Mistrial in Political Bias Case

Jurors deadlock on one charge and reject another in lawsuit by conservative woman who was passed over for law faculty job at University of Iowa.

October 25, 2012

A federal judge on Wednesday declared a mistrial on one charge in a suit by a professor who charged she was passed over for a law school faculty position at the University of Iowa because of her conservative politics and activism, while the jurors rejected another charge.

The judge acted after jurors twice declared that they were deadlocked. The first time they did so, the judge urged them to try to reach a verdict.

Initial press reports indicated that the jury deadlocked on the entire case, but The Iowa City Press-Citizen reported that -- after some confusion on this point -- the judge clarified that the jurors had rejected a claim of First Amendment violations but had deadlocked on the question of whether equal protection rights had been violated.

While informal allegations of political bias against conservatives in higher education are widespread, lawsuits of this nature are rare. The plaintiff -- Teresa Wagner -- argued that she had evidence in the form of comments made to her or about her staunch conservative views (and in particular her work in the anti-abortion movement). But University of Iowa faculty members said that Wagner lost the job not because of her politics, but because she blew a key interview question.

The judge on Wednesday indicated that the case could be tried again, unless a settlement is reached. Wagner and her lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.hope to update (or add in a.m. if she talks to press tonight -sj A spokesman for the University of Iowa said via e-mail: "We respect the judicial process and we will continue to review our policies to ensure that all hiring and promotion practices at the university comply with the law."

Wagner's suit survived an earlier attempt to quash it when a federal appeals court ruled in December that the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to her (as is the standard for considering the dismissal of cases), could lead one to believe that she was denied her First Amendment rights in losing a job for her political views.

The evidence cited in that ruling and in the trial included the following:

  • In 2006, when Wagner applied for the job, only one of the 50 law school professors at Iowa was a registered Republican.
  • A law school administrator urged her, Wagner said, not to discuss her application for a job at the Ave Maria School of Law, which is seen as a conservative institution.
  • An associate dean of the law school sent the dean an e-mail, after Wagner was passed over for the faculty job and wasn't considered for an adjunct opening, in which he said the following: "[O]ne thing that worries me is that some people may be opposed to Teresa serving in any role in part at least because they so despise her politics (and especially her activism about it). I hate to think that is the case, and I don't actually think that, but I'm worried that I may be missing something."

But nine University of Iowa law faculty members and administrators testified, as The Des Moines Register recounted, that the reason Wagner lost out in her bid for the job was the way she answered a question. The position involved teaching legal writing and legal analysis, and the Iowa faculty members said that Wagner's answer suggested a lack of interest in the legal analysis part of the job.

Adding to the drama of the case was an erased recording of Wagner's interview. Wagner's advocates have questioned why the university wouldn't preserve job interview recordings. But Iowa officials said that they make the recordings only for use by faculty members who miss the interviews and want to see them, and that they then erase them. Iowa faculty members testified that they believed that, had the recording been preserved, the evidence would have led to the dismissal of the suit.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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