Patty Limerick fired as head of Center of the American West

Patty Limerick, one of the University of Colorado Boulder’s most lauded professors and historian of the American West, was fired from her role as director of CU’s Center of the American West after an internal investigation determined the tenured academic made her staff uncomfortable by blurring the lines between her personal and professional life.

The audit was conducted after a Center staff member contacted CU leadership in April 2022 with concerns about Limerick mistreating Center employees, the audit said. She remains a tenured faculty member.

In the 12-page CU Boulder investigation obtained by a Denver Post public record request, the university said they found no sufficient evidence to substantiate fiscal misconduct claims after interviewing Limerick and seven people who worked under her throughout the years.

However, the report called Limerick’s relationship with her staff “fractured” and confirmed she used Center staff for personal matters during work time including planning a funeral for Limerick’s first husband in 2005, paying two former employees out of her pocket to plan her wedding to her second husband in 2007 and combining a recent board of directors meeting with Limerick’s birthday party.

The audit said Limerick made a $3,367.17 donation to the Center 12 days after the funeral once she realized it was an improper use of staff’s time.

“Because Limerick is the Center’s director and their immediate supervisor, staff members feel obligated to perform specific tasks, even though they feel uncomfortable doing so,” the audit said. “Staff members believe Limerick does not respect boundaries, and the line between Center business and Limerick’s personal business is not clearly defined.”

The audit, first reported by the Colorado Sun, recommended providing Limerick more training in leadership and improved university oversight.

Limerick was fired Sept. 23 after refusing to resign, she said. The executive board overseeing the Center resigned in protest of Limerick’s firing. In a letter to university leadership, Center executive board member Chris Whitney wrote, “I am appalled by the callous, disrespectful, uninformed, mean-spirited and short-sighted manner in which the university has treated Professor Limerick.”

Limerick called the firing “disturbing” in an interview with The Denver Post. She’s seeking legal options with Stan Garnett, the former district attorney for Colorado’s 20th Judicial District, as her representation.

“I understand the American West and its conflicts and dilemmas a lot more than I understand the University of Colorado,” Limerick said in an interview with The Denver Post. “The University of Colorado bewilders me. I have worked with a lot of very complicated governmental agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Parks Service, federal agencies — and they’re more simple to figure out than CU Boulder.”

“Loss to the university”

Limerick joined Boulder’s history department in 1984 after a stint teaching at Harvard. In 1987, Limerick was granted tenure.

Limerick held the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship from 1995 to 2000 and the Hazel Barnes Prize in 2001, CU’s highest award for teaching and research.

Limerick served as Colorado’s state historian from 2016 to 2018. She writes a column for The Denver Post. 

In 1986, Limerick and CU law professor Charles Wilkinson founded the Center of the American West, which Limerick described as a bridge to the university and broader public to engage people about issues facing the West.

“She would convene a group to look at difficult issues — oil and gas extraction as an example — and convene a neutral party conversation around that,” said Sam Mamet, former executive director of Colorado Municipal League and Center board member. “It’s a loss to the university and all those folks that have been participants with her efforts over the years. It’s disappointing, and I’m disappointed with the university.”

Limerick said her vision was to find her replacement within the next year and  work with that person through 2025.

However, the university and new dean of CU’s College of Arts and Sciences Glen Krutz wanted to hire Limerick’s successor this fall, Limerick said. Limerick wouldn’t sign the paperwork.

“I can’t begin to fathom why the university wouldn’t at the very least ease me out gracefully,” Limerick said.

In a statement, the university described the Center of the American West as a “national resource illuminating the history, culture, politics and tradition of the American West through its focus on applied history.”

“While it was a difficult decision to part ways with director Patty Limerick, it was an appropriate decision to have a change now and begin a new era,” the statement read. “The Center of the American West will continue to play a vital role at CU Boulder, and we look forward to its continued contribution to national thought and discourse regarding the American West and our shared history.”

When asked why the university parted ways with Limerick, university communications said they could not discuss details of a personnel matter.

Doubts about character

Sam Smith, a CU Boulder adjunct professor who co-taught with Limerick in 2019, said the situation was more nuanced than some might assume.

Limerick, he said, was a great scholar and historian who formed positive relationships with many people during her tenure. She was also “extremely difficult” to work with, he said, in part because she had founded the Center and been left in charge of it for decades.

“It’s very much Patty’s show,” Smith said. “It’s Patty and Patty’s people and Patty’s staff doing Patty’s work and a lot of that has been very good work, don’t get me wrong…but it all too often seemed to turn into a matter of ego, personal brand and outright self-aggrandizement. Over 30 years, it became Patty’s fiefdom.”

Limerick described herself as a maverick nonconformist who didn’t always do things conventionally.

“I don’t think the university could tolerate that anymore,” Limerick said. “Higher education celebrates innovation and then sometimes innovators get punished.”

The audit made clear that some of Limerick’s staff felt punished in their workplace.

One staffer described Limerick as “hostile, intimidating and unethical,” the audit said. Another stated Limerick “sometimes skirts the line between personal and Center business.” Another said Limerick harbored a lack of respect for boundaries.

Staffers described situations in which they helped Limerick when she feared she was a victim of credit card fraud or had a payroll question during tax time. One staffer said Limerick “does not react well to people not doing what she asks them to do.”

“The intention of putting that out must have been to raise doubts about my character,” Limerick said. “People don’t like their bosses all the time. This has been a particularly successful organization on the campus, and we’ve built bridges…and it seems funny for an organization to dismantle that.”

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