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An Auburn University economics professor is suing his institution, accusing officials of removing him as a department chair and limiting his raises after he helped reveal that the institution’s public administration major was overwhelmingly stacked with athletes.

Tensions between administrators and Michael Stern, who was removed as economics department chair in May, extend back to 2008, when he served as a source for a local news report about the university’s ties to the Charles Koch Foundation, as detailed in his lawsuit filed last month. Stern is suing for violations of his First Amendment rights. He is demanding that officials reinstate him as chair and provide him back pay he sacrificed after being dismissed from the position.

The bad blood came to the fore in 2014, when Stern first started to question the composition of the public administration program. In the years following, Stern continually clashed with officials, he said. They gave him smaller raises than his colleagues and confronted him when he publicly pointed out the athletics department’s interference with the major. In one case, Stern said in the complaint, an administrator stopped him in a parking lot and screamed in his face about speaking with reporters.

In a statement, Auburn spokesman Mike Clardy said the university “consistently demonstrates its support of the free speech rights of its students, faculty, and staff. There is more to this story than has been made public to this point, and each of Dr. Stern’s allegations will be addressed in the appropriate forum, which is the court. Auburn will vigorously defend this matter.”

The larger conflict over the public administration program began when a faculty committee recommended the major be cut because of falling enrollment and questions over whether it benefited students. But athletics officials lobbied hard to keep the program alive, even offering to subsidize it at one point -- and ultimately top administrators ignored the committee’s proposal. Public administration was saved.

Michael SternThe decision may have gone unchallenged if not for Stern, who began pressing officials about the major in 2014 at a University Senate meeting, where an athletics representative was making a presentation. He asked about the saturation of football players in the program. The next day, Joseph Aistrup, then the College of Liberal Arts dean, emailed Stern, chastised him for a lack of diplomacy and pressed him to apologize to public administration faculty.

Aistrup allegedly suggested the next month that Stern step aside as chairman, which Stern refused to do. In December 2014, John Urschel, a former professional football player, mathematician and blogger, published an analysis of the majors football players had selected -- he found that 23 of the 48 upperclassmen players picked public administration, though only 88 of more than 11,400 upperclassmen in the entire university were enrolled in the program. Over all, that represents 48 percent of upperclassmen on the football team, but just 0.8 percent of all upperclassmen.

Stern used public records he had obtained and worked with The Wall Street Journal to eventually publish an article in August 2015 that made public the faculty committee’s recommendation to discontinue public administration and athletics’ attempts to save it. Stern said that despite later positive performance reviews, he received only a 1 percent salary bump and 1 percent merit bonus, which he viewed as retaliatory for being a source for the Wall Street Journal report. Comparatively small raises were also given to him in 2016, he alleges.

Stern met with the former president Jay Gogue in 2017 to share his concerns, and while he and the now retired president developed a plan to shift the economics department out of the College of Liberal Arts, leaving Stern to report to less hostile administrators, he said the move never happened.

Still frustrated, Stern contacted The Chronicle of Higher Education in late 2017 about the athletics department and public administration major, which in February led to another expansive piece that revealed administrators’ attempts to rescue the major -- the enrollment of which eventually plummeted -- and the extent of Stern’s whistle-blowing.

In May, Stern presented to the Faculty Senate about how the public administration scandal may have affected the academic performance of athletes -- to the chagrin of the new athletics representative, the lawsuit states. Weeks later, Stern was kicked out as chairman, locked out of his office and kicked off the computer system, he alleges.

In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Stern said administrators have left him undisturbed since filing his lawsuit last month. He continues to teach.

“There’s been no direct contact,” Stern said. “But there’s obviously a problem here.”

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