Ramakrishna “Ram” Akella, a tenured technology management professor at UC Santa Cruz, had already been butting heads with university administrators when his department was eliminated in a reorganization of the engineering school in 2018.

Rather than report to a department chair — who, like him, would have to be a faculty member — he was told to report directly to an administrator: the dean of UCSC’s Jack Baskin School of Engineering, Alexander Wolf.

When Wolf attempted to assign Akella a roster of courses the next year, Akella refused to teach the classes, claiming the dean lacked the authority to assign them to him under UC rules. His stand triggered a complicated disciplinary proceeding that wound its way from Wolf, through a faculty committee, to the UCSC chancellor, then the UC president, and, finally, on Thursday, to the UC Board of Regents.

Now, Akella has been fired.

It’s believed to be only the second time in UCSC history that a tenured professor has been terminated.

Firing a tenured UC faculty member is difficult by design, and only the regents — the board governing all 10 UC campuses — have that ultimate authority. Only six tenured faculty have been dismissed in the past 20 years systemwide, according to UC Office of the President spokesman Stett Bolbrook.

Road to dismissal
Ramakrishna Akella (UC Santa Cruz)

When the Jack Baskin School of Engineering reorganized in 2018, five departments were eliminated. The department of technology management, to which Akella had been appointed, was among them.

Akella was left as one of just two faculty members who weren’t absorbed by another department. According to UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive, no department was willing to allow Akella to join — leaving Akella in the awkward position of being a “divisional appointee,” reporting directly to Wolf.

Akella was asked to sign a memorandum of understanding acknowledging Wolf would assign him courses. He refused.

At the crux of Akella’s argument defending his refusal to teach is a UC policy detailing the responsibilities of department chairs. As Akella sees it, the underlying university policy states that only department chairs can assign courses, not deans.

When Akella’s case went before a UCSC faculty committee, the committee could not find enough evidence to conclude that Wolf, the dean, in fact, had the right to assign Akella the courses, according to UC officials and Akella’s attorney. But it recommended firing Akella anyway.

Akella could have pursued other channels to make his case, UCSC officials said — and refusing to teach courses cut to the core of the university’s mission.

“While Professor Akella is well within his right to challenge our actions, he cannot do so by failing to fulfill his job duties and responsibilities,” Larive said.

So, in making their unusual decision to terminate him, the regents didn’t tackle head on that question of authority, but rather the nature of his response.

Inside the regents meeting

Addressing regents before their vote last week, Larive said she didn’t take lightly her decision to recommend Akella’s dismissal.

“Professor Akella repeatedly failed to fulfill his role as educator,” Larive said. His conduct, she said, undermined his students, his colleagues and the mission of the UC.

In his pitch to the regents, Akella held his course. He insisted he couldn’t be expected to teach courses that weren’t assigned in line with UC policy.

“Please note that, because no one with the authority to assign me courses to teach, assigned me courses to teach, I did not fail to meet the responsibilities of instruction,” he said, adding that he had advocated for various policy changes that would have solved the problem.

Akella also explained that he sees a fundamental difference between an assignment from a department, chaired by a fellow faculty member, and a dean, who serves an administrative role.

“Most of the rights of a faculty member derive from being in a department,” Akella said, comparing removing a faculty member from a department to an abolition of their rights.

The firing marks UCSC’s second dismissal of a tenured faculty member in as many years. In 2019, UC regents fired history of consciousness professor Gopal Balakrishnan after an investigation corroborated claims of sexual misconduct.

An earlier battle between Akella and the university is still in court, stemming from Akella’s refusal to teach a fourth assigned course in 2016, while he was still within a department. Akella was censured as a result and lost 15% of his salary for one year. He sued, and a Santa Cruz Superior Court judge found in Akella’s favor in May 2018. The UC appealed the decision, and that case is ongoing.

Akella referred questions from Lookout to his attorney, who declined to comment citing the ongoing litigation.

Ronnie Lipschutz, an emeritus politics professor at UCSC, said Akella’s situation is highly unusual.

“I don’t know of anyone who has been fired because they refused to teach classes on the principle that Akella has claimed,” Lipschutz said. “Most of us want to keep our jobs, you know.”

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.