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Historian Patty Limerick sues CU Boulder over access to her scholarly work following her 2022 firing

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Patty Limerick, a celebrated Colorado historian, author and scholar who was fired from the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado in September 2022, is suing the university.

Limerick’s lawsuit says the university and its attorneys have denied her access to her writings and scholarly works. A letter sent to Limerick claims the CU “is the owner of any Educational materials, scholarly and artistic works” created by Limerick, who joined the faculty at the Boulder campus in 1984. 

Her lawsuit, filed in Boulder County District Court, marks an intellectual property fight she hopes will prod CU Boulder into valuing the scholarship of its professors in arts and humanities in the same way it supports the work of professors in the university’s science and engineering departments.

The lawsuit says Limerick has spent months trying to access her work, which the university claims it owns “because Professor Limerick used substantial university resources as the faculty director of the center.”

Limerick, in the lawsuit, argued “the university’s claims are not true.”

“Professor Limerick was tasked with finding and creating funding sources to support her work and the work of her colleagues and students within the center — a job which she performed with immense success,” reads the lawsuit, which notes Limerick worked in the early 2000s with donors to contribute $1.75 million to an endowment supporting the center and “the vast majority of those funds were removed from the center” when Limerick was fired.

Limerick now directs CU Boulder’s Applied History Initiative, which helps young scholars better connect History with today’s challenges.

In September 2022, the new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Glen Krutz, announced he was firing Limerick from the Center of the American West, which she founded in 1986 as a forum to explore volatile issues facing the West. Through books, films and lectures, the center became a beacon for Western scholars who helped shape foundational arguments addressing critical cultural challenges in the West.  

Krutz’s firing of Limerick prompted the resignation of all five members of the center’s executive committee. In the spring of 2023, more than 300 academics, researchers and historians blasted CU and Krutz for the sudden firing of Limerick, saying “The Center of the American West is currently fading … there will be lasting loss and damage to CU Boulder and the field of Western history, applied history and countless others.”

An investigation by CU stemming from complaints by center staff could not find evidence of any fiscal misconduct, but concluded Limerick violated ethical rules addressing “prudence and integrity in the management of university resources.” The investigation cited interviews with current and former CU and center employees to conclude that Limerick’s relationship with staff was “fractured.”

Krutz fired Limerick before the report was delivered to the school’s top officials. A school spokesman in October 2022 told The Sun they could not discuss personnel matters but that the “difficult decision” to fire Limerick “was an appropriate decision to have a change now and begin a new era.”

Krutz last month announced his resignation as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Limerick’s lawsuit argues she was “the principal producer … of nearly every written product of the center” from the mid 1990s to September 2022, when she “was abruptly and unwillingly disassociated from the center.”

“Professor Limerick’s value and contribution to the university and the center cannot be overstated as she has committed nearly three decades of her life to ensuring the center thrived,” the lawsuit said. 

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Limerick hired an attorney to help her access her work and filed open-records requests to help identify her work in the CU’s libraries and databases. The university offered to make some electronic records available on a hard-drive, but rejected Limerick’s request for a team to have full access to all of the center’s records. 

“It is not the university’s role or responsibility to facilitate Dr. Limerick backtracking a search for materials that she claims that she owns personally, a position counter from the university,” reads the letter sent by the school’s attorney to Limerick and her attorney. That letter said a search would require the university to design safeguards “to protect the integrity of university systems” and the school “is not subjecting its property or personnel to such invasive and burdensome activities.”

A university representative said CU “disagrees that Dr. Limerick does not have permission to access works, but just recently became aware of the lawsuit Dr. Limerick has filed against the university.”

The representative said in an emailed statement that the school was reviewing the lawsuit and unable to comment further.

Limerick said in an interview that the records she needs to search through for her work are “complicated, dense and intertwined” and the university “is not winning awards for institutional forthrightness.”

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