Mark McPhail, a tenured professor and administrator who was abruptly fired from Indiana University Northwest last year after an administrator accused him of having said “the solution to racism is to kill all white people,” was recently appointed interim provost of Linfield University, in McMinnville, Ore.
Linfield’s administration has been under fire from its faculty after it abruptly terminated a tenured Jewish professor last year following his string of tweets calling out the university’s handing of sexual-misconduct allegations against several members of the board. The professor also said he had been “religiously harassed” by the president.
Both McPhail’s case and that of Daniel Pollack-Pelzner at Linfield involve failures of due process, in which a faculty member appears to have been dismissed without a prior hearing, said Mark Criley, a senior program officer in the department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance at the American Association of University Professors.
It can be beneficial for an institution to hire someone “who is familiar with due-process rights, and understands the value of them in a really vivid way, because they’ve been denied them and suffered the consequences,” Criley said.
McPhail was initially hired to be executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at IU Northwest, but after butting heads with the chancellor at the time, he resigned from the position and assumed a role as a tenured professor of communications. Similar difficulties persisted when he began to receive poor evaluations for his teaching.
In September 2021, after a colleague accused McPhail of making
the comment about killing white people, McPhail was fired for making a “threat of physical violence,” according to a letter from a university administrator.
I saw an opportunity for Linfield to engage an experienced and highly qualified administrator.
In response to his dismissal, McPhail, who said he never threatened anyone at the institution, sued the university, accusing administrators of violating his due process and of discriminating and retaliating against him. His case drew support from national organizations like FIRE and the American Association of University Professors.
The AAUP has appointed an ad hoc investigative committee of faculty members from different institutions to further examine McPhail’s case. They’re expecting the results of that investigation in a few months.
At Linfield, Pollack-Pelzner was a tenured English professor who was fired after he publicly criticized the university leadership on Twitter. He too has sued his former institution, saying he was fired in retaliation.
Pollack-Pelzner’s case also drew national attention from a variety of organizations, including the AAUP, which investigated it. The association found that the administration had retaliated against Pollack-Pelzner “for speech and conduct he exercised as part of his responsibilities as a faculty trustee” and that the institution violated its own regulations and the AAUP’s guidance for academic freedom and tenure by not “demonstrating adequate cause for dismissal.”
In June, the association added Linfield’s administration to its censured list.
Administrators at Linfield declined to comment on the case.
Soon after his story was published in The Chronicle, McPhail says he received a LinkedIn message from Miles K. Davis, president of Linfield University, a small private institution.
McPhail recalls Davis saying he “felt a great deal of empathy” for him. Davis was going to need an interim provost, and he thought McPhail could do the work.
McPhail received his offer letter in July and began working as interim provost on August 15.
“I saw an opportunity for Linfield to engage an experienced and highly qualified administrator,” Davis said in an email to The Chronicle. “His scholarly background and previous experiences in higher education make him an ideal candidate for Linfield as we move forward.”
McPhail said that Davis was also transparent about the challenges that were happening at Linfield and with his presidency.
As interim provost, McPhail will work directly for Davis. Linfield plans to conduct a national search for a permanent provost in the spring. But for now, McPhail is optimistic about the institution and describes the environment as welcoming. His dream was always to become a college president, but after what happened at IU Northwest, he thought that dream had been shattered. Now, things seem to be looking up.
“I feel good about being here,” he says.