Jubilant Acuna Sees Courtroom Victory as Blow for Human Rights : Education: Activist professor thanks supporters, friends and colleagues after winning age-bias suit against UC Santa Barbara.


Ultimately, Rodolfo Acuna said, his victory was not just about age or academics or politics. It was about human rights.

“Society has to change or it will blow up,” the Chicano studies professor said to a crowd of admirers, lawyers, researchers and reporters Tuesday after winning a federal age-discrimination lawsuit against the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“But if we work together, we can move mountains together.”

The educator, a widely known activist, is considered the “father of Chicano studies” as the author of seminal books on the subject and creator of a model undergraduate program at Cal State Northridge.


Acuna sued the University of California four years ago, after being denied a professorship in the Chicano studies department at UC Santa Barbara--contending that the university considered him too old for the job, rather than unqualified.

He currently teaches at Cal State Northridge, but decided to apply for a post at UCSB in 1990 because his wife wished to relocate away from the threat of earthquakes in the San Fernando Valley, he said.

The UCSB department ranked him No. 1 among more than 80 applicants, he said, but his application was denied following a review by a high-level university committee and the school’s chancellor in 1991.

On Tuesday, Acuna said he was “tired, relieved and humbled” after his long and expensive fight but also determined to begin teaching at UCSB, the only UC campus with a full Chicano studies department. Other schools, such as UCLA, have interdisciplinary programs for students who are interested in the history and politics of the Mexican American experience, but no formal bachelor’s or master’s degree programs.

Acuna’s job status won’t be settled, however, until later in the month when, in the trial’s next phase, U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins rules on whether to order the university to hire Acuna or pay him compensatory damages of $326,000.

Acuna said that if allowed by the judge, he would choose to start teaching at UCSB in the spring.

On Tuesday, ACLU attorney Silvia Argueta, who has worked on the Acuna case without pay along with nine other lawyers, said she hopes that UC will “extend an olive branch” and drop its opposition to hiring Acuna.

That seemed unlikely Tuesday, as a private attorney representing the university said Acuna does not belong on the faculty because the case had created “great tension” on the campus. Acuna had made “strong, profane accusations against the university, and its processes and administrators,” said attorney Judith Keyes.

Waving aside the issue of being welcomed with open arms, Acuna said he would take the job if the judge orders that it be offered to him because “it’s a civil rights issue.”

“Why was Martin Luther King living in the South even though people hated him?” the professor asked rhetorically. “He did it because he was a symbol of integration and a symbol of human dignity.”

Acuna expressed gratitude to his family, attorneys, students and CSUN colleagues, noting that several faculty members had taught his classes while he was in court. When the jury’s unanimous verdict was announced Monday, he said he “almost had a heart attack,” because it felt as if all the blood had drained from his head.

“I was in a fog,” he said, “a happy fog, a humble fog.”

The case had become a cause celebre in the Latino community. Community organizers raised three-quarters of the $80,000 needed to file hundreds of motions, attend deposition-taking sessions and hire expert witnesses. Much of the rest came from teachers groups around the state and the nation.

Acuna’s attorneys estimate that the University of California spent $3 million to $4 million--a figure Keyes denies--on resisting the suit and say they will request the reimbursement of $2 million in attorney fees. As an example of what they considered the outside attorneys’ spendthrift ways, lead Acuna attorney Moises Vazquez said the UC lawyers flew to Wisconsin, Texas and Kansas to take depositions from witnesses in sessions that he and his team could not afford to attend.

To appear at one in San Antonio, Vazquez said, Acuna arranged lecture appearances at schools along the way to cover the trip’s expense.

His attorneys originally planned to argue that UCSB had denied Acuna the job because of his race and outspoken politics as well as his age, which was 59 at the time the suit was filed. But before the trial began, Collins narrowed the focus to age alone.

Still, Vazquez said that jurors polled after the verdict told him that they “read between the lines” of a UC faculty search committee’s private documents and found that it contained all three biases against Acuna.

“The jurors found political and racial discrimination in places, but saw age all over the documents as well,” he said, noting that some documents began with a statement of Acuna’s age that could be construed as pejorative and disrespectful. “They found much of the language in the reports was inappropriate.”

Acuna scoffed at several other elements of UC’s case. The school, for instance, highlighted the fact that three professors in its Chicano studies department abstained from voting on his application because they disapproved of hiring him. Vazquez said that instead the abstentions reflected the professors’ objections to the school’s hiring process that “dragged him through hell,” rather than being a sign of distaste for the professor.

In addition, Acuna laughed at UCSB’s contention that he lacked experience at mentoring doctoral candidates. “They didn’t have a doctoral program and don’t plan to create one!” he said.

For her part, Keyes said she believed that jurors decided the case with their hearts rather than their heads, noting that Acuna’s attorneys shed tears during their closing arguments.

“One juror told me that age had nothing to do with the decision,” the UC lawyer said. “The jury basically felt that Acuna should have been hired because he was accomplished and he was nice.”

Times staff writer Leslie Berger contributed to this story.