Back in June, a team of San Diego State mechanical engineering students and their professor placed 6th out of 17 universities in the exclusive Challenge X vehicle design competition, cosponsored by General Motors and the Department of Energy. "Let me put this in perspective," says Frank Falcone, a graduate engineering student who worked on the project. "This is the first time SDSU has ever been part of a competition like this. So to see us, with nothing, get 6th place and beat all those other schools with all that money, it was very satisfying."
The competition put San Diego State on the map in the burgeoning field of hybrid automobile technology. But instead of being welcomed back as returning victors, Falcone says, "We returned to school to find out that the lock and the key on our gate had been changed. We couldn't put the car away in our lab because we no longer had access to that gate. And we still don't have access."
Dr. Jim Burns, the mechanical engineering professor who led the San Diego State team in the Challenge X competition, wasn't surprised. Being locked out was only the latest move in what he characterizes as three years of harassment and obstructionism perpetrated by the dean of engineering, Dr. David Hayhurst, and the mechanical engineering department head, Karen May-Newman.
The beginnings of San Diego State's involvement in the Challenge X came in 2001, when officials from the contest saw a hybrid sports car called the L3 Enigma that Burns and a student team had built. "It was at the Michelin Challenge, which is a worldwide automotive event that was held in Southern California that year," Burns says. "There happened to be in the audience [Challenge X] organizers. And they were impressed with what they saw. So two and a half years later, when we proposed to be part of the Challenge program, they recognized us, which is great, because it is very difficult to get into one of these challenge programs. You have to really have shown that you can do the work. We had done that with the Enigma, and they were impressed enough to give us a shot this time."
In early 2004, during the application process for Challenge X, Burns and members of his team say they endured the first bit of obstructionism from Dean Hayhurst. "The night [the application] was supposed to go out," Burns says, "we made it quite clear to him that it had to go out at a specific time to make FedEx to get to the funding agencies' mailbox in time."
Terry Ireland, a former lab technician in the College of Engineering who worked on the Challenge X project, remembers the evening the application was to be sent to Detroit. "We filled out the forms," he recalls, "and I hand carried this form up there to Dean Hayhurst's office so he could sign it. And then I sat in his office from about 4:00 in the afternoon to about 6:30 at night."
"By the time he signed it," Burns says, "we were already an hour after that deadline. So we found a courier service to take care of it for us, and I gave the bill to the school to the tune of $300. There were some negative consequences to that."
Burns continues, "Right around that same time period, when we put this proposal in, I was inexplicably pulled off of teaching certain classes. The department chair at the time, Karen May-Newman, had decided other people were going to teach these courses, no explanation, just 'You are not doing this anymore. We are making a change.' Whatever that means. And the dean and some of the people in other departments were actively moving some of my equipment out of some of the labs. That was early 2004. But we persevered the rest of that semester, though I was not a very happy camper around that time. A lot of courses that I taught were now in jeopardy because the equipment and resources to teach that stuff well were being surplused and moved out and not supported. Meetings were held in my lab, staff was there without my presence, and other faculty members were told, 'Hey, this stuff is all up for grabs. What would you like?' Very, very nasty and unprofessional."
In March of 2004, Burns got word from Challenge X organizers that San Diego State's application had been accepted. So, with the help of technician Terry Ireland, who at 62 has decades of experience building cars, he began to set up a lab for the project. Despite sensing growing opposition from Hayhurst and May-Newman, he decided to go forward with the project. "We had 2000 square feet of lab space," Burns recalls, "that had appropriate roll-up door access. At least we had that. And Terry was still with me. We were relatively confident that we could do this job, although it was very ambitious for this university, especially with very little support [from the College of Engineering]."
Not long after getting the lab set up, in the summer of 2004, Terry Ireland, whom Burns refers to as "my talented technician," lost his job at San Diego State after he filed a labor grievance for having to supervise another technician who was paid a higher salary, something that is against union rules. By filing the grievance, he was acting against the advice of a union representative, who worried that Ireland's status as a temporary employee made him an easy target for retaliatory firing. Ireland filed the grievance "three months before I was to become permanent," he recalls. "I had to file, because if I didn't I would have lost the right to file. According to union regulations, you have to file a grievance within 30 days of finding out about it; otherwise, you lose that right to file a grievance. Well, I signed it, I filled out the thing, and the dean denied having asked me to supervise [the higher-paid technician]. And since I am somewhat of a team player, I figured it would really cause bad blood if I pressed it and proved that the dean was a liar. So I dropped it. Three months later, they didn't renew my contract. I had never been reprimanded for anything, I had a perfect record, I had an 'outstanding' on one year and an 'excellent' on the next year as evaluations. And I was supposed to have had an evaluation sometime right around when I filed for the grievance. They never did give me the evaluation; they just didn't renew my contract. They didn't fire me; they just didn't renew my contract. So I filed an unfair labor practice for retaliation for filing a grievance. And the school disallowed that, so then I had to file with the Public Employment Relations Board for unfair labor practice. And they reinstated my grievance. Meanwhile, six months after I am gone, they hire a temporary employee on an emergency basis to replace me, and then six months after that, they posted my old job. So I filed for that job and turned in my application and everything, and they didn't interview me for my old job. They said that I wasn't qualified for the job that I had been doing. Subsequently, they've claimed that I spent all my time with Dr. Burns, that I didn't do anything for anyone else. That is a lie. I proved it to the Public Employment Relations Board, and the judge made a ruling that they had to put me back to work. But without me working for Dr. Burns, there was no other technician to support him as per the contract that the dean signed with Challenge X, which stipulated that the university would provide technician support, someone who knew something about cars and the electronics that goes on cars. Because this is cutting-edge stuff, this is a whole lot different than just a car. I was the only guy there with any experience, the only guy there that fit the description. So whether they let me go because I had filed a grievance against the dean or because they wanted to hurt Dr. Burns's program by letting me go, I don't know."