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."
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."
Something did happen. Lambert was denied tenure. Burns grows heated when discussing his colleague's case. "To end his career for being sympathetic to me and Ireland, that is the most unconscionable, nasty, vicious... Lambert's wife has cancer; he has two small kids at home. He was the most productive faculty member on the entire faculty for several years in a row, by all the measures that matter. And Hayhurst has been viciously and nastily claiming that Mike Lambert's work is not meriting of serious concern. That is nonsense, that is utter bullshit. It is a vicious, calculated attack, in my opinion."
When it came to fitting out the Equinox for year two of Challenge X, Falcone says, "We did a lot of research on whether or not to use hydrogen, ethanol, or other fuels, and when we crunched all the numbers, we found out that we could get the best performance and the best fuel economy by combining a diesel engine with an electric motor. We took a look at how the car was designed. It is a conventional vehicle. We looked at how best to fit all that in there. What made the most sense was to split the engine and the motor up. A Prius or a Ford Escape, they pack them all under the hood. But we didn't have enough room under the hood in this car for that. So the front wheels are powered by the diesel engine; the rear wheels are powered by the electrical motor. We designed this car with the potential to have 400 combined horsepower. We were really hoping to go for performance. Unfortunately, in all three years, we just never had the money to buy the batteries to get the job done. With the batteries we had, we were only about around 250 horsepower or so, which is better than the stock Equinox. But if we had a lithium ion battery pack in this car, holy cannoli."
Instead of the more powerful, more efficient lithium ion batteries, Burns says, "I had to buy $2000 worth of motorcycle batteries at the last minute."
Still, the car was good enough for the State team to move up eight places when it took part in the year two assessment at the GM Desert Proving Ground in Mesa, Arizona, from May 30 to June 8, 2006. In an August 1 letter to university president Stephen Weber, Challenge X official Robert Larsen gushed, "SDSU placed an impressive 7th out of 17 teams! Only one other new team to the advanced vehicle technology competition program -- Mississippi State University -- placed higher than SDSU! We are very pleased with the significant progress the SDSU team made on their vehicle in the last several months before the competition, which we attribute to Professor Jim Burns and his students and to the support of the university's administration."
But Burns says there was precious little help from the university's administration, which continued to deny the team access to lab equipment in year three of the competition -- by the end of which, teams were supposed to have refined their Equinoxes into marketable finished products. "I bought equipment with my own money -- a mill and a lathe. And I bought an automotive lift to lift the car up so that we could work on it, because we had a lift in the other room, but I wasn't allowed access to it except when they said I could, but not at night and not on weekends and not without some little $8-an-hour student that they hired to look over my shoulder and report anything that was going on that they didn't like so that they could shut me down."
The San Diego State Equinox was good enough to move up one spot to sixth in the third year of the Challenge X competition in June 2007. But when they returned to locked gates and more obstruction, Burns decided he'd had enough and he asked for a leave of absence. "I was getting migraines last year, I was having heart palpitations this year. I looked at the toll on my family, my wife who suffered for years through this, and frankly went without things so that I could afford to buy the stuff that it took to succeed here. I looked at my son and thought I was not spending enough time with him. I left the university, frankly, for sanity reasons."
Reached at San Diego State, Dean Hayhurst commented, "The Challenge X program was something that we agreed to sponsor years ago, and we have invested quite a bit of money in equipment and lab space to try to make this successful. So I am disappointed that any of these individuals would portray the university as being anything but generous and supportive."
Asked why, if the university was so supportive, Burns has such hard feelings on the matter, Hayhurst responds, "I don't understand it myself. Why Dr. Burns might be unhappy or have some concerns, I don't know, I honestly don't. I really wish I could answer that question. I think it would make my life simpler if I understood the answer to that question."
The fourth year of San Diego State's Challenge X project, which involves marketing the product, has been taken over by the university's business school. Terry Ireland, who has turned down a $200,000 settlement offer from San Diego State, is waiting to see if two more Public Employment Relations Board judges will ratify the first judge's favorable decision. Mike Lambert awaits his April hearing in his tenure-denial case. Jim Burns has filed a grievance with the California Faculty Association, which represents the faculty of California's State University system. Though he's still a tenured professor at San Diego State, he's teaching at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. Frank Falcone, who hopes to defend his thesis and earn a master's in mechanical engineering in December, says, "I am heartbroken that this program is broken at SDSU. For the first time since, I think, 1998, there will be no hybrid vehicle research at our school. Almost a decade of research just thrown in the trash. Without Dr. Burns here, there is no program. He is the hybrid vehicle program at San Diego State."