Early on a Monday morning just before Thanksgiving break last year, somebody stepped onto the campus of the Community College of Aurora with a stack of neon-green leaflets and began plastering them on building walls. The anonymous author of the fliers, which also were inserted into faculty mailboxes, seemed intent on trashing the academic credentials of a math instructor named Kathleen Mills.
"The truth about 'Professor' Kathleen Mills," the handbill promised, and continued:
* "'Professor' Mills is not degreed in mathematics.
* "'Professor' Mills does not and never has met the published standards for teaching mathematics, anthropology, or any other subject at this college...Even after the administration lowered the standards for mathematics teachers this fall semester, 'Professor' Mills does not meet the published minimum standards for teaching at this college."
"I was livid, to say the least," recalls Mills, who, despite the accusations, had taught at the college for the past decade.
She also had suspects. For the past year, Mills had been involved in a bitter, memo-fed skirmish over scholarly credentials with a colleague at the community college named George Bruner. Bruner has denied any involvement with the fliers. But Mills claims she's got the goods on him--on videotape.
Academic credentials are a crucial component of university life, the nucleus of a caste system that is based on where and for how long a person has studied. This can be especially true at community colleges, where teachers with less clear-cut credentials occasionally get defensive about their backgrounds. Indeed, Bruner's and Mills's resumes provided both teachers with plenty of ammunition to lob at each other.
Although Bruner was chairman of CCA's anthropology department up until last spring, he holds a master's degree in business and an undergraduate degree in psychology. Before arriving at CCA, he spent fifteen years as an administrator for the Colorado Community College and Occupational Education System, a state agency. Mills, who has a master's degree in anthropology and a bachelor's degree in geology, teaches mathematics.
Fanning the feud's flame was the fact that the two teachers also represented opposite sides of a larger issue on community-college campuses across the country. Bruner is a full-time instructor, with tenure and benefits. Mills is a full-time part-timer--an instructor who also maintains a full course load, but only by working at several local colleges without the benefit of tenure or equal benefits. It is an academic category being used increasingly by community colleges looking to save money.
The dispute in sheepskin's clothing has caused headaches for both teachers. After earning her master's degree in anthropology in 1991, Mills was hired as a lead instructor in CCA's anthropology department. But, she says, despite her superior credentials, two years later she was bumped from the department to make room for Bruner, who had transferred to CCA from his job with the state's higher-education bureaucracy in 1989 and who had begun teaching some anthropology courses in 1992. Mills has been teaching math courses ever since.
Bruner says that although he holds no degree in anthropology, he has extensive field experience, including independent study programs in Mexico and Southeast Asia, and adds that he underwent an "onerous" peer review process in order to qualify to teach the subject at CCA.
He seems to have lost his patience with Mills, who pointed out Bruner's degree discrepancy several times and began doing it in increasingly public forums ("Teacher's Fret," August 29, 1996). He has complained to administrators and has filed several grievance letters against Mills and distributed them on CCA's campus.
But that only established a motive for last fall's attack flier against Mills, and Bruner denied responsibility for the latest salvo in the credentials war. Whoever disseminated the handbill seemed destined to remain anonymous.
That is, until Mills learned that the college had security cameras that ran 24 hours a day, constantly filming goings-on at the school's campus. "This girl I know who is married to a campus site monitor reminded me of the cameras," says Mills. "She told me, 'You know, we probably have pictures of whoever did this.'"
The information was of particular interest to Mills, who had begun airing her concerns about Bruner last summer, just before the spring 1997 teaching schedule was to be posted. Coincidentally, when the roster of classes came out, Mills's name wasn't on it for the first time since 1987. Mills complained that she was being retaliated against for her public complaints about Bruner. Some of her colleagues agreed.
"Let's be honest here," Chuck Smith, co-chair of the math department at Red Rocks Community College, where Mills also teaches, wrote in a memo last December. "Kathy Mills is not really under fire because of her credentials in either math or anthropology. She is being attacked because she stepped on the wrong toes politically."
CCA's administrators apparently reconsidered their schedule, and Mills was later given several teaching assignments at the college. But she says the classes were ones that traditionally attracted low enrollment, and they were canceled before the semester began.
So three months ago she filed a lawsuit against the Community College of Aurora, charging that she had been terminated simply for exercising her First Amendment right of free speech. Mills's suit claims that she is losing about $30,000 of income annually, as well as suffering "continuing mental anguish and damage to her reputation."
In the same lawsuit, Mills also charges that Bruner libeled her when he "prepared, published, and distributed throughout the school as well as the faculty mailbox system a knowingly false and defamatory flier... [which] falsely states that Mills is not educated or trained in anthropology." In an interview with Westword, Bruner declines to comment on the lawsuit. But in documents filed in response to Mills's charges, he denies responsibility for the negative flier.
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That's not what the school's security tapes suggest, replies Mills's attorney, Thomas Kimmell. "The fliers were placed up on a Friday, Monday and Tuesday," he says. "The tapes for two of those days are gone. But we have the tapes for Monday."
The news could be bad for Bruner. "They show George Bruner at 6:30 in the morning walking around the area with something in his hands," says Kimmell, who has seen the tapes. "It looks a lot like a big pile of leaflets. We believe he reacted in retaliation to her" questioning his credentials.
Kimmell has demanded that the college turn over the original security tapes so that he can blow it up for more detail. In the meantime, the instructors' spat over each other's diplomas is being funded in part by taxpayers. Because Bruner is a full-time instructor at CCA, his legal defense is being handled by the state attorney general's office.
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