Patty Limerick, co-founder and longtime faculty director of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Center of the American West, says her firing last week continues to shock her, especially as she had been planning to step down soon anyway.
“This has been a process that did not come with transparency, forthrightness and clear and steady communication. Whatever the opposite of those terms are, that’s what it has been,” Limerick said in an interview. “You know, we’ve had decades of very solid support from the university leadership and there was a reason for that, because—I’m not sure if this is a little bit of vanity or just accuracy—I’ve done everything imaginable for years here to build trust between a university-based organization and the general public. I’ve done and I do it instinctively, and because until recently I’ve really loved higher education. But this is not holding up so well.”
Adding to the turmoil: all five members of the center’s executive committee have resigned from their roles in protest, writing in individual resignation letters of their esteem for Limerick and her achievements, including her MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship and her more recent election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Limerick is well-known for helping usher in a new era of interest in the American West and reframing narratives about it via her books, including The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, and her public engagement.
The committee members also expressed concerns about lack of due process for Limerick.
“I am appalled by the callous, disrespectful, uninformed, mean-spirited and short-sighted manner in which the university has treated Prof. Limerick,” Chris Whitney, the board’s vice chair and brand commissioner for the state of Colorado’s Department of Agriculture, wrote to Glen Krutz, CU Boulder’s dean of arts and sciences.
Albert P. Hand, another committee member and a lawyer, wrote to Krutz that he was frustrated by the lack of transparency afforded even to committee members, and that “Patty deserves far better than you have served up.”
Krutz, who fired Limerick late last month, declined comment on what he called a personnel matter, “out of respect” for Limerick. He referred questions Tuesday to a university spokesperson.
The university said in a statement late Tuesday that it "appreciates former director Patty Limerick’s significant scholarly contributions to academia and the American West. This transition is the result of a lengthy period of addressing repeat complaints from center employees regarding leadership of the center. Dean Glen Krutz considered professor Limerick’s perspective in the process, but did not see a pathway to resolve outstanding issues surrounding her role as director. State law specifically requires that the center’s faculty director will be an employee-at-will. This does not affect Limerick’s tenured position as professor of history or her ability to conduct research."
Personal vs. Professional
Even as Limerick’s termination was abrupt, and the university isn't saying much, internal documents and Limerick herself say that the center was experiencing problems prior to her dismissal.
According to an internal audit of the center, dated Sept. 30 and first obtained by The Colorado Sun, staff members complained about the center’s climate under Limerick and were concerned that she blurred boundaries between the personal and professional, including with money.
Bernadette Stewart, the assistant dean of administration for the College of Arts and Sciences, reportedly told investigators that the center staff “feels that Limerick is hostile, intimidating and unethical” and blamed "quite a bit of [staff] turnover" since last summer on Limerick’s “abusive treatment.”
Also according to the audit, the center’s former managing director (who did not immediately respond to a request for comment via his new unit at CU-Boulder) told investigators that he often served as a kind of buffer between Limerick and the rest of the staff, and that Limerick sometimes kept honoraria for public speaking engagements instead of giving the money to the center. This wasn’t necessarily a problem, the employee said, but he questioned using center staff to arrange travel and other logistics for speaking arrangements for which Limerick kept speaking fees.
“Limerick’s position with the center required her to attend numerous social gatherings and fundraising events for the center,” this portion of the audit report says. “Limerick’s job was to develop personal and professional relationships that would benefit the center. Because of these relationships, her staff would often be confused if they were doing work for the center or personal work for Limerick.”
A part-time academic programs coordinator reportedly complained that Limerick involved center staff members in planning a May meeting of the center’s board that also involved a celebration of Limerick’s birthday. This staff member (who declined an interview request) also accused Limerick of asking or expecting staff members to help with personal matters since at least 2005, including looking up her salary information for her tax purposes, filing an online report with the Social Security Administration for her when she believed she was the victim of identity fraud and assisting in the planning of her late husband’s memorial service and, later, her marriage to her second husband. The same employee reportedly said that at the wedding, in 2007, Limerick made a personal donation to the center to compensate the staff indirectly for the help.
One temporary employee reportedly told auditors that Limerick had them investigate a charge on Limerick’s credit card and pick up ice for her birthday party.
Auditors asked Limerick if she'd influenced a donor who planned to shift $600,000 from the center’s foundation to other endowments within the university, and she strongly denied this. An assistant dean for advancement reportedly seconded Limerick's account.
The final audit report, from the university’s department of internal audit, says that there was insufficient evidence that Limerick committed “fiscal misconduct.” However, it says, “Limerick violated the requirements” of two other university policies: one on ethical behavior and responsible conduct, and one on fiscal ethics.
Investigators concluded that “university oversight of Limerick is problematic. Limerick has reported to numerous deans and associate deans during her tenure as the center’s director.” The report recommends that campus leadership consider “establishing a consistent line of supervision for Limerick and the center” and “providing Limerick additional training to assist her with recognizing and respecting her staff’s boundaries.”
‘That Is Going to Be Misunderstood’
Limerick told Inside Higher Ed that she took stewardship of the center’s funds most seriously, and that she made clear to employees that her birthday party—which she paid for herself and which was held at her neighbor’s home—was not mandatory. When she asked an employee to check her credit card statement, she also said, it was to see if a charge pertained to a professional association membership fee.
Regarding the other examples of alleged impropriety, Limerick said she was effectively being criticized for doing what she’s always done as a center director: leveraging her personal and professional contacts and expertise to promote applied history regarding the American West and generally build bridges between academe and the public.
“When I went to give a talk in a small town, I didn’t just give the talk and leave—I stayed, went to dinner. I was there the next day. I visited, and it was totally reciprocal education,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s going to happen again—to do that thing where you blend your scholarly reputation to the cause of building trust and ties with the university … Nobody should try that again. Because that is going to be misunderstood. There is going to be a lack of boundaries between your personal world and their professional world.”
Limerick is far from the first center founder or director to be ousted or to leave following allegations or findings of mismanagement. In some of the cases, departing directors have blamed their lack of management training for their troubles. In this sense, becoming a faculty director of a center is something of a risk, as professors often become directors due to their outstanding scholarship but are then expected to act like chief executives. Academic centers also often operate with a high degree of autonomy and revolve around a certain star personality, but are still very much subject to university rules and regulations.
As for climate concerns and staff turnover, Limerick said that the center suffered a major budget cut last year and, like so many other organizations, has experienced the effects of the Great Resignation (she declined to share numbers of employee departures).
Limerick was interviewed for the internal audit but said that she received the final audit report from a journalist, not the university itself. She also said she’d been subject to a second investigation but declined comment on that, saying she didn’t understand its parameters.
Perhaps most perplexing to Limerick is the timing of her dismissal. She said that she’d already agreed to start looking for a successor, but she wanted to push the start of that search back from this fall to next in light of the center’s challenges. Then, she said, Krutz invited her to a meeting on Sept. 22 to tell her that she’d been fired and gave her 24 hours to resign instead. And when she didn’t do that, the dean sent out a memo the next day saying she was out.
Krutz wrote in that memo, “I write to let you know that Patricia Limerick, professor of history and director of the Center of the American West (CAW), is no longer the director of the center. A search committee for a new center director will be formed soon. The new director will be tasked with building on the center’s success as a nationally respected resource illuminating the history, culture, politics and tradition of the American West, especially as applied to current events.”
Limerick co-founded the center in 1986. She will remain a faculty member at CU Boulder and plans to continue grant-funded work in applied history.