For his part, Burns is convinced Ireland's losing his job was an attack on the Challenge X effort.
Burns continues, "They [Hayhurst and May-Newman] called a meeting right after school started [in August 2004], just after they had fired Terry during the summer. And [Hayhurst] had the audacity, with a nasty little smile on his face, to ask, 'So how is Terry?' At that point, I knew exactly what was up. So it was game on at that point. I realized that there was no turning back. I told him in no uncertain terms that he should go and screw himself."
After this meeting, Burns went to San Diego State's provost Nancy Marlin "to find out what her thought was on this illegal firing [of Terry Ireland]. The provost is the person who kind of runs the daily operations of the university. She handles all the nitty-gritty details, the dirty work, so that the president doesn't have to. In this case, I thought the whole thing smacked of a conspiracy, and I was going to tell her about it. But she would have nothing of that. She would not talk to me. All she'd say is, 'This is a personnel matter,' and all I could say at the end, after her cutting me off at every sentence, was, 'I'm here to follow the chain of command. You can't say you weren't informed.' My intent to go there was to tell her, 'Listen, this guy was fired illegally, and I am going to support him in every way possible as this goes forward, and I suggest you stop this. Terry is a valuable member of this program, and we signed a contract with GM and [the Department of Energy] that said he would be working on the team. We are using United States money here, federal funds, and what you have done is you have made it impossible for me to do a good job.' "
Along with Ireland's dismissal, Burns says Hayhurst and May-Newman "made [me] teach a course with three people in it. They have an obligation to the state that if a course cannot make money for the state -- there is a minimum number of people that they have to have in it -- they have to cancel the course. There were three people in the course. I think the minimum is seven or something like that. And I was made to teach that course anyway, even though I said before the course started, 'You know, I really could use the time for Challenge X.' "
Records obtained from San Diego State indicate that, given a choice between time spent teaching and time spent on Challenge X, Burns often chose the latter and either canceled classes or had a former student substitute for him. Several students complained via email to Dean Hayhurst. "I do not believe [Dr. Burns's class] has been conducted in a professional nor respectable manner for a course offered at an accredited university," wrote one student in a September 14, 2004 email. Around the same time, ten of Burns's students cosigned a letter to Hayhurst that said in part, "Professor James S. Burns's repeated rambling lectures detailing the enormity of 'his' hybrid electric car and other pet projects have not proven helpful, to say the least."
Asked about the complaints, Burns admits that his heart wasn't in his teaching. "I had pretty low morale at the time. I was trying my best to cover all this stuff while having my workload essentially doubled and being told that I couldn't have any help."
The Challenge X competition is set up as a four-stage process, with evaluations done at the ends of four consecutive school years. Burns says that because of the obstructionism he faced, "I really thought we were going to fail miserably." And in the first year's evaluation, in spring of 2005, they very nearly did. "We were 15th out of 17th in the paper-design competition in year one."
In year two of the Challenge X, teams were given a Chevrolet Equinox compact SUV in which they were supposed to implement their designs from year one. The university was slow to fill out and send the necessary forms to GM so that the Equinox could be shipped. A June 23, 2005 letter from General Motors to San Diego State says, "Our records indicate that your school has not returned a signed Challenge X Vehicle Donation Agreement. We had requested that this be signed and returned by June the 9th, 2005, in order for your vehicle to be shipped the week of June 20, 2005. We cannot ship your vehicle without a signed agreement. Please return your documentation as soon as possible to avoid further delay of your vehicle's shipment."
The paperwork was eventually sent in, and the new Equinox arrived. But transforming it into a high-performance hybrid vehicle required lab equipment to which Burns says he and his students were denied access. "We just decided that we would man up here, we would do this no matter what, we would stop complaining. We didn't write another letter; we never asked for any more help. We knew we weren't going to get it. I spent something like $20,000 that I had saved up for other projects over the years."
Terry Ireland helped out during this phase as a volunteer. "If there was something we needed to fabricate, and we couldn't get access to the lab equipment, I would drive across town and make it at a machine shop I had access to and bring it back."
But when Hayhurst forbade Burns to let Ireland work on Challenge X as a volunteer, Ireland enrolled as a student in a class taught by another professor named Mike Lambert. "Any student could work on the project," Ireland explains, "so I enrolled in a class."
Though happy to have Ireland back on the project, Burns worried that Lambert would suffer retaliation from Hayhurst and May-Newman for making it possible. "I said, 'Mike, if this really is as nasty as I think it is, there is going to be some retribution for this.' He said, 'Well, I am the instructor, and if I don't stand for permitting someone to enter my class if I think he can benefit from it, then I am failing as a faculty member.' He told me this point-blank. And I expected that something might happen."