History of Events Leading to MotherFunctor®.org
MotherFunctor.org is a website founded by mathematicians to promote campus activism in general, with special emphasis on freedom of information and freedom of speech in colleges and universities.
The specific motivation for the creation of MotherFunctor.org stems from a decade-long series of events and actions by officials at the Georgia Institute of Technology, including university administrators, lawyers and auditors. This is a first-hand, personal account of what happened to one faculty member when he Questioned Authority in his department and college. The purpose of this chronicle is twofold: first, to set the record straight, so that friends, colleagues and campus community members may see the succession of incidents in context (including the original documents); and second, to warn fellow members of the academic community of what they might expect if they choose to speak out, to request documents, or to otherwise Question Authority.
(Some MF readers may be inclined to think these incidents are isolated, and are not representative of the current Georgia Tech Administration. Such readers are urged to compare the findings of the Georgia Attorney General concerning diversion of state funds and "a lack of institutional control over travel decisions and expense reimbursement procedures" in this story, with the recent unprecedented probation, public reprimand, and censure of Georgia Tech by the NCAA. The NCAA cited Georgia Tech for "a non-debatable lack of institutional control" over its athletics program, where certification of athletes' substandard academic records apparently occurred at four successive levels of the administration, including the Registrar. [Click here and here to see articles].)
Since the MotherFunctor.org staff are movie aficionados, we have outlined the following chronology with popular film titles.
|Once Upon a Time in America|
|Body of Evidence|
|Revenge of the Nerds|
|Attack of the Clones|
|Above the Law|
|List of Reference Documents|
Once upon a time in America, there were only a few basic rights, the most highly valued of which were freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Over time, these freedoms in turn gave birth to other freedoms - freedom of information (as in the Freedom of Information Act), and Academic Freedom.
In most public colleges and universities in the United States, basic financial records such as budgets, travel expenses, and salaries are, in theory, open for public review. But when ordinary professors ask to see those records, senior administrators often respond with intimidation, obstruction, and ruthless retaliation. The reason is very simple – few decision-makers are willing to bare records of “errors” and political favors to external examination. Congressmen, CEO’s, governors, and American presidents – all fight tooth and nail to prevent exposure of secret memos and dealings, particularly if those dealings suggest ethical or legal failings. Universities, unfortunately, are no different.
My first fifteen years as a mathematics professor in the School of Mathematics (SOM) at Georgia Tech were idyllic – publication of many papers, research grants from four agencies and scores of invitations to lecture at home and abroad. My colleagues at the SOM nominated me as the Best Teacher out of 50-odd professors, and some, apparently including the Chair, regarded me as one of the best lecturers in the entire university .
Georgia Tech mathematicians elected me head of the Faculty Assembly, and chose me to deliver the once-in-a-decade College of Sciences Mathematics Showcase Lecture. In the mid-90’s, an NSF proposal I wrote won the largest grant in the history of our department. Although there were the usual internal differences of opinion, for the most part I avoided departmental politics completely, and spent every third year on leave.
Things began to change when a new Chair essentially dissolved the mandatory elected faculty advisory committee, and established in its wake his own fully-appointed Executive Committee. He simply ignored the state regulation for supervisors to give annual performance evaluations, and unilaterally doled out travel support and plum teaching assignments, salaries and raises. Most of us simply accepted it as the usual favoritism common in most academic units, tried to ignore it, and concentrated on teaching and research.
Eventually, however, the extent of the abuse of power began to fragment and demoralize the department, and I spoke out against the favoritism at the annual faculty retreat in 1996. As evidence, I cited the facts that we had made only one hire in the field of probability in the previous 20 years, and that the new Chair’s Center for Dynamical Systems and Nonlinear Studies, which had failed to attract the significant external funding it promised when it received unprecedented start-up funds, nevertheless somehow continued to spend huge amounts for their own travel, visitors, and postdocs. When my retreat questions went unanswered, and I suddenly received an inexplicably mediocre annual evaluation and raise, I asked the Chair and Associate Chair to see a list of faculty salaries (without names), and then I asked to see financial records for the Center. The response came, not from the Chair’s office, but from the Georgia Tech Chief Legal Officer.
