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Patricia Nelson Limerick, former faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she is also a professor of History. (Casey Cass, University of Colorado)
Patricia Nelson Limerick, former faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she is also a professor of History. (Casey Cass, University of Colorado)

An investigation by the University of Colorado at Boulder this year could not find evidence to support claims that professor Patty Limerick was guilty of fiscal misconduct but concluded the recently fired director of the school’s Center of the American West violated ethical rules addressing “prudence and integrity in the management of university resources.”

The report by the school’s internal auditors — obtained by The Colorado Sun following a public records request — was delivered to university leaders last week and stemmed from an April complaint by a center staffer concerning Limerick’s treatment of employees at the center she has directed since co-founding it nearly 37 years ago. 

After interviewing nine current and former CU Boulder and center employees, the auditors concluded “Limerick’s relationship with her staff is fractured,” and recommended campus leadership create “a consistent line of supervision” for the renowned historian. The auditors also said Limerick should have additional training “to assist her with recognizing and respecting her staff’s boundaries.”

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Glen Krutz, the school’s new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, fired Limerick on Sept. 23, one week before the report was delivered to 12 of the school’s top officials, including Chancellor Phil DiStefano and Bud Coleman, who is associate dean of faculty affairs and also serves on the faculty advisory council at the Center of the American West.

It is unknown how much of a role the report played in the decision to fire Limerick. School officials said they do not discuss personnel matters. A statement from the school’s spokesman said that while it was “a difficult decision” to remove Limerick, “it was an appropriate decision to have a change now and begin a new era.”

Limerick, in a conversation with The Colorado Sun, said she cannot say whether that report played a role in her firing. Administrators never sent her the report. She got it from The Sun. 

“It’s completely mysterious to me. It was clandestine. I know nothing about what led to this decision. It’s a very hidden process,” she said. “I’ve never seen such an un-transparent process, I’ve only read about something like this.”

She said her removal from the center has been “totally mystifying.” 

“Why take a successful program that had developed a level of trust between the university and a public that was often skeptical of the university and knock it off the rails?” she said. “I have no idea why anyone would want to spend so much time and effort on derailing a successful organization.”

Audit interviewed employees past and present

The report details a series of seemingly minor infractions by Limerick dating back to 2005, including details of center employees spending as little as 15 minutes on personal tasks for Limerick.

Bernadette Stewart, the assistant dean of administration for the College of Arts and Sciences, told investigators that staff at the Center of the American West “feels that Limerick is hostile, intimidating and unethical.” Stewart told auditors that an unspecified employee turnover at the center since last summer was “due to Limerick’s abusive treatment.”

Roni Ires, the center’s part-time academic programs coordinator, emailed university officials in April with complaints that Limerick involved staff in planning a May meeting for the center’s  board that included a celebration of her birthday. (Limerick said it “clear to everyone” that the board meeting and celebration after were two different events.)

Ires accused Limerick of fiscal misconduct for using staff for personal matters. 

Ires, for example, said Limerick “during tax time” asked her to help investigate her pay in the school’s payroll system, which comes from three different roles at the university. When Limerick was notified she was a victim of Social Security fraud, Ires told investigators she spent 20 minutes researching and another hour helping Limerick file an online report with the Social Security Administration.

After her interview with internal auditors, Ires sent them an email, telling the investigators: “I never really thought of any of this in terms of misuse of funds … more in terms of poor personal boundaries and insensitivity to the power dynamic of boss/employee. She always seemed oblivious to that power dynamic issue.” 

In 2005, Ires helped Limerick plan her late husband’s memorial service. In 2007, when Limerick married her second husband, center employees helped her plan the event. Limerick had the employees track their time and she made a private donation to the center to compensate for their work. 

Limerick asked Leslie Yakubowski, a temporary administrative assistant at the center, to look up a charge on her personal credit card she felt was fraudulent and to pick up ice for Limerick’s birthday party. Yakubowski spent 35 minutes on the tasks. 

“According to Yakubowski, Limerick does not understand the difference between the staff working for the center and doing work for her,” the report reads. 

Internal auditors also checked if Limerick played any role in a recent decision by a donor to shift $600,000 from the center’s foundation to other university endowments. Limerick denied influencing the donor, telling investigators “she would never object to a donor’s desire as to where they wanted to donate their money.” The report concluded there was no wrongdoing. 

Auditors appeared to ask every employee if Limerick ever asked them to perform personal tasks during working hours. Valerie Albricker, an administrative assistant at the center, told investigators she had never done any personal work for Limerick but noted that the personal life of the historian who co-founded the center in 1986 is intertwined with the center “so distinguishing what is considered work and private for Limerick can often be challenging. It is not black and white.”

Limerick “continued to put staff in uncomfortable positions”

Kurt Gutjahr, the former managing director for the center, said he often served as a buffer between staff and Limerick. He said Limerick said she did not want to do anything that violated school policy but “she continued to put staff in uncomfortable positions.”

As the face of the center, Limerick spent a lot of time attending gatherings to help the center raise funds from donors. 

