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Regional Interests

U.S. Department of Education office investigating Pacific University

Investigators at the U.S. Department of Education are looking into claims that Pacific University discriminated and retaliated against a professor.

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating the private university’s treatment of professor Richard Paxton in regards to potential violations of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination at any education program that receives federal funding.

Paxton sued the Forest Grove-based university earlier this year after he was suspended last year following complaints from students regarding his alleged comments about gender and ethnicity.

According to the “notice of allegations” sent to Paxton from Pacific, among the comments at issue was a statement Paxton allegedly made in class that “every person has a gender,” ignoring the gender identity of agender and nonbinary. Students in a separate class alleged Paxton had described Native Americans as “warlike” and “aggressive,” among other comments.

Those alleged student complaints led to Pacific launching an external Title IX investigation of Paxton.

That external investigation was dismissed last week, but, in a letter to Paxton, Pacific Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Ann Barr-Gillespie said Pacific would now be conducting its own review under the university’s policies. As a result, Paxton will remain on administrative leave from the school.

The university said it could not comment on personnel matters or matters related to ongoing litigation, but it did confirm that Paxton’s case now rests with the Office of the Provost.

“We are very pleased that, now that the Title IX process has concluded, we can proceed expeditiously according to established university policy and procedures,” Pacific said.

Paxton’s attorney, Robin DesCamp, says it’s not Paxton but actually Pacific that is at fault under Title IX.

“It is an extraordinary step for the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights to launch a formal investigation into a university,” DesCamp said. “The agency clearly believes that there is enough smoke in this case to look for what we believe is a conflagration.”

DesCamp said she made the complaint with the federal office on behalf of Paxton last winter.

“I am heartened by the federal government agreeing to investigate this matter and help us find some answers,” DesCamp said.

The Office for Civil Rights will be investigating two specific allegations:

In a letter to DesCamp, the Office for Civil Rights said its investigation could be resolved in a number of ways:

One possibility is that Pacific could submit a voluntary written agreement in which it agrees to take action to resolve the allegations related to Paxton.

If Pacific does not do that before the Office for Civil Rights completes its investigation, the office said it will make a determination as to whether Pacific is acting in compliance or in violation of Title IX.

“[I]n the event non-compliance is found, OCR will pursue a written agreement between OCR and the university in which the university commits to take specific steps to comply with applicable laws and regulations,” the civil rights office wrote.

In its statement, Pacific University noted that the decision to open an investigation into Paxton’s complaints does not reflect any opinion from the Department of Education.

“It is OCR’s responsibility to address the allegation in a fair and impartial manner consistent with the regulatory requirements,” Pacific said, quoting from the Office for Civil Rights.

It’s unclear how long the federal investigation will take.

Paxton’s attorney, DesCamp, said if the OCR does find Pacific violated Title IX requirements, and the university does not take action to remedy that, it could affect Pacific’s federal funding.

Even though Pacific is a private institution, many of its students still rely on federal student loans and financial aid, she noted.

DesCamp said she will be filing an additional complaint with the OCR as well as a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in regard to the secondary investigation Pacific’s provost is conducting into whether Paxton violated any university policies.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting