Seriously, folks: have you heard the one about the Roosevelt University professor who was fired for telling a joke in class?
Turns out the telling wasn’t what got him canned. Official word is that former Roosevelt adjunct instructor Robert Klein Engler was dumped last year for refusing to cooperate in an investigation of the joke.
But Engler suspects even that’s a pretext. He thinks maybe they got rid of him because he was making too much money—a whopping $4,705 in his last semester there—but more likely because of his unpopular political views.
He says it’s a matter of academic freedom. And he’s filed suit in federal court against both the university and its part-time faculty union, the Roosevelt Adjunct Faculty Organization. He’s charging the university with breach of contract and the union with failing in its duty to represent him.
Engler, 68, also known locally as a poet, playwright, and essayist, is a political conservative. He’d been at Roosevelt since 1999, but the bulk of his teaching career—nearly 30 years—was spent at the City Colleges’ Daley campus, where he was a tenured sociology professor and, at one time, a chapter chair of the Cook County Teachers Union. He wrote a “creative nonfiction” book about his experience there, A Winter of Words. Here’s an excerpt from his author’s bio on Amazon:
“After college Robert settled again in Chicago. Even though he was gay, he began work at R. J. Daley College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. When the liberals came to power in the nineties, with their polices [sic] of Affirmative Action in education, Robert ran into political and labor union difficulties. Although he was a department chair with an exemplary record for many years at the City Colleges of Chicago, he was ‘ethnically cleansed’ and banned from the college by the Chancellor in May, 1997.”
Roosevelt’s not commenting, but its position, apparently, is that Engler was fired in August last year “for refusal to cooperate with a formal University investigation.” That’s what he was told in an e-mail from his department chair.
And there we have the crux of the case: a standoff described by Engler’s attorney, former Illinois Republican party general counsel and conservative journalist Doug E. Ibendahl, as “Kafkaesque.”
According to Engler’s suit, he was informed in a May 13, 2010, phone call from his department chair that the university wanted him to come to a meeting to discuss a “harassment complaint” that “had been lodged against him by one or more students.” The department chair refused to say what the complaint was about, and Engler didn’t want to walk into a meeting where he might have to defend himself without knowing in advance what he was being accused of. Both sides dug in. For the next five months Engler repeatedly asked—and Roosevelt repeatedly refused to disclose—the nature of the complaint.
It wasn’t until October 5, 2010, two months after he was fired, that an attorney for the university revealed that a single student had complained about a joke Engler told during a discussion of Arizona’s immigration law in a City and Citizenship class that focused on “broad social, economic, and political issues.”
Engler says he was counting on the union to protect his interests, and was assured by them that they would. RAFO filed grievances on his behalf, and on September 5, 2010, a union rep informed him by e-mail that “Our position is that the contract does not permit nor does it allow termination for refusal to cooperate with a formal University investigation.”
But according to the lawsuit, last January, about the time a new union rep was assigned to his case, “something changed.” The union became less communicative and “at some point dropped any adversarial pretense and simply colluded with Roosevelt.”
Engler’s evidence for the union’s “bad faith” rests in large part on another joke—this one by a union representative, sent by e-mail to other union officials. It suggests that they should set up betting pools on “when the frivolous lawsuit gets filed,” how much money it would be after, and “how many people will be named as co-defendants.” The punch line for that one? Engler was copied.
One of the recipients of that e-mail, RAFO president LuAnn Swartzlander-Kraus, denies that Engler’s “political views have anything to do with anything,” and says the union advised him to cooperate: “We tried to get him to go to the meeting so we could find out what the charge was.” A complaint Engler filed with the National Labor Relations Board about the union’s efforts on his behalf was denied earlier this year. Ibendahl says that decision has no bearing on this case.
Engler rejected a settlement offer of two courses’ worth of back pay and a neutral letter of reference. He claims that because of the “collusion between Roosevelt and RAFO, [he] has been recklessly defamed and is now falsely branded as a ‘harasser’ and ‘racist.'” He wants money, and he wants his job back. “What I really want is to have my name cleared,” he says.
As for the crack that started it all: “A group of sociologists did a poll in Arizona regarding the state’s new immigration law. Sixty percent said they were in favor, and 40 percent said, ‘No hablo Ingles.'”