Ithaca, N.Y. – A judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by an associate psychology professor at Ithaca College earlier this month, according to Tompkins County Court documents.

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Elizabeth Caldwell sued IC after she was told in May 2014 that her faculty appointment would not be renewed for 2014-2015, and that she was not tenure-eligible, documents show.

Caldwell claimed that a contract she signed made IC’s decision to tell her that she was not eligible for tenure “an impermissible attempt to unilaterally modify or alter the contract,” according to an order from Judge Phillip Rumsey.

Ithaca College responded that it was both contractually allowed to say Caldwell wasn’t tenure-eligible and that it had grounds for doing so, citing concerns over treatment of animals in her laboratory.

The judge sided with the college. He wrote that Caldwell’s position would effectively have rendered the contract “meaningless.”

Judge Rumsey explains in his ruling that the lawsuit hinges on Section 4.15.4 of the Faculty Handbook.

“When (IC) provided (Caldwell) with notice of non-renewal on May 21, 2014, it was exercising a right expressly given to it by the contract at issue — it was not attempting to modify or alter the contract,” Rumsey said.

Lawsuit filed

Caldwell first sued IC in the fall of 2014. In her petition, she says that it’s unfair for the college to bind her to not seek outside employment but itself not be bound to keep her tenure-eligible.

“The college considers acceptance of an offer of reappointment to place binding obligations upon the faculty member, and it should be just as clear that acceptance of the College’s offer places binding obligations upon the College as well,” Caldwell’s lawsuit says.

According to Caldwell, Section 4.15.4 means that “a notice of non-renewal cannot be given with regard to an appointment that has already been offered and accepted.”

“Petitioner relied to her detriment on the College’s representation that she was being offered a tenure-eligible appointment for academic year 2014-2015,” the lawsuit states.

“Because (Caldwell) accepted reappointment to a tenure-eligible position for academic year 2014-2015, it was improper for (IC) to subsequently and unilaterally give notice of non-renewal and attempt to ‘revise’ that appointment to indicate that it is a terminal appointment.”

Her claims may be gaining greater resonance amid a recently announced push for unionization among the school’s adjuncts.

College’s response

But IC says it has grounds for not offering tenure-eligibility to Caldwell.

In May 2014, IC Dean Leslie Lewis of the School of Humanities and Sciences sent a letter to Caldwell saying she would not be eligible for tenure.

Among the reasons cited by the dean were findings from the Institutional Animal Care Use Committee that Caldwell demonstrated “a significant lack of good judgement … both regarding animal well-being and student well-being,” according to court records.

Court records don’t appear to explain what prompted the concerns over animal research. A letter from the IACUC that is included in court documents details some of the worries.

“I am concerned about whether necessary and proper procedures to ensure the humane care and use of animals in your laboratory are in place, as well as whether students are receiving adequate training and supervision,” said Wade Pickren, chair of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

A portion of the letter sent from the IACUC to the IC professor.

Pickren found after a review that a set of guidelines needed to be “implemented immediately.”

“No more surgery by the investigator or students until techniques are observed by an expert,” the chair of the animal care committee says.

“Invasive surgeries should not routinely be performed by students. Only exceptional students should be allowed to train…”

“The calming technique (swinging the rat) described by the surgical procedures should not be used.”

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.