To be contacted by the Office of Legal Affairs about my simple request to see theoretically public financial records was not only extremely intimidating, but also downright fishy. The Dean told me that if I wanted to see financial records, I would have to make a formal request under the Georgia Open Records Act. I obtained a copy of the ORA from the Georgia Tech library, and made a formal request to see the “source and disbursement of funds to and from the Center for Dynamical Systems and Nonlinear Studies” (CDSNS) for the previous eight years, during which period the Chair’s pet Center devoured millions of dollars of university support. After many delays, the university lawyers finally replied, first via several emails, and then, when I persisted, they sent me an official letter saying that there were no such financial records , , .
I raised objections about the abuse of power and financial misdeeds, in writing, to the Dean. When he did not act, I filed a formal grievance with the Georgia Tech Faculty Status and Grievance Committee, asking for an audit. Their investigation found evidence of complicity by the Office of Legal Affairs in the false official responses to the Open Records requests [7, p 1], and labeled the repeated denials of the existence of basic financial records “patently false” [8, p 1]. The Grievance Committee recommended an audit, and reprimands for the persons who made the false statements . (Years later, after similar ORA obstruction continued, the Grievance Committee finally recommended external investigations [10, p 2]. ) The Georgia Tech President simply ruled against reprimands, and against external investigations.
In light of the concrete evidence of financial misdeeds I obtained through Open Records, the administration had no choice but to yield to the Grievance Committee’s recommendation for an audit. As a safety precaution, however, the administration bundled the Chair off to Singapore for a year on full pay. (That he was also receiving full salary from the National University of Singapore at the same time, as Dean at NUS, did not become apparent until much later.)
The resulting audit found that “of course” financial records for the Center existed, and, (big surprise) that the Center was running annual shortfalls of hundreds of thousands of dollars [4, p 6]. The audits also found multiple instances of diversion of university funds for personal travel , , , for books, and even for a baby shower [4, p 10]. The Georgia Attorney General’s review of the audit labeled the abuse of travel expenses at Georgia Tech “systemic” [5, p 1], and directed reimbursement to the State of tens of thousands of dollars .
During a subsequent audit by the State Board of Regents, the Chair was brought back from Singapore for a few days to meet with Regents auditors. Just before he left campus to return to Singapore, thirteen lawn-sized plastic bags of shredded financial documents appeared outside the Chair’s office. Coincidentally, there was also a burglary in the department that same weekend, and the only item missing, out of the hundreds of computers and office machines in the department, was the hard drive from the computer of the department accountant. The police report stated that it looked like an inside job [15, p 6].
In the meantime, I continued requesting records, and received a copy of the 5-year Chair Evaluation, which essentially confirmed many of our allegations and suspicions about abuse of power, favoritism, and financial irregularities .
I made copies of the Chair Evaluation available to colleagues, and the Administration reacted with a vengeance. In my next annual evaluation, the Acting Chair (current Associate Chair) wrote that I performed “below expectations, [and was] counseled”, the only one of some 50 professors in SOM he rated below expectations. The accompanying low raise would significantly affect my salary for years to come, and my pension for life. When I met with the Acting Chair to be “counseled”, he told me the reason for the rock-bottom rating was “disservice” to the department, specifically, for use of the Open Records Act and Grievance processes. He gave no other reasons, and the Dean supported him. (Two years later a Regents-mandated external evaluation placed my performance those years in the top ten in the department, and the administration responded with a nominal salary raise, but even refused to make that retroactive to the years in question. [16, p 1])
When I reported this new action to the Georgia Tech Faculty Status and Grievance Committee, they stressed the importance of putting it on the official record, and urged me to file another grievance. After their investigation, the Grievance Committee unanimously found that retaliatory evaluation to be a violation of basic faculty rights – and wrote in their official report “Open Record requests are the right of all citizens of the State of Georgia”, and “grievance is the right of all Georgia Tech faculty” [8, p 5]. They recommended that the Chair and Dean be reprimanded [8, p 7], stating that the Dean’s behavior “displays a lack of respect for faculty rights and Institute statutes” [ 8, p 6]. The Georgia Tech President again declined to reprimand, and the Regents backed his decision.
The attacks by the Chair and his cronies turned vicious. One colleague (current Associate Dean) wrote an email asking if I had a “drinking problem”, and condemned Open Records Act requests as invasion of privacy. Another (recent Associate Chair), sent out an email asking if I wanted “blood on [my] hands”. A third (current Associate Chair, who had been a guest in my home on many occasions, including Thanksgiving Dinner), sent emails around the world accusing me of “cowardice” and of “engineer[ing], under the Open Records Act, a thorough search of a colleague’s office", with a reference to “mein Kempf”[sic]. The new interim Chair confirmed that the allegations were false, but when I protested the libelous messages to the Provost, and asked him to stop them, he said the communications were Freedom of Speech.
