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CSUN Teacher Wins Age-Bias Suit vs. UCSB

October 31, 1995|LUCILLE RENWICK and ANTHONY OLIVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A U.S. District Court jury Monday found that UC Santa Barbara illegally rejected Cal State Northridge professor Rodolfo Acuna, a pioneer in Chicano studies, for a senior teaching position because he was too old.

Outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Los Angeles, a jubilant Acuna, 63, was looking to hug anyone in sight, including reporters. He settled, however, for his family and his attorney, Moises Vazquez.

"The jurors saw that this was a personal attack," Acuna said of his rejection by the university. "This whole case came down to a matter of respect.

"I can't say enough about how happy I am over this decision," Acuna said. "This was a very hard-fought battle."

U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins will decide next month whether to order the university to hire Acuna or pay him compensatory damages.

Acuna's attorney said the instructor would rather have the job. "Our biggest fear concerns whether the judge will decide against instating Dr. Acuna in the UC system," Vazquez said. "He's been denied this for four years. They should just instate him. That's all we wanted all along."

It took the eight-person jury seven hours to reach its unanimous verdict in the nearly three-week trial. After the verdict, Acuna joked with Vazquez and his family about taking some of the jurors out to dinner to celebrate.

Judith Keyes, a private attorney representing the University of California, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the jury's verdict.

"Dr. Acuna presented a very emotional case, and I had a feeling by the reaction of the jurors that they were likely to be persuaded by the emotions rather than the facts," Keyes said.

Keyes pointed out that six of the eight jurors were in their late 50s or early 60s. "That's a factor when you're talking about a case involving whether age was a motivating factor," she said.

The university is considering appealing the jury's decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, a university statement said.

"We do not believe any member of the UCSB faculty or staff engaged in age discrimination or in discrimination of any kind," said Donald Crawford, the school's executive vice chancellor. "Our hiring and promotion process guards against such discrimination."

Acuna, a widely known Chicano activist and popular CSUN instructor, charged that age played a key role in UC Santa Barbara's rejection of his application for a senior professor's post. Acuna was 59 when he sought the tenured position in 1990. He argued that his age was noted several times in review committees' reports recommending that he not be hired.

Acuna originally alleged racial and ethnic bias by the university as well as age discrimination. But the judge dismissed that part of the suit earlier this year, leaving only the issue of age to be considered by the jury.

During the trial, Acuna's performance during his 23-year career was questioned. Former UC Santa Barbara Chancellor Barbara S. Uehling testified that shortcomings in Acuna's research and his lack of experience training doctoral candidates, rather than his age, led her to decide not to hire him in the spring of 1991. At the time Acuna applied for the post, Uehling was the school's top administrator.

"Many people participated in the decision not to hire Dr. Acuna," Crawford said. "The final decision maker was Chancellor Uehling, who is the same age as Dr. Acuna."

Acuna, sometimes described as the "father of Chicano studies," founded CSUN's Chicano studies department, the nation's largest.

In 1972, he wrote "Occupied America," which is considered the most important of his 10 books and was credited with "opening the national debate on the Chicano experience," according to Ramon Eduardo Ruiz, a retired University of California historian who testified on Acuna's behalf. Ruiz also wrote Acuna a letter of recommendation after he applied to UC Santa Barbara.

If Acuna is denied a position in the UC system, he is entitled to receive about $325,000 in back and future pay, Vazquez said. The attorney added that if hired, Acuna would receive approximately $120,000 for the four years of work that he missed.

However, Keyes said that Acuna is not entitled to a position at the university. According to her, Acuna signed an agreement stating that if he won the case, he would accept the $325,000, waiving his right to the post. Keyes also said she believes that Acuna's attitude should bar him from a position at the university.

For now, however, Acuna is reveling in his victory, which he said is just the beginning of his fight to have Chicano studies taught on all UC campuses.

"We feel very proud" as Chicanos, Acuna said. "Chicano studies should be on all UC campuses. People should not have to starve" for a program. "We have to stick together and we will move mountains."

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