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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Univ overlooked criminal record in hiring

Ross terminated, found drunk in car

Published: March 9, 2012
Section: Featured, News

Found unresponsive and allegedly inebriated in a car parked in Tower Lot, Pippin Ross, who has been teaching the Journalism in Broadcast Media class this semester, was taken into custody by Brandeis Police and transported to the Waltham Police Department for holding, the Justice reported on Tuesday. The following day, she was arrested by the Barnstable police for operating a vehicle under the influence and without a license.

Dean of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren fired Ross on Feb. 28, a day after she was initially discovered alone in a vehicle with a Brandeis faculty parking sticker. Public Safety asks parking-pass applicants to present a Brandeis ID, vehicle registration and operator’s license, according to their website.

When asked whose name Ross’ vehicle was registered under, Director of Public Safety Ed Callahan replied that permit applications are confidential university documents.
University officials say they had no knowledge of Ross’ criminal record or drinking problem—her license was revoked for life after four OUI arrests during the 1990s and she has served three years in prison—when they hired her as a replacement professor for the journalism class this spring.

Ross was interviewed on NPR’s “The Story” program about her rape while working on a story and subsequent descent into alcoholism, which ultimately landed her in jail for multiple drunk driving charges; she spent three years at the women’s prison in Framingham.

Ross has been writing a memoir of her time in prison, titled “Crash Course: A Reporter’s Journey into Prison,” since her release. Neither Professor Maura Farrelly (JOUR), who recommended Ross to fill the open adjunct position, nor Birren were aware of the memoir, excerpts from which are posted on her blog, which is the first hit when entering her name into Google.

Ross spent five days in McLean Hospital in a court-ordered attempt at sobriety in 2004, but was kicked out for sharing vodka with another inmate, according to the MetroWest Daily News. The following year she was sentenced to a year at the Western Massachusetts Correction Center.

A few days prior to release, she was again indicted for altering court documents pertaining to the number of her drunk-driving convictions. She was charged with “before the fact aiding an attempted escape,” and spent nine months fighting the charge before pleading out at the advice of her attorney. She was then sent to Framingham, where she stayed until March 2009, according to The Daily News. Until the end of that year, she was staying at a sober house in Malden, Mass.

Her husband, Philip Austin, claims that Ross was not inebriated, but suffering from a neurological disorder that caused her to be unresponsive, the Justice reported on Tuesday. Austin told the Justice that university police reacted inappropriately to the situation. “The university stands by the Public Safety report on this incident,” Senior Vice President of Communications wrote in an e-mail.

A woman who answered the phone Wednesday evening at the Austin residence listed on Nantucket declined to comment. When The Hoot asked to speak with Austin, she referred reporters to the local police station and insisted it was the wrong number.

Students questioned odd behavior from the beginning of her class. According to Barbara Soley ’15, she came into class on the first day with bruises on her face. Students claimed that one day she came smelling of alcohol.

According to one student, who asked to remain anonymous, “She once said ‘I’m what they would call sober now,’ and would talk about alcohol a lot and, like, make hints.” She was often very excited, and sent “very rude e-mails” and “cursed all the time.”

Sivan Levine ’13, who was also in her class, said that often, “she didn’t know what she was doing,” but that the students “brushed it off as her being a character.”

After she was released from custody on Feb. 27, Ross sent an e-mail to her class that explained she had been “knocked out” in an accident and incurred a concussion: “I just got home after a day at Tufts Medical,” wrote Ross in her final e-mail to students, “I’m strangley (sic) delighted that I never knew I was there until a woke up 7 hours later. I was tested/released. The car lost only a tail light. The driver unscathed … Thanks for (hopefully) understanding my absense (sic).” There is no similar accident report in the Brandeis or Waltham police logs.
Ross was an emergency hire at the beginning of the spring semester, to fill a sudden vacancy in the Journalism minor curriculum. “Hiring of adjuncts differs somewhat from hiring of long-term faculty,” Birren explained, and is not as formal as the methods used for tenure-track appointments, which require national searches. Often, according to Birren, adjuncts are hired through academic contacts or known personally by members of the department.

No background inquiries were made, though one is not required for hiring at Brandeis. Birren said that Brandeis University hiring policy is “in line” with other colleges nationwide.

Until her termination, the university was not aware that Ross had multiple convictions. She was interviewed twice over the phone, and Farrelly listened to her work on NPR. Ross was initially recommended to Farrelly by a mutual contact in the journalism world.

While she was unaware of Ross’ criminal history, Farrelly did know her reputation of reportage:

“When a former colleague who now works for New Hampshire Public Radio recommended Pippin to me, I recognized her name immediately because I had heard her reports on WBUR this past fall, when the state Legislature was considering the legalization of casino gambling,” Farrelly wrote in an e-mail to The Hoot. “I also recalled her coverage of the tornadoes that hit Massachusetts last summer. In short, she is well regarded for her work in the public broadcasting arena. In addition, she had an article in an edition of Commonwealth magazine that arrived in my mailbox the week that I learned I was going to have to find a replacement to teach the class.”

Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated Andrew Gully’s response. Gully said the university “stands by the Public Safety report on this incident” but did not comment on whether the university was aware of Ross’s neurological condition. We regret the error.