That same third attacker, a close friend and recipient of favors of the now-deposed Chair, then accused me (as well as a colleague who had also openly questioned SOM leadership), of being anti-Chinese racists. A Wall Street Journal article quoted him as saying that he was frustrated “by repeated ‘harassment and intimidation’ of faculty of Chinese descent by” my colleague and me. He and a gang of others filed a formal complaint of racism against my colleague, and even when the subsequent investigation by the affirmative action officer found “To the contrary…” , they complained again to the Administration. When the attacks against me did not stop, an attorney told me it was necessary for me to file a defamation lawsuit.
In communication with the State Department of Administrative Services, Georgia Tech officials said that I am “something of an activist, having obtained many records through Open Records Act requests” , thereby prompting the Attorney General’s Office to approve legal defense funds for the defendant (current Associate Chair who had called me a racist and coward), even after the judge ruled he was “not acting in the scope and course of his employment”. The State paid not only all his lawyer’s fees, but also the entire $60,000 settlement he agreed to pay me to drop the lawsuit.
I continued my Open Records requests, and the arrogance of the Georgia Tech attorneys, and their apparent disregard for the law, simply escalated. On various occasions, they
- said they would not accept requests via email ,  ( which are perfectly legitimate [15, p9]).
- demanded $1500 advance payment to search for records , knowing that, by Georgia law, the requestor pays costs after the records are produced.
- withheld records, claiming “attorney-client privilege” , even though they know the Georgia Attorney General had previously ruled that attorney-client privilege does not exist between state university lawyers and administrators. When confronted with this fact, the Georgia Tech Office of Legal Affairs admitted that it was true [15, p 10], but for other professors, including the Grievance Committee itself, who were not aware of the Attorney General’s ruling, the Georgia Tech attorneys simply continued to withhold information from them under claims of privilege , .
- refused to give up-front cost estimates of producing Open Records documents [15, p. 8], in clear violation of the Open Records Act.
- responded that “It is not clear what you mean by this request” , when I asked to see copies of “All lawsuits filed against [the Dean of the College of Sciences] since Jan 1, 2003”. (Their legal supervisor, the Regents Associate Vice Chancellor, went a step further and simply denied possession of any such documents .) After I received independent confirmation of exactly such records, and presented it to the university and Regents’ attorneys, then they produced the documents .
- threatened me in the mid-90's with a “defamation lawsuit” when I said I might file a grievance [15, p 14], and as recently as December 2005, continued to threaten me with “administrative/legal action”  when I questioned how they could have declared that several past administrators had no records of certain documents without having contacted those administrators to ask them.
(On the other hand, when the administration wanted information, the Dean simply sent out a memo stating that “surveillance cameras will be installed in several common areas”, and said that he was considering an option “that all employees submit to polygraph exams” .)
By Georgia law, citizens with complaints about violations of the Open Records Act by State employees (such as public university officials) are directed to report the violations to the State Attorney General for investigation. When I filed a formal complaint containing 31 alleged violations of the Act by Georgia Tech, the AG promptly turned the investigation over to the Regents, while admitting that “was like auditing yourself.” The Regents assigned the investigation to a junior auditor (neither a Certified Internal Auditor nor a Certified Public Accountant) who closed the investigation  without even interviewing me, the alleged victim. The reason is very simple – the official legal counsel for the Regents, and Georgia Tech, is none other than the State Attorney General!
Certainly my situation was not unique - other public university supervisors have undoubtedly given low performance evaluations and raises for professors who Question Authority. But how could a department Chair actually announce that the punitive evaluation was for using the Open Records Act and grievance process, and expect to get away with it? The sheer arrogance was astounding. I tried every conceivable remedy within the system, including appeals to the Dean, to the Provost, to the President (through the Grievance Committee, who agreed with me), and to the Board of Regents. I even tried State-supervised mediation in the State’s new Alternative Dispute Resolution program, but Georgia Tech and Regents authorities simply closed ranks. After talking to the Ombudsperson at U. C. Berkeley (my PhD alma mater), who was also President of the National Ombuds Association, I took her advice to hire an employment-rights attorney.
