A former assistant professor in Emory University’s German Studies Department has sued the university, claiming that he was denied tenure because he is Jewish.
H. Erik Butler sued Emory after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found reasonable cause last year to conclude that Butler was discriminated against by his German-born department chairman because of his religion, according to the complaint. Emory removed the suit, originally filed in DeKalb County last month, to U.S. District Court on Jan. 13.
Butler, who left Emory in 2011 after he was denied tenure, claims that his former department chairman, Associate Professor Peter Höyng, lobbied to keep Butler from securing tenure because Höyng personally objected to his research on “dark episodes of the German past as well as on enduring xenophobia in Germany,” according to Butler’s complaint. Höyng also allegedly warned Butler that he did not “fit in” and that he researched “unpleasant matters” that “make us look bad.”
Butler has translated the Yiddish writings of “Der Nister,” the pen name of a Soviet Jew who wrote of the destruction of Jewish communities by the Nazis. He has lectured about Jewish strategies of concealment and survival in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. He also has written extensively about vampires, occasionally linking the origin of vampire legends to fear and hatred of the Jews.
“My client used every avenue available to resolve this issue short of filing a lawsuit before we were forced to go to court,” said Newnan attorney Patrick McKee, who is representing Butler. “That included going to the EEOC, which found reason to believe that discrimination on the basis of religion had occurred.”
The EEOC’s determination letter recommended that Emory and Butler reach a “conciliation agreement” to remedy the alleged civil rights violations.
McKee said he believes that if Butler cannot resolve the allegations of discrimination against Emory, the university’s decision to deny him tenure “will ruin my client’s academic career.”
Emory has countered that Butler did not earn tenure because of “legitimate concerns over his disruptive and antagonistic behavior.”
Emory’s response to the suit denies any discrimination took place, denies that Höyng even knew Butler was Jewish and points out that although Höyng was born in Germany, he is a U.S. citizen. While acknowledging that Höyng is not Jewish, according to Emory, he “has actively supported the development of German/Jewish studies in the department, his own published work has focused on the Holocaust, he oversaw the hiring of a Yiddish teacher who is an observant Jew, and he is a member of the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory.”
The university’s response to the suit also cited a complaint about Butler made during his third year on the faculty. A student who required emergency hand surgery said he received a email from Butler, who appeared unsympathetic to the student’s plight, that closed with the phrase, “Enjoy the pain.” The student’s father sent a six-page complaint letter to Emory’s president claiming that the student had been “blasted, belittled and berated” by the assistant professor.
While acknowledging that the EEOC issued a determination that there was reasonable cause to conclude that Butler had been discriminated against because of his religion and national origin and in retaliation for complaining about the alleged discrimination, Emory lawyers claimed the EEOC’s investigation was neither fair, thorough or impartial.
Emory General Counsel Stephen Sencer said that although he could not respond to specific questions regarding the suit while it is litigated, “On the key point, however, I want to be clear: Emory emphatically denies that it discriminated against Dr. Butler in any way.”
“The university will forcefully defend its decisions with respect to his claims,” he continued. “Equal treatment for all faculty and staff is a core principle for our institution. With respect to the university’s tenure policies, multiple reviews are mandated. For tenure to be awarded, candidates must be approved at all levels. The standards for tenure are very high and not all candidates are successful.”
Emory has hired King & Spalding to litigate the case, which has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Timothy Batten Sr. of the Northern District of Georgia. U.S. Magistrate Judge Linda Walker of the Northern District of Georgia has been assigned to handle preliminary matters in the case.
Butler’s suit was filed less than two months after Emory President James Wagner issued a public apology to dozens of Jewish former students of its now-defunct dental school. The apology was prompted by a documentary released by Atlanta oral surgeon Perry Brickman—the father of former DeKalb District Attorney Jeffrey Brickman—recounting how he and other Jewish students in the 1950s were told they had flunked out as part of systemic anti-Semitism.
‘Exceptional’ to ‘disloyal’
Butler’s suit claims that Wagner and university Provost Earl Lewis became “the cat’s-paws” of Höyng’s “discriminatory animus” when they decided to overrule a unanimous vote to award Butler tenure by the university’s Tenure and Promotion Committee.
Butler began teaching at Emory in 2004 and says in his suit that he secured “exceptional” ratings for his research and teaching during his first year. But after Höyng became the German Studies department chairman in the fall of 2005, Butler claims that his annual performance ratings began a gradual slide as Höyng voiced repeated objections to Butler’s research, teaching methods and lack of collegiality. Höyng also complained that Butler was “disloyal” and did not “fit in,” the suit says.
The suit also claims that Höyng informed Butler that his research was “not German enough because he thought it focused too much on Jewish matters.”
According to Butler, Höyng’s views were “not shared by other tenured members of the department and were merely a cover” for the department chairman’s bias against Butler because he was Jewish and an American rather than a native German like the rest of the department faculty.
Höyng’s views, the suit says, were also at odds with outside reviewers of Butler’s work from Stanford and Duke universities who called his research “impressive,” “vivid and energetic,” and suggested that Butler “has the making of a genuine ‘scholar’s scholar.”
Butler also claims that his performance ratings soared during the 2008-2009 school year, when Höyng temporarily stepped down as department chairman. In that period, Butler says his professional conduct was described as “productive and appropriate.”
Tenure recommended, overruled
But when Höyng was reinstated as chairman in the fall of 2009, Butler—knowing that if he did not secure tenure in 2010 his faculty appointment would expire—asked that his tenure application be deferred for a year until Höyng stepped down. Butler claims in his suit that such a request is “routinely granted” by Emory and had recently been granted to another native-born German member of the department. But Emory denied his request.
At Butler’s subsequent tenure review, Höyng again raised questions about Butler’s “collegial behavior,” claiming that Butler had accused the department “of bigotry, chauvinism, and racism.”
The department tenure committee split 4-2 in favor of Butler, with Höyng and a junior faculty member—whose work Höyng has said Butler publicly criticized—voting to deny him tenure, according to Butler’s suit.
The university tenure committee then voted unanimously to recommend Butler for tenure and promote him to associate professor—a recommendation that was supported by the dean of Emory College, the suit claims.
Butler’s suit claims that the university provost then began calling tenure committee members and others, questioning whether Butler “fit in,” the suit claims. The provost’s queries gave Höyng the opportunity to act on his bias, according to the suit.
President Wagner then denied Butler tenure. Butler’s suit claims it is the first time in memory that tenure was denied solely on the recommendation of the provost after having been recommended by the department, the tenure committee and the dean of the college.
Butler was also initially informed that he had no right to appeal, according to the suit. But after the American Association of University Professors stepped in on Butler’s behalf, Emory allowed the appeal.
“We wrote the administration, urging them to afford him an appeal,” said Gregory Scholtz, secretary of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance. “The administration agreed to create an appeal process for him.”
“We don’t take a position on the merits,” Scholtz continued. “The entity to take a position on the merits on something like this is an appeals committee. … If he’s claiming discrimination, then that claim ought to get a hearing.”
Instead, according to Butler’s suit, the appeal was limited “solely to procedural irregularities.” The appeals committee did not consider the merits of Butler’s tenure application nor his claims of bias and discrimination. His contract expired July 31, 2011.
In a formal response to Butler’s suit, Emory defended Höyng, saying his concerns regarding Butler’s collegiality “were founded on good faith and honestly held beliefs regarding the damage Dr. Butler’s unprofessional behavior could cause the Department (including its faculty, staff and students) and that many of his colleagues (both tenured and non-tenured) shared such concerns.”
Emory also highlighted a complaint against Butler, three years before he was denied tenure, by a student who missed some assignments because of emergency hand surgery. The student claimed that Butler had belittled and insulted him, bringing him nearly to tears. Citing the letter to Emory’s president by the student’s father, Emory claims that Butler informed the student, “I have to deal with someone like you every semester” and accused him of “always asking for special needs.”
When the student complained to Emory’s Office of Disability Services, Butler was “rude and unprofessional” to an ODS employee who attempted to resolve the issue,according to Emory’s response.
Höyng met with Butler, warning him that “such behavior could jeopardize Dr. Butler’s tenure prospects,” the response states. According to Emory, Butler reacted “in a loud and agitated manner” and in a later email to the student “offered no apology. To the contrary, Dr. Butler denied any impropriety and suggested the student was at fault.”
“Because neither the student, his father, nor the ODS employee believed Dr. Butler capable of treating the student fairly after this episode, the student requested and received a medical withdrawal from the class,” the response states.
Butler’s suit claims there are “significant inaccuracies” in the student’s complaint.
Emory’s response also claims that Butler was “frequently and openly dismissive of his colleagues and the department as a whole.” It cited a female colleague’s complaint about a poster Butler had on his office door featuring a woman wearing vintage German military garb and holding a whip with an inscription that included a German sexual double-entendre. Butler allegedly told her to report him if she thought the poster was “problematic.”
Emory also argued that Butler’s collegiality was a legitimate factor in granting tenure: “Passionate disagreement is welcomed, but demeaning, rude, and degrading behavior is not.”
The case is Butler v. Emory University, No. 1:13-cv-151.