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Saturday, July 24, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Corrected version

Denied tenure in '85, former UW professor fights on

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's a steep fall from the University of Washington's ivory tower to a wood-paneled basement in Wedgwood. Alfred Runte, former history professor, once lunched with the provost and the president emeritus at the UW Faculty Club. Now he lunches with Missy, his 15-year-old silver tabby.

He continues as an independent scholar in his basement, in a fortress of legal files.

It's been almost 20 years since the school denied him tenure. And he can't get over it.

He's filed two lawsuits, both dismissed, but he continues to appeal. He claims the university sabotaged his file when it came up for review. The case is pending in the state Court of Appeals.

His quixotic battle has little to do with tenure anymore. He's fighting for his reputation, which he says the university destroyed when it heaved him out.

The UW says Runte's scholarship wasn't up to snuff, and he needs to accept the judgment of his peers.

"Scholarship was the issue, period," said Steve Olswang, interim chancellor of UW Tacoma and former vice provost. "His scholarship did not pass the test of the dean, the College Council, of the provost, or of the chair as to meet the standard expected for the award of tenure."

Runte, 57, spent most of the past two decades apologizing for not getting tenure, which guarantees lifetime employment as a college professor. But now, he feels liberated. He believes the deck was stacked against him all along, that it was never about his scholarship. The department chair purposely tampered with his file during the review process, he says.

"I am by nature a scholar and a professor, and I'm a dynamic teacher and I love teaching," Runte says. "I will not let this go."

He's consulting with filmmaker Ken Burns for a series on the national parks and he is keynoting a Brazilian conference in October on protected areas, but his life as a university professor is over.

A rising star

When he arrived at the UW in 1980 as an assistant professor, Runte was a rising star in the field of environmental history.

He grew up in Binghamton, N.Y. His father died when he was 11, and his mom took him on a six-week camping trip across the country to visit the national parks. His fascination with the parks became a lifelong passion.

He went to State University of New York, Binghamton, for his bachelor's degree, to Illinois State University for his master's, and got his doctorate at University of California, Santa Barbara, where he worked with Roderick Nash, a renowned scholar in environmental history. He dreamed of contributing to the scholarship of history and mentoring young scholars.

When the UW offered him a job, Runte knew he wanted it, even though he already held a tenure-track post at Baylor University.

With its forestry department and regional environmental ethos, he saw the UW as an ideal setting to pursue his scholarship on Western environmental history.

At 32, he'd already published his first book, "National Parks: The American Experience," which explored the cultural and intellectual origins of the national-parks idea. Runte asserted that the parks were created only because oil and mining companies and settlers considered the land worthless. Nobody wanted the parcels, so the government turned them into parks.

"Look at Mount Rainier. It's a gorgeous thing. But what are you going to do with it?" he said. "The Northern Pacific Railroad was happy to exchange land for it."

Europe had its historic monuments — Notre Dame, the Colosseum, Westminster Abbey. Our national parks, Runte argued, became monuments the U.S. could market as national treasures to the rest of the world.

The book "kind of blew open scholarship regarding the national parks," said Steven Stoll, an associate professor of history at Yale University.

Runte's courses were immensely popular, according to student letters filed in court. A student-written college guide named him most popular UW professor.

But Runte didn't jibe with everyone. He was a blustery whippersnapper in a department that was conservative and traditional, as he describes it.

He felt some colleagues looked down on his UC-Santa Barbara pedigree; most of the professors had done graduate work at Berkeley, Stanford or Yale.

Confident of tenure

It never occurred to Runte that he wouldn't get tenure. It's the goal, and expectation, of most college professors.

Almost all universities have an apprenticeship process: Promising Ph.D.s who aspire to become professors take an assistant-professor job, publish research in respected academic journals, teach classes and advise graduate students. At the UW, the department votes whether to offer tenure after their fifth year.

Runte's book was being read and reviewed in other countries, he was publishing articles and students liked him. His colleagues decided to consider him for tenure two years early. The majority voted to offer tenure, and his file went to the College Council, but the department chair, Wilton Fowler, didn't support it.

Fowler and the council told Runte he needed to show more progress on a second book. Runte felt he already had published a very important book. He had started work on an expanded second edition, which he thought would count as a second book. No one told him otherwise, he said.

The same thing happened the next year. The majority of the department voted to offer Runte tenure, it went to the council, then Fowler said Runte needed more progress on a second book.

Runte finished his second edition seven months later, but when he came up for tenure his fifth year, he was rejected again. The majority of the department again voted to offer tenure, and again, Fowler told the College Council to deny it.

In a confidential letter to the council, Fowler said Runte's books and research articles were "amateurish," according to court documents. He also thought Runte had "unwarranted confidence in his own opinion."

Asked to comment for this story, Fowler said in an e-mail: "Al Runte is a wonderful human being, but in my opinion he was not the best fit for the position at the UW."

In 1985, however, Runte didn't know Fowler's opinion of him. The tenure process was secret. Candidates submitted publications, peer reviews and recommendation letters for their tenure files. But Runte never saw the file the College Council saw.

He was stunned by the rejection. It was the end of his academic career. He was only 38.

Colleagues and students wrote letters to protest the denial. Court documents show then-President William Gerberding wrote the provost that December: "It looks increasingly to me as if the College Council has made a mistake."

The council reconsidered Runte's application, and rejected him for the last time.

Runte went to Gerberding, who told him to accept the judgment of his peers. He applied for jobs at other universities, but received no offers.

"You're blackballed. Nobody will take a chance on you at that point, especially someone with my reputation," Runte said. "You can't go down. You're not going to take Ken Griffey Jr. in Little League."

The first lawsuit

Twelve years later, a tenure position in environmental history was posted at the UW. Runte applied, but the school hired a young woman who, he said, was less qualified than he. In 1999, Runte sued the school, claiming age and sex discrimination.

King County Superior Court dismissed his suit, but in the process of investigating the case, Runte finally gained access to his tenure file.

It was a total mess, he said. Publications were missing, papers were thrown together in no discernible order, letters of commendation were left out. The number of grad students he'd advised was wrong. He read that the College Council had asked Fowler why he had not included a research proposal that won Runte a grant.

Was this what the College Council saw when he was considered for tenure?

"It's absolutely devastating," said Jeffrey Duban, Runte's attorney. "The tenure-consideration process is highly secretive and confidential, and the chairman and administration's good faith ... is assumed."

In 2002, Runte sued claiming breach of contract and fraud.

The UW says the file has passed through many hands in two decades, and its current condition does not reflect the original file. Fowler wrote in his e-mail that Runte's allegations are "utterly false and cannot be sustained."

The lawsuit was dismissed before it went to trial — the judge ruled the statute of limitations had expired. Runte appealed, and the case is pending.

As he awaits a ruling, Runte continues the life of a scholar in his basement. It is now subsidized by his wife's job at the Museum of Flight. He hustles grants, writes books and brushes Missy when she yowls.

Asked why he continues his relentless pursuit, he said:

"If the suffragettes had let it go, we would not have the vote for women. You can't let it go. You've got to fight them and expose them."

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2958 or schan@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published July 24, was corrected July 26. A previous version of this story contained multiple errors. In a front page story on former University of Washington professor, Alfred Runte said, "The Northern Pacific Railroad was happy to exchange land for it." The article misquoted Runte saying "Georgia Pacific Railroad." Also, his book "National Parks: The American Experience" has been read and reviewed in other countries. The article incorrectly stated that it had been translated into other languages.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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