Over the years, Western Washington University professor Perry Mills has referred to an overweight student as a "400-pound canary who warbles...
Over the years, Western Washington University professor Perry Mills has referred to an overweight student as a “400-pound canary who warbles nothingness”; slapped the nickname “Precious” on a male colleague he believed to be gay; and called a female colleague a “bimbo” and “slut” to her face.
Those remarks were just for starters, according to university records.
Mills, 67, who has taught for more than 20 years in Western’s drama department, says he has no recollection of making some of the statements, or never made them. At one point, in an interview with The Seattle Times, he said the university relied on “vacuous lickspittles” to make him look bad.
In 2005, officials at the Bellingham school decided enough was enough. After a faculty disciplinary hearing and other reviews, Mills was suspended for two academic quarters without pay.
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The university’s action was upheld May 26 by a state appeals court, except for one costly flaw: The court ruled the whole process must start over again because Mills’ disciplinary hearing was closed to the public.
As a result, the university might have to revisit a painful chapter in its history, rekindling arguments that not only touch on the alleged boorish behavior of one of its faculty members but also broader issues of what constitutes academic freedom and free speech.
According to the official record in his disciplinary case, some students have gravitated to Mills’ blunt teaching style, saying he challenges them. Some have excelled in regional and national playwriting contests.
Other students describe him as a bully who hurls brutal words simply for his personal enjoyment, at their expense. Faculty and staff have complained of similar behavior. At faculty meetings, Mills purportedly referred to colleagues as “idiots,” “maggots” and “the usual.”
One of the most serious complaints stemmed from his treatment of a student who returned to school in 2004 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was still bald from chemotherapy, facing “insecurities every day,” according to university records.
When the student balked at presenting a playwriting piece in class, Mills responded with words to the effect that she might as well have died.
Exactly what was said was the subject of disagreement. But before the faculty panel, Mills acknowledged he said something like, “If you don’t put up your work, it’s just as if you died of cancer and aren’t here at all.”
Mills said he apologized to the student for having to “bend her arm, but it worked.”
That incident, coupled with other complaints lodged against Mills, prompted Western’s provost to suspend Mills with pay in October 2004, pending an investigation.
5-day hearing held
In June 2005, the provost issued formal charges against Mills, which was followed by a five-day hearing later in the year conducted by four faculty members and a hearing officer.
Mills and a freelance news reporter for the weekly Whatcom Independent, which since has closed, requested that the hearing be open, but the review panel rejected the request, citing a provision of the Faculty Handbook.
A professor testified that in 1997, when he initially joined the drama department as a staff member, Mills referred to him using a derogatory term for a homosexual. The professor said after he told Mills in 1998 he wouldn’t tolerate his language, Mills complied but then began referring to him as “Precious” in front of students.
The panel also heard testimony from the female colleague whom Mills purportedly had labeled a bimbo. She said Mills told her on her first day after she joined the faculty in 2001 that she had better keep her legs closed, because she could not be expected to teach students the same way she got her doctorate.
One student testified that Mills referred to residents of Puyallup, her hometown area, as “white trash,” and a staff member in his department said he called her “white trailer trash.”
Mills admitted during the hearing to using derogatory terms toward colleagues but couldn’t recall some of the specific remarks attributed to him. With students, Mills said, provocation is part of his personality, which he had used to prod students. But he denied berating and demeaning students and colleagues.
Claims he was targeted
As part of his defense, Mills suggested he was being targeted because he had accused the chairman of his department of misusing student course fees to buy equipment for which the funds weren’t intended. Mills had labeled the chairman an embezzler.
The panel recommended Mills be suspended. Their decision was reviewed by the Board of Trustees, which sent it back to the panel to consider whether Mills should be fired. The panel rejected taking that step against Mills, a tenured professor since 1994. The board then adopted the original punishment.
The board found that although Mills had been warned repeatedly since 1998 to curtail his behaviors, he displayed a lack of self-discipline, restraint and professional judgment that subjected faculty, students and staff to years of verbal abuse, sexual innuendo, harassment, intimidation and exploitation.
The trustees also found that a preliminary internal audit did not establish whether the department chairman had misspent student fees, and that there was no evidence the issue played into the decision to bring charges against Mills.
Mills told The Times that university officials “got a bunch of people to lie for them and went in and did a witch trial for them.”
“This is called a mobbing,” he added.
Mills appealed the university’s decision to a Whatcom County judge, who ruled against him. Mills then appealed to the Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, Mills served his unpaid suspension in the winter and spring quarters of 2007. He told The Times he had not calculated how much money he had lost, but that his annual pay is about $60,000.
He since has returned to teaching.
Academic freedom cited
In a brief to the Court of Appeals, Mills’ attorney, James Lobsenz, of Seattle, argued that punishing Mills for his comment to the student with cancer violated his constitutional right to academic freedom.
But state Assistant Attorney General Wendy Bohlke wrote that Mills could have done so without mentioning the student’s cancer.
Lobsenz also wrote that the university took no disciplinary action against his client for years, then suspiciously acted after Mills questioned his chairman’s handling of funds.
Lobsenz told The Times that many comments attributed to his client occurred years ago, and that Mills had stopped making unwanted remarks when the recipients protested.
Western’s trustees, however, concluded that while Mills might have sometimes refrained from misconduct, his overall pattern was “regrettably consistent, unchanging, and continuing.”
The three-member Court of Appeals unanimously found that most of Mills’ conduct had nothing to do with teaching or education and that his right to free speech had not been violated.
But the court found that closing the faculty hearing violated state law, which provides that agency adjudications must be open to public observation. The court sent the matter back to Western for a new hearing.
So Western and Mills now must decide whether to ask the court for reconsideration of the rulings with which they disagree or appeal to the state Supreme Court.
A new hearing could be held, or the two sides could come to a settlement — something both parties say they are open to considering.
Lobsenz said the case has “gone on for so long,” with Mills teaching so little since 2004, that it would be a “shame” if there was no effort to settle.
Mills still wonders how he got in trouble.
“It’s a big fuss about nothing,” he said.
Seattle Times news researcher David Turim contributed to this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org