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Johnson v. Lincoln University of Commonwealth System of Higher Education

November 6, 1985

WILLIAM T. M. JOHNSON APPELLANT
v.
LINCOLN UNIVERSITY OF THE COMMONWEALTH SYSTEM OF HIGHER EDUCATION, LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, PENNSYLVANIA AND HERMAN R. BRANSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PRESIDENT OF LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, PENNSYLVANIA AND ANDREW M. BRADLEY, BENJAMIN F. AMOS, CARL O. DICKERSON, LYNN MARIE FIELDS, ROBERT T. FREEMAN, JR., MACEO W. HUBBARD, DR. SHIRLEY A. JACKSON, GEORGE M. LEADER, LEROY A. PATRICK, LEROY ROBINSON, JR., STEPHEN B. SWEENEY, JOHN H. WARE, III, FRANKLIN H. WILLIAMS, J. PETER WILLIAMS, ESQ., VAHAN H. GUREGHIAN, ESQ., EDDISON R. HAIRSTON, JEREMIAH HEARTLEY, WILLIAM H. RIVERS, JR., HOWARD E. WRIGHT, OSMOND H. BROWN, JAMES D. BARBER, CECIL DUBOIS GALLUP, FREEMAN P. HANKINS, PAUL MCKINNEY, CHARLES BUSH, THEODORE R. ROBB, PATRICIA D. JACOBS, ESQ., GORDON LINTON, AND DR. KENNETH SADLER, AS TRUSTEES OF LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, LINCOLN UNIVERSITY, PENNSYLVANIA



Appeal from the Judgment of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 83-5839).

Author: Seitz

Before: Seitz, Becker, and Rosenn, Circuit Judges.

Opinion of the Court

Seitz, Circuit Judge.

I.

The plaintiff, Dr. William T. M. Johnson, appeals from a final order of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants, Lincoln University, Herman R. Branson, former president of Lincoln University, and the trustees of Lincoln University. Johnson brought this action alleging that his termination by Lincoln violated 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982) by depriving him of rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. He alleged also that the circumstances of his termination gave rise to various pendent state law claims including breach of contract, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. This court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (1982).

II.

This case arises from a bitter and long-standing dispute which has rent the academic community at Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, for more than eight years. Despite the inappropriateness of this forum for resolving issues of academic policy and academic freedom, we find ourselves once again reviewing charges that the termination of a tenured Lincoln faculty members was inspired not on the grounds set forth in Lincoln's Faculty Bylaws, Art. III, para. 9, but by the desire to suppress speech and activity critical of the Lincoln administration in violation of the faculty member's First Amendment rights.

A.

In order properly to understand the context of this dispute, a short historical review will be helpful. Lincoln University is a part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania System of Higher Education. It is both financed and regulated by various Commonwealth authorities.*fn1 Lincoln has been described as "the country's oldest college in continuous existence for the higher education of black students." See Trotman v. Board of Trustees of Lincoln University, 635 F.2d 216, 219(3d Cir. 1980), cert. denied, 451 U.S. 986, 68 L. Ed. 2d 844, 101 S. Ct. 2320 (1981) ( Trotman) . Dr. William T. M. Johnson had been teaching at Lincoln for twenty years at the time of his termination in 1983. The first black chemist to work for the DuPont Co., Dr. Johnson left that company and took a substantial cut in pay to teach at Lincoln. The record reveals that Dr. Johnson has a history of high academic achievement and a substantial commitment to achieving equal opportunity for black people.

In 1977, a wide scale dispute broke out at Lincoln, initially over a proposed drastic reduction in the number of faculty that would have increased the student-faculty ratio to comport with Pennsylvania Department of Education guidelines. Before it was over, the dispute, "which pit[ted] the president and administration ...against at least a quarter of the faculty, [involved the] dismissal of a dissenting faculty member, disruption of classes, arrest of faculty members, attempted stifling of debate and other sorry incidents." Trotman, 635 F.2d at 219.

Among the events of that tumultuous period was the removal of Johnson from the chairmanship of the Chemistry Department, a removal characterized as "'retributive action'" on the part of President Branson in a petition signed by 25 of Johnson's colleagues. Id. at 221. Johnson was apparently "'in the forefront of the faculty dissidents and was quite outspoken in his criticism of President Branson.'" id., quoting the district court opinion in that case.

Seventeen members of Lincoln's faculty, most of whom are no longer employed at Lincoln, brought suit against President Branson, the trustees, and Lincoln itself, alleging that various disciplinary actions had been taken in order to suppress faculty criticism of university policy. In that case, the district court dismissed the action at the completion of the plaintiffs' case, finding generally that there had been a reasonable basis for each administration action complained of, and that those actions were "totally unrelated" to the plaintiffs' exercise of their First Amendment rights. As our court noted, the district court found no attempt to suppress or inhibit any constitutionally protected activity. Trotman, 635 F.2d at 219.

We reversed, holding that the district court had erred in its determination that the plaintiffs' activities were not protected by the First Amendment, and that it had used an incorrect legal standard in determining whether the defendants' alleged retaliatory actions would have occurred in the absence of the protected activity. While we did not evaluate each and every instance of assertedly protected activity, we did focus on Johnson's letter to the Governor of Pennsylvania seeking Branson's removal as president of the university. We pointed out that "speech with far less claim to legitimacy than a telegram by a faculty member at a state-related institution to his Governor has been held to fall within the scope of the First Amendment." Trotman, 635 F.2d at 226.

B.

The Trotman case was remanded, and ultimately settled. A consent decree was issued on September 22, 1982. Among its terms was a pledge by the University to refrain from violating any of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. In addition, it stated that "faculty members... shall have the rights to freedom of expression as guaranteed by the First Amendment... and the defendants shall not take or threaten any retaliatory action because of the exercise of such rights." Settlement Agreement page 1.

Barely four months later, on February 1, 1983, a formal complaint seeking Johnson's dismissal was filed by Dr. S. C. SubbaRao, Chairman of the Chemistry Department. Dr. SubbaRao levied numerous charges against Johnson based mainly on events which took place in the context of a rancorous, long-standing dispute within the chemistry department. Many of the events charged in the complaint took place well before the signing of the consent decree.

The charges were formalized and presented in somewhat expanded form to Lincoln's Judicial Committee, which is composed of three faculty members elected by the faculty and one appointed by the President, in April of 1983. After a hearing, the Judicial Committee recommended termination of tenure. The Committee found Johnson culpable in three basic areas and supported its decision by reference to a host of facts and events which we will not detail. First, it found that Johnson departed "from commonly accepted standards of morality and competency in regard to his relationship with his students based on his authoritarian and insensitive behavior." Judicial Committee Report page 3. Second, it found that Johnson's conflicts within the Chemistry Department were not justified by his commitment to higher academic standards, which the committee found suspect, and that he had engaged in "a series of attacks that included defamatory charges, physical and personal threats and obstructionalism (sic)." Id. Finally, it found Johnson culpable of threats and intimidation with regard to his failure to finish and assignment under a biomedical grant; of insubordination for "attempts ...


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