A U.S. District Court jury found Monday that UC Santa Barbara had illegally rejected Cal State Northridge professor Rodolfo Acuna, a pioneer in Chicano studies, for a senior teaching position at the university 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 attorney, Moises Vazquez.
"The jurors saw that this was a personal attack," Acuna said of his rejection by UC Santa Barbara. "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 in the 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 UC, 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. UC is considering appealing the decision.
Acuna, a widely known Chicano activist and popular instructor at Cal State Northridge, charged that age played a key factor 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 had alleged racial and ethnic bias by UC as well as age discrimination. But the judge dismissed all but 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 it was shortcomings in Acuna's research and his lack of experience training doctoral candidates, rather than his age, that led her to the decision not to hire him. At the time Acuna applied for the post, Uehling was the campus's top administrator and made the final decision.
Acuna, sometimes described as the "father of Chicano studies," founded CSUN's Chicano Studies Department, which is now 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 UC historian who testified on Acuna's behalf. Ruiz also wrote Acuna a letter of recommendation after Acuna 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 also said that if hired, Acuna would receive a total of about $120,000 for the past four years.
However, Keyes said that Acuna is not entitled to a position at the university. According to Keyes, 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 mentioned that Acuna's attitude should bar him from a position at the university.
"Because of the hostility Dr. Acuna demonstrated to the university and many of its faculty, under the law it wouldn't be appropriate for the university to instate him," she said.
For now, however, Acuna is reveling in his victory, which he said was just the beginning of his fight for Chicano studies on all UC campuses.