Professor wins his lawsuit against UConn after 11 years

A professor who first sued the University of Connecticut in 2011 following his non-reappointment has finally prevailed in court: a state judge ordered that the university reinstate Luke Weinstein and award him benefits and approximately $736,000 in damages and back pay.

The more than decade-old legal case involves claims by Weinstein, a former non-tenure-track instructor of business at UConn, that the university ignored numerous ethics concerns he raised—including those about his onetime dean—and then failed to protect him from retaliation.

Weinstein initially pursued claims against UConn, but federal and state courts sided with the university, citing limitations to free speech protections for public employees.

His related whistle-blower retaliation claim ultimately satisfied Judge Susan Peck of Connecticut Superior Court following a bench trial this spring. That’s based on Peck’s new 60-page memorandum of decision in Weinstein’s favor. The document is highly critical of UConn’s treatment of Weinstein, referencing the university’s “deception,” especially by Christopher Earley, the former dean.

“The inherent fallacies associated with the numerous and shifting reasons not to reappoint [Weinstein] for the 2011-12 academic year constitutes circumstantial evidence that the reasons stated were pretextual,” Peck wrote in part.

Weinstein’s lawyer, Jacques Parenteau, said Tuesday, “I have 40 years practicing law, so I’ve seen a lot of stuff. But this is among the most damning descriptions of a high-level administrator that I’ve seen in any decision—for the judge to be turning out page after page of the ways in which [Earley’s] testimony was not credible, and flip-flopping, and that sort of thing. So it’s a huge embarrassment for the University of Connecticut to have protected this guy against someone who’s just trying to do the right thing.”

Earley, who was most recently serving as dean of law at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Stephanie Reitz, a spokesperson for UConn, said the university “is reviewing the decision and considering its options in this matter, which has had a lengthy procedural history.”

Parenteau said that Weinstein, who worked as a lecturer at the US Coast Guard Academy through 2016 and then relocated to Puerto Rico, is looking forward to the prospect of teaching at UConn again as early as this fall. (He said the university could still appeal the decision.)

Ethics Concerns Ignored

According to court documents, Weinstein earned his Ph.D. in marketing and management at UConn in 2008. Despite having a tenure-track job offer from elsewhere, he stayed at UConn as director of the Innovation Accelerator program and assistant professor in residence of management and business. Although this job was off the tenure track, Weinstein was assured he would be reappointed continually as long as his performance was satisfactory and funding was available. Around the same time, Earley was hired as dean of the School of Business, and Earley’s wife, Elaine Mosakowski, was hired as a tenured professor of management.

Weinstein had almost no contact with Earley until 2010, when Earley wanted to make changes that affected the pay structure for students working in the accelerator program, court documents show. Under Earley’s plan, students would receive fellowships instead of formal wages, which concerned Weinstein because he thought students would no longer be eligible for worker’s compensation. In response to an email from Weinstein to this effect, Earley wrote, “I don’t want to hear yet again about the labor law issue” and “I’m getting rather tired of roadblocks thrown up that I have addressed.” Weinstein wrote an email to other colleagues about his concerns about “violating federal [labor] laws.”

Also in 2010, Weinstein raised concerns internally about whether the School of Business was violating the institutional review board regulations in stating that IRB approval was not necessary for students research over the summer (Peck’s decision says that Weinstein’s IRB rule interpretation was correct).

Beyond these two issues, Weinstein soon told the Office of University Compliance that another accelerator program run by Mosakowski, Earley’s wife, was interviewing disabled Special Olympics athletes without first seeking IRB approval or parental consent. (Peck notes that this was confirmed at trial by one former athlete.)

In a final concern, Weinstein said he was concerned that Earley had used his position as dean to confer financial benefits on Mosakowski, in relation to her directorship of the SCOPE Accelerator program.

While the then head of the compliance office testified that she believed Weinstein made his complaints in good faith, his complaints were never investigated (the office did informally consult state ethics officials for advice). That’s even though a second professor reported Earley for alleged “nepotism” regarding his spouse, according to court documents.

Although Weinstein received strong performance evaluations from 2008 to 2010, he was not renewed in 2010 as the accelerator program director. All other program directors were renewed, and there were no other candidates for Weinstein’s directorship. Earley eventually appointed someone else director, even though that person was not renewed as a faculty member within the program due to concerns about his effectiveness as a mentor. Earley told Weinstein in a letter that he hadn’t been reappointed because Weinstein hadn’t submitted the proper application materials and because Earley had doubts about Weinstein’s “buy in” to a program redesign.

Weinstein once again reported Earley to the university’s compliance office, this time for retaliation for whistle-blowing, but he was told to report Earley to the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities instead.

Conflict of Interest?

Weinstein then filed an internal grievance, which was denied—by Earley, Peck’s decision saying: “That is, the same person against whom the plaintiff claimed retaliation for whistleblowing was the person who decided there was no merit to his claim.”

The following academic year, Weinstein worked as a non-tenure-track instructor only, earning strong performance reviews. Yet he was not reappointed after that in any capacity. According to court documents, Earley wrote Weinstein out of the school’s budget in January 2011, meaning Earley’s mind was already made up by then. This was highly unusual: departments usually decide which non-tenure-track professors get rehired and which ones don’t, according to court documents.

Weinstein filed another grievance, which was denied on the grounds that Weinstein had only been teaching elective courses. But Peck wrote that the university’s argument here had “no basis in actual fact.”

Moreover, Peck wrote, “Dean Earley was not a credible witness on multiple issues” and “flip-flopped” in his testimony about whether he actually received various documents in question. Peck also said that Earley was an unreliable witness regarding his professional actions toward his spouse, as some of his statements were “belied by the fact that he and his wife were required to enter into a written agreement in November 2010, specifically addressing issues of nepotism .”

Parenteau said that while colleges and universities may purport to value different things than other kinds of employers, “in dealing with many colleges and universities and their management, and then also dealing with the private sector, I don’t see very much of a difference at all between one set of managers or another—they all have that lockstep, circle-the-wagons attitude when complaints are brought against them.”

Leave a Comment