Professors explain letter criticizing CU Boulder administration for firing Patty Limerick
More than 300 professors and historians signed a letter dated Aug. 10 criticizing the University of Colorado Boulder administration for the abrupt firing of Patty Limerick from her position as director of the Center of the American West.
Limerick was removed from her position on Sept. 23, 2022 as director of the center, which she co-founded in 1986. More than nine months after her removal, the letter said, no evidence has been revealed about why Limerick was fired and the impact of the decision has been “irreparable and far-reaching.”
“The motivations of the dean to fire Limerick from her directorship will likely always remain mysterious,” the letter said. “What is clear is the damage and loss his decision has caused.”
The letter was addressed to CU President Todd Saliman, CU Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano and CU Boulder Provost Russell Moore.
“From the university’s perspective, we consider this matter closed,” CU Boulder said in a statement.
Professors, researchers, historians, alumni and independent citizens statewide signed the letter, including professors from CU Boulder, CU Denver, Colorado State University, Metropolitan State University of Denver and Colorado College.
The majority of signatures came from professors outside of Colorado and across the nation, including Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, NYU, Notre Dame and Carnegie Mellon. There was also international support for the letter, with signatures from the University of Oslo in Norway, the University of Sussex in England, the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and the University of Amsterdam.
Paul Conrad, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, was among a group of professors in the field of western history who helped draft the letter because they were concerned about what happened.
The group then circulated the letter among scholars and independent citizens to sign.
“It was more about voicing our support to Patty and observing and commenting on what we thought was the larger impact of her dismissal,” Conrad said, adding, “I don’t think we expected a really tangible response.”
Part of the reason the group wanted to craft the letter was because of Limerick herself. Conrad said she’s quirky, loves to tells stories and is unusual as a senior scholar who cares deeply about mentoring young people.
An internal audit report from 2022 did not find evidence to support allegations of fiscal misconduct by Limerick at the Center of the American West. It did conclude Limerick violated ethical rules involving overstepping boundaries and blurring the lines between work and personal life with staff.
Conrad said the removal of Limerick from the center was an act to impugn her character unfairly. While he’s aware of the financial investigation and staff complaints, he said it “doesn’t explain the administration taking the actions that they took.”
Looking for answers
Nearly a year after her removal, Limerick said she still doesn’t know why she was fired.
Nor does she know who fired her. Limerick said CU Boulder is a “giant bureaucracy” and she doesn’t know who is responsible for the decision. She said the entire situation has shaken her trust in higher education.
“Being disillusioned is not a great stance to take as I do what I’ve done all my life, which is encourage young people,” Limerick said. “I don’t want to mislead young people by encouraging them to trust institutions that I’m not sure we can trust.”
Limerick said creativity and innovation can’t thrive in a place where people are stifled from voicing their thoughts. She said the official language says all the right things, but the underlying message from the university is that people “better watch your step” or pay for it later on.
“People are fearful of speaking freely and honestly. People fear retaliation or punishment or at least some kind of uncomfortable misunderstanding,” Limerick said. “I went to university because I thought it was a place where we could say anything … but it’s become so precarious.”
Despite being fired, Limerick said, she “came out okay” and her reputation has remained intact.
“What they did to me did more damage to the university’s reputation than it did to mine,” Limerick said.
Since her removal, Limerick has continued to work on the CU Boulder Applied History Initiative she started where she works on projects and mentors students. She continues to conduct research and hold her position as a tenured faculty member at CU Boulder, and on Sept. 11, Limerick was inducted into the Colorado Author’s Hall of Fame.
‘A complete surprise’
CU Boulder Professor Leslie Irvine said she sees the letter as her only opportunity to have her voice on the matter heard.
“I signed it because it was the sole opportunity that faculty members had to voice our objections to professor Limerick’s firing and the way it was done,” Irvine said.
Irvine said there was a lack of transparency from CU Boulder about why Limerick was fired. She said the result of the investigation by internal auditors found no evidence of financial misconduct, and while Limerick appeared to potentially have problems with staff, Irvine said, those issue could’ve been addressed with training and meetings.
Irvine said Limerick’s removal “came as a complete surprise.”
“It’s had a chilling effect on faculty’s trust in administration,” Irvine said. “If she can be treated in that way, a person of such stature, what can the rest of us expect?”
CU Boulder Professor Laura DeLuca said Limerick is a “brilliant, award-winning historian who is also a public scholar.” DeLuca pointed out that Limerick received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1995 and the Hazel Barnes Prize in 2001, the University of Colorado Boulder’s highest award for teaching and research.
“I signed the letter because she is a brilliant scholar and leader in her field, and I thought it was highly unusual that she would be removed from a position in which she excelled,” DeLuca said.
Limerick said she was “astounded” and “moved” by the letter and the people who signed it.
“I think that is a fraction of the people who would’ve signed that letter if it had come to them,” Limerick said. “It’s partly about me, but it’s more about this being a national pattern.”
The letter said the issue is much broader than Limerick, the Center of the American West or CU Boulder.
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“It reflects a dangerous national trend of rash administrative decision making that is hollowing academic and university programs,” the letter said.
According to the letter, Limerick’s removal from the Center of the American West has had enormous consequences.. The letter stated many on the board of the center have resigned in protest, donors have pulled funds, no new programming has been announced and no search for Limerick’s replacement is underway.
“The unraveling of the center has damaging effects that ripple out from CU Boulder to the broader community. For Colorado, there is the loss of vital public programming and cross-disciplinary conversations,” the letter read. “Beyond Colorado, there is the loss of a hub of intellectual and practical knowledge, and of future possibilities to train leaders in the field of applied history in a world of shrinking opportunities for historians in the academy.”
Limerick said resources for the center are way down due to donors pulling funding over the controversy surrounding her removal.
Moving forward, Limerick said, she wants the university to be honest and forthright in admitting the error it made in her haste removal, which caused an “explosion of chaos.” She said she also wants CU Boulder to do right by the center. In this case, Limerick said that means it’s time for the center to close.
Limerick said it’s had a lot of success, but there’s too much baggage for it to be successful now. Limerick suggested it be rebranded as Programs in American West Studies.
“I think if (CU Boulder) would just put that into action, so much of the damage would be repaired,” Limerick said.
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