Baylor University professor of Jewish studies Marc Ellis confirmed through an attorney Monday that university administrators are seeking to have him fired.
Ellis is controversial in Jewish circles for his views on Israel, and for his call for what he terms “revolutionary forgiveness,” a position that asserts both Israelis and Palestinians should atone for wrongdoings.
Without mentioning details of the university’s charges against him, Ellis called them “a pretext to silence an independent voice,” during a Nov. 21 speech at an American Academy of Religion conference event where he was honored. The transcript of that speech was obtained by the Tribune-Herald in an email Monday.
In his speech, Ellis said the charges brought against him are “for alleged offenses, reportedly routine at Baylor, but which are selectively enforced.”
He did not say what offense he was referring to, and neither his lawyer nor Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman discussed the details Monday.
But she responded to several points Ellis made in his speech, including that Baylor President Ken Starr was personally involved in Ellis’ dismissal process.
Ellis praised in his speech the protection he had received from past Baylor presidents “against a tide of criticism,” and said he’d been informed in July “that President Starr had approved charges against me.”
Fogleman said Starr did not approve or file the charges against the professor.
“Other than being apprised of these developments, President Starr has had nothing to do with the development of charges against Dr. Ellis,” she said.
Fogleman also said Ellis was not facing dismissal because of opposition to his opinions.
The school “categorically denies Dr. Ellis’ assertion that the expression of his academic freedom has played any role whatsoever in the charges in this case,” she said.
Fogleman repeated that Baylor is restricted by privacy rules in what it can say, “but if Dr. Ellis should choose, himself, to release the charges publicly, or provide written consent for Baylor to do so, we’d be happy to respond.”
Reached by phone Monday, Ellis deferred comment to his lawyer, Roger Sanders, a Baylor and Baylor Law School alum, with the Sherman firm Sanders, O’Hanlon & Motley.
Sanders declined to discuss details of the charges against his client, but he questioned Baylor’s timing.
Sanders said he was informed of Baylor’s investigation of Ellis in late June, but the university faxed what is called a “notice and charge of dismissal” on Nov. 18 — after the academic conference at which Ellis was being honored had started.
A panel at the conference focusing on Ellis’ work was scheduled for Nov. 21.
“I was puzzled as to why it was that Baylor — (where officials had been) considering these charges for months — waited until after he was to be honored at the American Academy of Religion with some 12,000 to 15,000 members,” Sanders said.
“One could wonder whether they were attempting to embarrass him,” Sanders said of Ellis, “since he was being honored as a Baylor professor and the administration seemed intent on seeking his dismissal as a Baylor professor.”
Fogleman said the timing was coincidental.
“The timing had everything to do with our process and nothing to do with (Ellis’) schedule,” she said.
Since the investigation began, Ellis has been stripped of certain authorities and duties as a professor and at the school’s Center for Jewish Studies, of which he is the director, he said in his speech.
“In mid-July, my fall classes were unilaterally canceled,” he said, and he said an effort to bring Cornel West, an outspoken academic, to campus as a speaker was stymied.
West has led Princeton University’s African-American studies department for a decade, and he’s also frequently a liberal commentator on a number of political talk shows.
West was a panelist at the November conference event honoring Ellis, and West said Monday he is helping to lead a committee in support of Ellis.
“I’m blessed to serve not just as a supporter and chairman but as a strong defender of his courage, of his integrity and of his intellectual leadership,” West said.
The committee’s co-chairwoman is Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist theologian at the Pacific School of Religion.
She said the group is circulating an online petition in support of Ellis.
Ruether was dismissive of the charges against the Baylor professor, saying they were filed because of his views on Israel.
“Ellis was considered too controversial in regards to his position as far as the state of Israel,” she said.
“I think Dr. Ellis is willing to take a severance, given that the situation is not friendly to him anymore,” she said, noting the professor is nearing retirement age.
But she said she understands that Baylor hasn’t been willing to negotiate.
“It’s mysterious to me why they don’t work that out, rather than risk notoriety,” she said.
The university’s dismissal policy for tenured faculty members gives Ellis until Dec. 8 to respond to the charge.