Education

Iowa State professor to leave in free speech lawsuit settlement

Students say researcher who landed millions of federal dollars bullied them

Daniel Attinger (Photo from Iowa State University)
Daniel Attinger (Photo from Iowa State University)

A tenured Iowa State professor who has landed millions in federal funding and was once named “professor of the year” will stop teaching immediately and quit his research-only post in three years following accusations he bullied students.

Daniel Attinger, appointed as tenured associate professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department in 2011, recently reached the settlement with ISU after suing it in federal court in February for violating his constitutional rights.

In arguing his case, Attinger referred to national and local debate about free speech on campus by citing a recent appellate court decision against ISU for its handling of a pro-marijuana student group’s T-shirt designs and by quoting U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

“Freedom of thought and speech on the American campus are under attack,” Attinger quoted Sessions as saying. “The American university was once the center of academic freedom — a place of robust debate, a forum for the competition of ideas. But it is transforming into an echo chamber of political correctness and homogeneous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”

Attinger filed his lawsuit after his supervisor on Dec. 1, 2016, filed a complaint accusing him of violating ISU policy on harassing behavior and criminal acts or violence.

A pair of emails in October 2016 from doctoral students wanting out of Attinger’s class prompted the ISU complaint, according to the lawsuit. The first student reported being “unable to enjoy my current project” and noted, “I don’t think my professor and I share the same goal.”

Days later, another student emailed the supervisor to report the professor provided insufficient guidance and had a negative attitude.

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“The environment my professor creates in the lab is also not healthy,” the student wrote, according to the lawsuit. “I am sorry to say, but before every meeting I feel afraid of him. I do not feel motivated or comfortable to talk to him about research problems because he usually reacts severely and starts yelling even in the group meetings. In the last one to one meeting, he literally broke a package in front of me because he did not like it.”

Attinger argued his supervisor’s complaint should have set off a process that keeps with academic freedom principles. But Provost Jonathan Wickert imposed interim actions one week later, “before providing Dr. Attinger with an opportunity to be heard.”

A Faculty Review Board investigation found “no credible evidence” Attinger violated any anti-violence policies. But it found “sufficient evidence” he violated an anti-harassing behavior section and recommended sanctions.

On June 14, 2017, Wickert issued a statement of charges against Attinger that accused him of engaging “in a pattern of verbal conduct directed against graduate students and post docs in his laboratory that can be reasonably regarded as abuse, intimidating, or humiliating.”

Wickert said Attinger continued the behavior even after he was told the department chair believed his conduct constituted harassment.

Attinger said he “vehemently” denies it.

About the student emails, he told The Gazette. “I tried my best to shield those students from the stress I was experiencing in my interactions with some university administrators.”

“Nevertheless, those students saw some of that stress and did not like it, and I understand them,” he wrote in an email to the newspaper. “They worked with the university administration to make sure that their experience at ISU was as good as possible. I wish them well.”

But he stuck by his assertions that ISU hasn’t alleged his communications to be “outside the realm of scholarly discourse, germane to the subject matter of the research in the lab.”

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He notes in his lawsuit he was honored as “professor of the year” in 2014 by students.

“Universities like ISU have enough intelligence, diversity and education to afford healthy and vigorous debates,” he wrote. “It is also important to let faculty members speak freely about how the university is run.”

Still, Attinger signed a settlement in July that will separate him from the university in 2021. Until then, he’ll receive his full pay. He earned $132,028 in the 2017 budget year, records show.

He can’t participate in any teaching or service duties. The settlement, which requires he drop his lawsuit, means his job now will be “100 percent research.”

The date of his looming resignation aligns with his ongoing federally-funded research, which is bringing in a total of about $2 million.

He currently is leading research funded by the U.S. departments of Defense and Justice. He also is coleading a project with CSAFE, a research center at ISU funded by the National Institute of Standards.

ISU didn’t immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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