My attorney filed a First Amendment and Whistleblower lawsuit in State court against the Georgia Tech administrators and the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents et al removed the case to the Federal District Court, and sought dismissal based on Federal 11th Amendment immunity, claiming the defendants were acting in their official capacities, and were therefore immune from civil suits and criminal prosecution. In Federal Court, one of Georgia’s dreaded ultra-conservative judges summarily dismissed the case, agreeing with the sovereign immunity argument. We appealed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, who, in spite of a strong amicus brief for me by the American Civil Liberties Union, affirmed the lower court’s decision to dismiss on grounds of immunity. The next level of appeal would have been the U.S. Supreme Court, and I stopped. That was a mistake.
A few months later, Professor Paul Lapides in nearby Kennesaw State University filed a discrimination lawsuit against his administration and the same Board of Regents. The Regents pulled the same stunt - removing the case to Federal Court, and then claiming Federal 11th Amendment immunity. His District judge, too, dismissed the case on grounds of immunity, and, as in my suit, the 11th Court of Appeals affirmed the decision. But Lapides went the extra mile (he told me it cost him $400,000 of his own personal money), and appealed to the Supreme Court. There the judges found that it was “anomalous” for a State agency to invoke Federal jurisdiction for a case, and then to claim that Federal laws do not extend to that same case (because of immunity). The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and decided unanimously in favor of Professor Lapides in rejecting the dismissal of his suit. Unfortunately for me, the Supreme Court decision was not retroactive, and my legal recourses were fini.
In 2002, I contacted the Association of American University Professors. The Executive Secretary of the Georgia Conference (the Chair and Professor of History at Georgia State University) wrote the Georgia Tech president  about the retaliatory low evaluations and low salary raises for using the Open Records Act, citing the 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure. The Georgia Tech President never even bothered to answer that letter, and the following semester, the Dean of Sciences placed me on involuntary leave of absence without pay. No paperwork was ever sent to the Board of Regents for approval – but rather, the Dean and Chair simply had my salary stopped. The AAUP representative again wrote the Georgia Tech president about the retaliatory raises, adding that the new involuntary leave without pay issue “raises serious new questions regarding possible retaliation” for using the Open Records Act and Grievance processes . He received a terse response, not from the president, but from the Georgia Tech Chief Legal Officer. As Yogi Berra said, Déjà vu all over again.
The Chancellor of the University System of Georgia, however, did see cause to intervene, and discussions between Georgia Tech and the Georgia Conference of the AAUP suddenly ensued. With the help of the AAUP, I eventually received back salary, raises, and paid leave amounting to nearly half a million dollars, but only if I agreed to take early retirement on my 60th birthday. During the negotiations, both sides explicitly agreed that I could continue Open Records requests, and that I would be entitled to all the benefits of an Emeritus Professor. But then, a few days before Christmas holidays, the administration ordered me to “please vacate” both my faculty office, and my on-campus home of twenty years. The Chair (who, like so many others, had been a welcome guest at my home) told me I could not even store professional editorial and referee papers in the department temporarily.
On February 23 and 24, 2004, Atlanta’s WSBTV Action News broadcast two Whistleblower Reports, based on documents I obtained through Open Records, airing questions about allegations of double-billing of travel expenses and double-dipping of salaries
The Channel 2 news anchor emphasized the crucial role played by my Open Records requests, and the Georgia Tech spokesman countered by claiming that my large number of Open Records Act requests had cost the university “more than a million dollars”. (Georgia Tech, however, did not justify that estimate – by Georgia law, the records requester is responsible for all costs, searching and copying, after the first fifteen minutes of work on each request.) More importantly, the WSB-TV anchor quoted the AAUP’s representative saying the retaliation against me for using the Open Records and Grievance processes was “severe”, and that it is the duty of professors to question the status quo – “If we did not challenge accepted wisdom,” he said in the newsclip, “if we didn’t challenge authority, we would still be arguing the world is flat.”
These WSB-TV reports made other Georgia Tech employees aware of their basic rights to records, and soon employees across campus, including campus policemen, professors, custodians, and the Georgia Tech Barbell Club, as well as professors from other Georgia public universities, began coming to me for tips in making Open Records requests, and for fighting the injustices. It is at their urging that I am publicizing these facts and documents.
Our mission at MotherFunctor.org is to record and disseminate these experiences and documents, in order that others might learn. We also hope to serve as a focal point for organizing activists, archiving similar tales and tips, and promoting freedom of information in colleges and universities.
- Ted HIll, Groundhog Day, 2006