An Auburn University professor was awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages after being removed as chair of his department for speaking out about the school’s athletic programs’ involvement in academics. 

The jury awarded economics professor Michael Stern $645,837 last week, according to reports. 

The reward followed a two-week trial that found Auburn guilty of illegally punishing Stern for publicly criticizing the university for keeping the public administration major open at the behest of the school’s athletic department.

Stern’s conflict with the university began in 2008 when he went to a local news outlet about the university’s acceptance of money from the Charles Koch Foundation, which he suggested undermined the academic integrity of the economics department. 

According to Inside Higher Ed, Stern’s original lawsuit in 2018 stated that the university retaliated against Stern by moving the department of economics out of the College of Bussiness and into the College of Liberal Arts. Stern faced difficulties receiving tenure, but it was granted in 2010, and was later elected chair of the economics department.

In 2014, Stern took issue with the large concentration of football players in the economics department’s public administration major. 

Baltimore Ravens football player John Urschel commented on the issue in a blog post that year, which said out of the 88 students majoring in public administration at Auburn, 22 were upperclassmen football players.

Stern claimed that the chair of the political science department, which oversees the public administration major, told him that the department tried to get rid of the major but was kept from doing so by the school’s provost. 

Stern continued to challenge the program for the next four years and was removed as chair of economics in 2018. He filed a lawsuit that year, accusing the university of retaliating against him for speaking up about the major.

The university denied that their treatment of Stern was retaliation for his suggestion that student-athletes were being clustered in one major.

Nevertheless, the jury ruled that the university’s actions violated the First Amendment.

In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, Auburn said that it remains committed to supporting free speech rights of its employees and disagrees with the outcome of the trial.

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