Faculty member says colleague called his work ‘Nazi’

BERKELEY — A UC Berkeley architecture professor has sued the University of California Regents on the grounds that his national origin is one of the reasons he was denied tenure in 1997, and alleges that a colleague in a public setting called his work “Nazi architecture.”

Lawyers for assistant professor Hansjoachim Neis filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Alameda Superior Court in Oakland.

Neis seeks general and compensatory damages, and injunctive relief for “fraud, violation of his rights to free speech and association, and discrimination based upon national origin.” The lawsuit does not specify an amount for monetary damages.

Neis, 53, is traveling in Germany and unavailable for comment, said Dan Siegel, his Oakland attorney.

University officials said they had just received the complaint Friday.

“Lawyers are reviewing the case,” said university spokesperson Mary Spletter.

Despite the increasing number of tenure denial lawsuits around the country, most rarely make it to court because they are hard to win and costly to litigate. Such lawsuits must first get past a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says courts should defer to universities in academic decisions.

“We have to prove that this wasn’t an academic decision,” Siegel said. “We have direct evidence of people who heard the anti-German remarks.”

According to the suit, Neis claims that in 1990 he left a “successful” architectural practice in Japan to teach at the Berkeley campus, where he had received several graduate degrees, including his Ph. D. in the philosophy of architecture.

Neis was hired to fill a newly created position to teach Building Process theory, an area of architecture based on the work of UC Berkeley Emeritus Architecture Professor Christopher Alexander. Alexander is a controversial figure, Siegel said.

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During the 1980s, the lawsuit states, there had been a protracted battle within the architecture department over the merits of Building Process theory. The complaint says Neis was hired 0ver 10 other candidates, but that the faculty was severely split on Neis selection.

It cites a November 1990 appointment recommendation letter authored by the then-dean of architecture, which noted the split vote may “indicate that their original acquiescence (in creating the position) reflected the notion that the candidate would never make tenure.”

Neis claims that despite strong teaching evaluations and international acclaim for his research, the university denied his tenure application in October 1997. The university also terminated his employment effective December 31. He earns $58,100 a year.

According to Siegel, the university’s tenure standards are broadly drawn. “Generally, you must demonstrate excellence in scholarship, teaching and in university service,” Siegel said.

In the complaint, Neis alleges that for reasons unrelated to his scholarship or his teaching, members of the architecture department opposed his promotion by a vote of 10-8 with five abstentions and “ultimately convinced” university administrators to deny his tenure.

Neis also charges in his complaint that he has been “subjected to demeaning ridicule” because he is German.

He alleges that Rene Davids, a colleague in the architecture department, publicly attacked him at a department-sponsored event, calling his work “Nazi” architecture.

Davids said via email, “I absolutely and categorically deny ever having made the comment attributed to me by Hansjoachim Neis.”

Neis further alleges that another colleague in the architecture department informed him that “they do not like Germans here.”

Siegel said witnesses were present at the two incidences, but he was unable to provide dates for the alleged comments.

Siegel said Neis will seek monetary damages between $600,000 and $1 million, which represent settlements in other tenure dispute cases with the University of California.

Money, however, isn’t the final goal that Neis is seeking, said Siegel. “He wants to be a tenured professor at UC Berkeley and his legal fees paid for.”