Professor in Argentine prison gets support from some UNC colleagues

Some on UNC faculty sign letter in protest of school stopping his pay

jprice@newsobserver.comAugust 3, 2012 

  • Life behind bars Paul Frampton is incarcerated in Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires. He is in a “pavilion” with 79 other men, most of them charged with drug crimes. It’s winter in Argentina, and Frampton’s wing is frigid at night. But he has thick blankets, and a friend on the outside has brought him long underwear. He said he has a growing pulmonary problem, and in successive interviews, his coughing has worsened. Tedium is one of the worst parts, Frampton said. “There’s no set schedule at all,” he said. “That might sound nice, but it’s very depressing. Each day seems like a week. There is nothing happening whatsoever.” The prison food, he said, is terrible, and the prisoners form groups they call “ranchos” that pay perhaps $500 a month to buy groceries from outside, then cook for themselves. Frampton’s rancho has two other Americans and an Italian. The Italian, luckily, is a good pasta chef. “I mainly lay the table, so I come out ahead, I guess,” Frampton said. Staff writer Jay Price

In his English homeland, the salacious side of UNC-Chapel Hill professor Paul Frampton’s dilemma has become the stuff of tabloid legend: Retirement-age international physics genius with three Oxford degrees flies to South America to woo the ludicrously busty Miss Bikini World 2007 and instead is arrested at an Argentine airport with nearly four and a half pounds of cocaine.

The problems Frampton’s arrest are causing in Chapel Hill, meanwhile, are less lurid but snowballing. Alarmed that university leaders stopped Frampton’s pay without using standard disciplinary procedures, nearly 75 academics – mostly UNC-CH faculty members – signed an open letter this week condemning the act.

“It’s not just about Paul,” said mathematics professor Mark Williams, who started the letter. “Our main point is that it’s inhumane treatment of him, but it’s also a threat to tenure. And everyone in the faculty needs to be aware of that.”

The letter cites university policy about due process for severe sanctions against faculty. It says Frampton was not properly notified about sanctions and that Provost Bruce Carney’s decision to place him on unpaid personal leave was improper, because that is only supposed to be done at the request of the faculty member taking the leave.

“We are all capable of making mistakes that can cause trouble serious enough to prevent us from performing all or part of our University duties for a time,” the letter says. “Imagine that this happens to you after you have taught for years at UNC as a tenured faculty member. Given the precedent being set by the Frampton case, heaven help you.”

Also this week, Frampton’s Chapel Hill attorney, Barry Nakell, filed a formal grievance against the administration with a faculty committee empowered to hear such disputes.

Nakell was already pursing a lawsuit in Orange County courts to force the university to restore Frampton’s pay.

A university spokeswoman declined via email Friday to make Chancellor Holden Thorp available for comment on the faculty letter, citing the ongoing litigation with Frampton. But the spokeswoman wrote that the university is not trying to undermine the protections offered by tenure.

“Without discussing details of Professor Frampton’s case, we do not see this case as a threat to tenure,” wrote Karen Moon. “We remain committed to tenure.”

Frampton, 68, said in a telephone interview Friday that he is bankrupt and that without pay, he will lose his car and Chapel Hill apartment Sept. 1.

“People somehow have this idea I’m rich,” he said. “Well, it’s not true.”

The lingerie model

Frampton said he was lured to South America to meet a woman he thought he had been chatting with on the Internet, Czech-born lingerie model Denise Milani.

He never met her, and there has been no hint that Milani was actually involved. Her photos are all over the Internet, and it would be easy, Frampton said, for someone to use them in a scam.

Frampton was given a suitcase to carry by someone claiming to be an intermediary for Milani. The suitcase contained drugs.

Frampton – the Louis D. Rubin Jr. Distinguished Professor of physics and astronomy – has written hundreds of research papers and is credited with several important discoveries in theoretical physics.

His attorneys had him evaluated twice in prison by a psychiatrist. Frampton said he was diagnosed with a personality disorder that prevents him from making normal social connections and renders him unusually gullible.

Several friends and supporters have said in interviews that the diagnosis fits. His ex-wife, Anne-Marie Frampton of Durham, described him as an extraordinary and dedicated physicist but like a small child in matters unrelated to science.

Frampton’s arrest left university administrators in a tough position:

• For one thing, it’s far from clear that he is guilty of intentionally smuggling the drugs. Dozens of people who know him says it’s impossible.

• For another, it’s not simple to precisely pin down what constitutes full-time work for someone like Frampton or to even say where he must be to perform it. His work in high-end physics requires him to do more research than teaching. He must teach just two classes per year, and in theory could be back to do that for the fall semester.

So far, Frampton contends that he has been performing his duties by advising graduate students by phone and writing research papers. Therefore, he said, he should be paid.

University officials have consistently declined to comment on Frampton’s case. One filing said that UNC is not pursuing a standard disciplinary procedure because it is unclear yet whether Frampton committed a crime.

Can he fulfill duties?

An attorney for UNC wrote that Frampton clearly can’t perform his full duties, so he was placed on unpaid personal leave.

Nakell said the university can suspend, demote or fire Frampton if he is proven to have done something wrong. But it must use due process, and even if he was suspended, university policy states that it must be with full pay.

The university says in its filings that Frampton can’t teach classes, participate in faculty committees or hold office hours, and that his inability to log onto the Internet hinders his ability to do research.

But his supporters say they have worked out a system to deliver the latest research on his areas of physics to him. Someone at UNC puts the papers online, and a friend in Argentina puts them on CDs and brings them to Frampton regularly.

Frampton said he can freely reach his students by telephone, and one student he is advising confirmed that in an interview.

University policy refers to personal leave as something that faculty request. Nakell said that if administrators can force it on faculty against their wishes, then practically anyone with tenure can essentially be fired without due process.

Frampton faces up to 16 years in prison, and it could take months for him to reach trial.

Not very sympathetic

Many of his supporters agree that Frampton is scarcely a sympathetic figure. But, they say, his naïveté and online pursuit of young women are not offenses that warrant a prison sentence.

Even the university officials who stopped Frampton’s pay have sent letters to Argentine officials in his support.

UNC’s court filings “reflect UNC’s position that Professor Frampton remains a valued member of the faculty and we hope he can and will return to campus to resume his duties when his personal circumstances permit,” wrote Moon, the spokeswoman.

She also attached a copy of an email from Thorp to Argentina’s minister of science on behalf of Frampton.

Frampton said this week that he thinks the university’s main motivation is tamping down a huge public relations problem at a time when it’s coping with the effects of state budget cuts and needs to appear responsible and sympathetic to a public audience that includes a new conservative majority in the state legislature.

“I think the provost heard the word drugs and ran screaming, which is perfectly understandable,” Frampton said.

In addition to the open letter and an email appeal for donations to help pay for Frampton’s legal costs and for decent food in prison, Williams also has started a website, www.helppaulframpton.org.

Among those who signed the faculty letter are distinguished professors, department heads and endowed chairs from UNC.

Frampton said he is grateful for the letter, and that it shows that many among the faculty aren’t afraid of repercussions.

The very thing that the letter is aimed at protecting, Williams said, allowed them to sign it and him to write it.

“Tenure protects our ability to speak freely without fear,” Williams said. “Without it, I couldn’t do this.”

Price: 919-829-4526

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