as he believes he is also undergoing disciplinary actions that overstep the university’s established processes for handling faculty complaints, the documents state.

Pesta is seeking the same ruling in Meyerson’s lawsuit that requests the court to force Leavitt and Koker to abide by the rule established in the faculty handbook regarding complaints and disciplinary actions.

The suit also requests the court to declare Koker’s decision to impose sanctions as illegal for its “unconstitutional deprivation of Dr. Meyerson’s due process rights because it defies the faculty handbook.”

Lastly, Meyerson asks that the court bar the university from issuing disciplinary actions against him and delete the sanctions from his personnel record.
Meyerson asked the court in October to issue a temporary injunction to prevent Koker from imposing the sanctions until after the court decides if Leavitt and Koker had violated his rights established in the faculty handbook for improperly investigating the complaint.

However, a judge denied the temporary injunction, allowing Koker to move forward with his actions to monitor Meyerson and require him to complete a written self-evaluation of his teaching.

Circuit Court Judge Barbara Hart Key said just because the complaint was dismissed, doesn’t remove the university’s right to observe a faculty member moving forward.

“If it’s a classroom in which they can otherwise observe anyway … I don’t think there’s anything [in the handbook] that says they can’t do that,” she said.

Following the dismissal of the injunction, Leavitt and Koker filed a motion to dismiss Meyerson’s lawsuit entirely.

According to the motion, Leavitt and Koker argue that the “20 working days” rule is meant as an “aspirational or directory time,” not a mandatory time frame for dealing with faculty complaints.

The document also argues that monitoring Meyerson’s classroom and meetings conduct does not constitute as disciplinary sanctions and that the university has the right to move forward with their observation.

Key denied Leavitt and Koker’s motion to dismiss Meyerson’s complaint on Dec. 28, 2020 and allowed the case to proceed.

The parties have until Sept. 1, 2021 to complete discovery and proceed with the lawsuit.