“Limerick’s job was to develop personal and professional relationships that would benefit the center,” reads the report. “Because of these relationships, her staff would often be confused if they were doing work for the center or personal work for Limerick.”

Staff helping Limerick plan her speaking engagements and travel to various events “caused uncertainty and angst,” Gutjahr told the auditors. Limerick “was cautious with finances and was careful not to commit fraud or budgetary misconduct,” he told the auditors. 

In late August, the investigators interviewed Limerick, who described herself as “the public face of the center and a source of expertise.” She has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the center and told investigators that being a good steward for the center “is always on her mind.”

She has secured grants from the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the National Science Foundation for the center.

Limerick told investigators she believes she has a good relationship with center staff and denied using staff for personal business. When her husband Jeff died in 2005, she said staff wanted to show their support and helped take on arrangements. After the memorial, she realized staff should not have been involved in planning the event and consulted with the Chancellor’s Office and ultimately had staff inventory their time spent on funeral plans and she wrote a check to reimburse the center for the staff hours. 

Ultimately the auditors concluded university oversight of Limerick “is problematic,” due to her reporting to several deans and associate deans at the school. The auditors concluded the lack of constant leadership from the university played a role in problems at the center. 

The report did not suggest that Limerick lose her job over the alleged ethical violations in her management of center staff.

Succession planning for center leadership had begun

Limerick said she enjoyed her conversation with the university’s auditors. They were former police officers. They listened and paid attention to her answers. 

“They were evidence-oriented people,” she said. “I thought these people know a lot about university and the operations. I would like to chat with them again and I could learn a lot from them.”

Limerick called herself “a maverick and a very poor conformist.” 

“I have had an incredible run at the Center of the American West and it’s astounding how much support I got, but I always had a twinge that at some point my luck would run out,” she said. “At some point I suspected that the academic structure of power would no longer be behind me.”

Earlier this year Limerick worked with university officials to develop a plan to transition to a new facility director. The school proposed to begin searching for a replacement this fall. Limerick wanted to start the search in the fall of 2023. 

While the date was a point of contention, the transition would include Limerick spending a year with the new faculty director, traveling around the West meeting with donors and supporters of the center, she said, “so the newcomer would not be pushed off the edge of the pool with strangers who were not sure they could trust him or her.” 

She worries that Kurtz has damaged “a process that was moving toward a graceful, productive transition.”

“Never ask a historian to predict the future”

“I don’t know if there is anything left of that,” she said. “Never ask a historian to predict the future.”

Cultural problems on the Boulder campus reach far beyond the Center of the American West at CU Boulder. A late-2021 survey of more than 18,000 CU staff, faculty and students found nearly half report “experiencing incivility” while at the university. The survey showed 72% of staff saying their department culture is respectful but only 55% feel their work is valued by CU. Only 51% of staff said they are treated with respect by faculty. 

Chris Whitney, the vice chairman of the board that governs the center and a member of the board’s executive committee that resigned last week to protest Limerick’s firing, called the report “a nonevent and insulting.” He does not believe it is the reason Limerick was fired.

Limerick informed the committee that an audit was underway in August, Whitney said. 

“She didn’t understand what that was about and said she would keep us posted,” said Whitney, who, like Limerick, first saw the report when it was provided by The Colorado Sun. “It turns out there was no impropriety. Of course they found room for improvement. The auditors would not be doing their job if they didn’t have suggestions like that. But even the complainants said Patty would go out of her way to reach into her own pocket to pay for things that anyone might conclude was more personal than professional. I think this is one more inexplicable effort to sully her that I don’t understand. No one does.”

Limerick said she’s been humbled by the outpouring of support in recent days. She didn’t need it. She said she has always felt appreciated. 

“But Lordy, good heavens,” she said. 

Limerick has lived the past 40 years working toward solutions for complex issues facing the West. Nothing is simple out here, she said. 

“I think I have a far better understanding of dealing with the challenges in the American West than I do at addressing the decision-making process inside higher education and a university. That is weird,” she said. “I am completely befuddled and bewildered at how decisions are being made in the system of higher education.”

Patty Limerick gives her talk “Fool’s Enterprise: A Personal History” about her years of playing the fool on April Fools’ Day at the University of Colorado. (Casey A. Cass, University of Colorado)

Limerick is renowned for her sense of humor. (She spent decades as CU Boulder’s official “University Fool,” using humor and folly to help release the pressures of academia.) 

As she navigated the recent week, she has found moments to laugh at the mess left by her firing. 

Her only office is at the center. Where is she supposed to work at the campus? She can’t figure out how to change her title on recommendation letters she needs to write for students. Should she be worried that she is submitting letters of recommendation for her students with a “fraudulent claim” that she is the faculty director of the Center of the American West? She needs someone at the university to help her change her online title on the school and center’s website. 

“That’s my life. A lot of this is kind of hilarious,” she said. “It’s funny to me that someone would be so full of authority and so certain in their decision, but he leaves such a mess.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — jason@coloradosun.com Email: jason@coloradosun.com Twitter: @jasonblevins