Iowa State professor agrees to settlement in free speech lawsuit

Daniel Attingers faculty photo at Iowa State.

Courtesy of Iowa State

Daniel Attinger’s faculty photo at Iowa State.

Devyn Leeson

A mechanical engineering professor has settled a lawsuit with Iowa State that will stop him from teaching immediately and end his research position in three years.

Daniel Attinger, a tenured associate professor of mechanical engineering, claimed in a lawsuit that Iowa State violated his constitutional right to free speech after the university took actions against him.

On Dec. 1, 2016, Caroline Hayes, professor and chair of the mechanical engineering department, filed a “Chapter 7 Complaint” and asked Senior Vice President and Provost Jonathan Wickert to investigate Attinger.

“I ask that Dr. Attinger’s conduct be investigated on suspicion that he has violated several sections of the Faculty Handbook and at least one University policy,” Hayes wrote in an email sent to Wickert.

According to the lawsuit, “Dr. Hayes indicated her complaint was prompted by two emails from Dr. Attinger’s students to the Director of Graduate Education, Dr. Abhijit Chandra, on which Dr. Hayes was carbon-copied.”

“The environment my professor creates in the lab is also not healthy,” one student wrote. “I am sorry to say but before every meeting I feel afraid of him. I do not feel motivated or comfortable to talk to him about research problems because he usually reacts severely and starts yelling even in the group meetings. In the last one to one meeting he literally broke a package in front of me because he did not like it.”

The student continued to say they were afraid of the consequences of leaving Attinger’s research.

“I am also afraid as soon as my professor knows I am trying to leave his group how he is going to react,” read the email. “I am really worried that he might defame my reputation which might cost me hard time to find another major professor. My POS committee has been set up. I do not know if he will create any problems with that.”

A Faculty Review Board investigation following the complaints found “no credible evidence” Attinger violated Faculty Handbook anti-violence policies, but it did find “sufficient evidence” he violated sections related to harassment and recommended sanctions.

A statement from Wickert alleged Attinger violated two sections of the Faculty Handbook, the first of which was in relation to the Faculty Handbook harassment policies.

“Dr. Attinger failed to abide by the Faculty Handbook,” reads a statement from Wickert found in court documents. “Dr. Attinger engaged in a pattern of verbal conduct directed against graduate students and [postdoctoral researchers]  in his laboratory that can be reasonably regarded as abusive, intimidating, or humiliating, and that substantially impaired the academic or work environment.”

According to the statement, Attinger also violated the “Severity of Violations” section of the handbook.

“Dr. Attinger engaged in a pattern of harassing behavior over a period of at least three years,” the statement said. “He repeatedly engaged in acts of a similar nature even after being notified that his Department Chair believed that his conduct constituted harassing behavior.”

According to the lawsuit, Attinger said he denies he harassed anyone and says he was voted “professor of the year” in 2014 by his students.

In the lawsuit, Attinger claims the sanctions and formal complaint imposed by Iowa State violated his constitutional rights of free speech and that Iowa State violated their own handbook by limiting his academic freedom.

Attinger argued in the lawsuit that Wickert’s complaint should have allowed for due process wherein he would have an opportunity to defend himself. Wickert imposed the actions one week after the formal complaint occurred, “before providing Dr. Attinger with an opportunity to be heard,” Attinger alleged in his lawsuit.

Attinger came to a settlement and the case was terminated on July 25. The settlement will have him leave the university in 2021. Until then, he’ll continue to work for the university in an exclusively research based position and receive his full pay. Records show he earned $132,028 in the 2018 fiscal year.

“My office door is open to students,” Attinger told the Daily in an email. “I am still a member of ISU for the next three years, and happy to contribute within the limits of the settlement, using the best of my skills and work.”

The date of his removal from Iowa State will coincide with the end date of his federally funded research, which amounts to around $2 million.

He leads two research projects through awards from the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice. Attinger coleads another research project through a research center at Iowa State called CSAFE, which is funded by the National Institute of Standards.

Editor’s note: This article previously said Attinger leads a research project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and Justice. Attinger actually leads two projects through separate awards from the Department of Defense and the Department of Justice. Additionally, the $2 million dollar estimate for his research projects was originally reported by Vanessa Miller of the Gazette and has since been verified by Attinger through a recent Curriculum Vitae describing his projects. The Daily regrets these errors.