Patty Limerick, an iconic professor, author and scholar whose Center of the American West at the University of Colorado has helped shape and guide Colorado’s cultural identity for nearly 37 years, has been fired from the center she founded.
An email sent to supporters of the center Wednesday announced that the center’s annual “Fandango” fundraising event set for Oct. 7 was canceled because Limerick had been “unexpectedly removed” from her role as faculty director and board chair for the Center of the American West.
“The Fandango is a celebration of the center and its work,” read the announcement. “There is little to celebrate at the moment.”
The announcement urged the center’s supporters — a heavyweight list of donors and Colorado luminaries — to contact the new dean of CU’s College of Arts and Sciences, Glen Krutz, with any thoughts or concerns about the center’s leadership.
Krutz directed inquiries to the school’s media team. A spokesman said the university does not discuss personnel issues.
“At this point I can only say this: My removal from the position of faculty director of the Center of the American West was very unexpected,” Limerick said in a text message. “I am considering my options.”
Friends said she was fired from her work at the center Sept. 23. She remains a full-tenured professor at CU.
Two sources who have spoken with Limerick said a staffer she had hired at the center had logged complaints against her and those complaints were investigated and dismissed by the university. Friends said Limerick was shocked by the firing.
“I would say this is a great failure of leadership at the highest level,” said Bill Reynolds, who was hosting the Fandango gala at his home and has served on the center’s board. “The biggest losers here are the students. Everyone who knew Patty benefited from her knowledge. I think the system is not working and the leadership has failed the students and failed the university’s supporters.”
Two years after Limerick joined the faculty at CU Boulder in 1984, she co-founded the Center of the American West, creating a forum to better explore often volatile public issues. The center, with its books, films and lecture series, has helped form and solidify the cultural identity of the West.
“She has the ability to bring people together, including people who disagree with each other, and I think that is what really sets the center apart from other entities,” said Aaron Harber, a longtime Colorado political talk show host and supporter of the center who also serves as a commissioner for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Harber said he was “absolutely shocked” to hear of Limerick’s removal from the center. He made sure to say he had no insight into the reason for her firing, but he hopes more information comes out quickly before readers or outsiders mistakenly assign some sort of failure to Limerick.
“I just can’t imagine Patty having done anything wrong that cannot be rectified,” Harber said. “If she did make some kind of serious mistake, I can’t imagine there was not a path to address it in a satisfactory manner.”
Friend, colleague and fellow former state historian William Wei, a former member of the center’s board of directors, said he considers Limerick “the main reason for the success of the Center of the American West.”
“I cannot imagine the CAW without her,” he said.
Colorado author Jenny Shank recalled first getting to know Limerick when she won one of the center’s Thompson Writing Awards for a piece she wrote as a graduate student at CU. When her most recent book, “Mixed Company,” came out, Limerick invited Shank to speak on a panel celebrating the anniversary of the Thompson awards.
“She’s an original. There’s no one like her,” Shank said. “It was her vision that Western history should be re-envisioned from all kinds of different angles and that everyone whose life is involved in the West has a say in what the story is. She was always trying to find common ground between groups of people that you would think would have nothing in common.
“I don’t know if you can find someone who is that welcoming to people all over the political spectrum, of every walk of life, of every profession,” Shank said. “It would be really hard to replace someone like that.”
In 1995, at age 44, Limerick won the five-year MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius Grant.”
The award noted how Limerick “expands our view of the American West by including the stories of women’s history, ethnic histories and environmental history.” In 2001, she won CU’s Hazel Barnes Prize, the highest recognition the university delivers for teaching and research.
In 1988, at her own request, she was named CU’s “University Fool.” She held similar gigs at Harvard and Yale. She spent 40 years serving as the school’s credentialed, festooned fool, galavanting around campus spreading silliness and folly. Humor, she said, is a valuable tool in easing social anxiety and maybe releasing some of the pressures of higher education.
In 2015, President Barack Obama appointed her to the National Council on the Humanities, a 26-scholar panel that reviews grant applications and makes recommendations for the National Endowment for the Humanities. A year later, Gov. John Hickenlooper named Limerick Colorado State Historian as part of a new collaboration between her university and History Colorado.
She served as state historian until August 2018 and now serves as member of Gov. Jared Polis’ Colorado Geographic Naming Advisory Group, where she has helped shepherd Native American identities and values in discussions over the removal of offensive names from geographic features.
The email to Fandango attendees described how Limerick “brought credibility and honor to the university” through her leadership of the center.
“Along the way, she inspired and touched the lives of scholars, students, policy makers, opinion makers, political leaders, public servants, public foundations, donors and all with whom she came in contact through her unique blend of wit, intellect, decency, curiosity, patience, and willingness to listen and engage,” reads the note signed by Chris Whitney, the vice-chair of the center’s board. “She built the center into a nationally respected resource for exploring the history, culture, politics and traditions of the American West and their implications for the present and the future.”
Colorado Sun staff writer Kevin Simpson contributed to this report.