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updated: 11/14/2013 7:57 PM

U of I fires longtime engineering professor

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  • University of Illinois engineering Professor Lou Wozniak stands outside the office of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering in Urbana. $START_URL$The University of Illinois Board of Trustees;$STOP_URL$ dismissed Wozniak Thursday.

    University of Illinois engineering Professor Lou Wozniak stands outside the office of Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering in Urbana. $START_URL$The University of Illinois Board of Trustees;$STOP_URL$ dismissed Wozniak Thursday.
    Associated Press/September 2013

Associated Press

SPRINGFIELD -- The University of Illinois board dismissed a professor Thursday who had a half-century relationship with the state's flagship Urbana-Champaign school, an action officials characterized as unprecedented.

The board voted unanimously after an administration report indicated that engineering professor Louis Wozniak's misconduct "badly damaged the university's paramount mission of trust and support for its students."

The 75-year-old Wozniak, widely popular among many of the students he referred to as "adorable GKs" -- for grandkids -- lost tenure and was fired from his $85,500-a-year job after the administration charged him with eight offenses, most stemming from a dispute over a $500 teaching award. He has been suspended with pay since fall 2010.

"I'm disappointed, but I'm more than delighted and honored to have worked with such bright students and formed lifelong relationships," Wozniak said Thursday after the trustees' tally.

He said he hopes his "falling on the sword in the field will awaken the faculty" to forming a union to oppose what he has maintained all along is an "authoritarian" administration.

The vote, taken at the board's meeting in Springfield, overturned a report by the faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which didn't find any of Wozniak's offenses cause for dismissal.

But administrators and trustees focused on conditions that the committee's report set -- essentially, that Wozniak move on from personal disappointment about the award and focus on students. If Wozniak disregarded them, the committee said, he should be fired. But the professor dismissed the conditions as an attempt to muzzle his right to free speech.

The charges facing Wozniak, who graduated with a bachelor's degree from the school in 1961 and joined its faculty a year before earning his 1967 Ph.D., included disseminating confidential information about students.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette has reported that another University of Illinois professor was fired by the school's president -- a move supported by the trustees -- for writing a newspaper letter in the 1960s defending premarital sex. But university spokesman Thomas Hardy said school officials were unaware of any other cases in which an attempt by the university to fire a faculty member had reached the board.

Wozniak's problems began over a dispute with students about a $500 teaching award, bestowed by engineering honor societies, that he was denied in 2009, despite receiving the most votes from graduating seniors. He investigated, "interrogating the student president of the honor society to the point of tears" and filing a lawsuit against two students, which was later dismissed, the administration report said.

He later publicized the private conversation with the student, although he says he never identified her. But she was named in the lawsuit, which included a grade he had given the student. Publishing the grade formed the basis of another charge against Wozniak.

Administrators contended they found more than 100 instances where Wozniak continued disseminating information about his interactions with the students.

"As a reaction to not receiving a minor teaching award, Professor Wozniak engaged in repeated misconduct which badly damaged the university's paramount mission of trust and support for its students," the administration report said.

Wozniak argued that administrators hostile to him had denied him the award -- the students consulted with an engineering department staff person -- and said it was a matter of sticking up for what's right.

"The next time around, you will have a grant from NSF (National Science Foundation), and you will be principle investigator that had the idea, but what's going to happen is, the department head will assign it to someone else," Wozniak said earlier this week.

University President Robert Easter defended what he described as a deliberative process that followed school regulations and allowed Wozniak a full defense while also considering various groups' opinions.

"Keep in mind that many, many different groups looked at this issue along the way," Easter said.

The administration did not focus on one of Wozniak's transgressions that initially got him suspended. In May 2010, he sent a congratulatory email to graduating seniors and told them in the future to always introduce themselves upfront because, "I only remember the names of the GKs I've had sex with."

He apologized in a follow-up email the next day and responded to inquiring superiors -- "with considerable sarcasm," according to the faculty committee's investigation -- that he had never had sex with any students.

That probably wasn't his finest hour, said former student Tim Seiwart, a 2004 graduate who is now a civil engineer with a Chicago-area construction company. And Seiwart called it "weird" that Wozniak would persist in his quest for the 2009 award.

But Seiwart said it fits with Wozniak's lessons to students to always challenge the norm -- an approach Seiwart said is beneficial in engineering as well as other parts of life.

"If you don't push the boundaries a little bit, you're never going to get innovation," Seiwart said. "His problems are with the administration, but his approach pushed students above and beyond, and that's what leads to technical innovation. That's what we are all paying to go to school for."

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