Former Instructor Accuses Auburn University of Religious Discrimination

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Part of Southern culture is a deep loyalty to one’s alma mater. That loyalty is often synonymous with kinship, sister or brotherhood and community. Although this deep attachment is most obvious during big sporting events, it lasts long after the lights are dimmed on any playing field.

"William J. Samford Hall" at Auburn Univ. [Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan, via Flickr/Wikimedia CC. lic]

“William J. Samford Hall” at Auburn Univ. [Robert S. Donovan, via Flickr/Wikimedia CC. lic].

For that very reason, Dr. Katharyn Privett-Duren was all the more devastated when she found out that her position as an English instructor at Auburn University (AU) had been terminated without a given reason. Not only was she an employee but also a three time Auburn graduate. When she was in her 30s, with a GED, three children and divorce papers in hand, she earned a B.A., Master’s of Arts, and doctorate. She says:

As an alumni, myself, I cannot reconcile such an action against my deep loyalty to my university …  I have been, in effect, disowned by the very institution that created me as a teacher and a scholar without any more ado than that given to a stranger.

In the local Alabama Pagan community and in the blogosphere, Privett-Duren is better known as Seba O’Kiley, the Southern Fried Witch. She has been a spiritual leader, Pagan teacher and blogger for years. However, until May, her two identities were, more or less, kept separate. Religion is generally not discussed. A former English department colleague, Dr. Robin E. Bates, said:

In the Auburn English department, faculty and staff don’t discuss religious feeling openly. I think that, for  most, this is because it is a publicly funded school and many feel that faith has no role in the workplace there … No one discusses religion with students, because it’s outside the purview of the job as teachers of English, and discussion of anything personal like religion would be considered unprofessional.

While some colleagues, like Bates, knew Privett-Duren’s religion and even followed her Pagan blog, the College of Liberal Arts administration did not. Due to the alleged “hush hush” circumstances surrounding her termination, Privett-Duren believes that her religion was, in fact, the cause. She explained:

They [administrators] found out when a colleague complained about me to the Dean’s office. I have never been allowed to know the details of that complaint and it (apparently) was unfounded and dropped. Soon thereafter, the Dean asked that I not accompany my committee of which I was a member for our meeting with the Dean. He did not want me there. From that moment, it escalated.

Seba O'Kiley

Seba O’Kiley, or Dr. Katharyn Privett-Duren

The initial problems arose in the fall of 2013 but, as she noted, appeared to have been dropped within a month. In fact, in April 2014, Privett-Duren was honored with the English department’s teaching award for the 2013-14 school year. In addition, she was being considered for a promotion to a permanent lecturer and for a grant to establish online class material.

However, things turned sour that very same month. On Apr. 4, the administration sent Privett-Duren an email informing her that she was “was not selected” for the grant. Her department chair admitted that he was “surprised by the decision which was made outside the department.” She was unable to obtain any further information about the decision-making process.

A month later, Privett-Duren was sent the termination letter with no further explanation. Within days, she contacted her chair, the administration and the Affirmative Action/EEO offices. During that time, she was neither able to gain an audience with the dean, nor learn the conditions of her termination.

Frustrated and confused, Privett-Duren turned to the American Civil Liberties Union. Within days, the organization returned her letter stating, “We have reviewed your request for assistance and concluded that your situation raises serious questions about the possibility of discrimination with your company.” However the ACLU also added that her complaint did not constitute a civil rights issue, and recommended that she contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

On June 16, she filed a charge of religious discrimination and ageism with the EEOC in Birmingham. The organization is currently investigating her case and, she is waiting for a response. She says:

How do I feel about the whole thing. I feel betrayed–not by my department, as I understand that their hands were tied, nor by my students, who didn’t know nor care about the status of my religion. I feel betrayed by the red tape of administration that did not protect me from the machination of Dean’s Aistrup’s decision and by the refusal of the Provost’s office to investigate it. The unprecedented act of terminating an employee without regard to work record, the opinion of the supervising faculty or the simple (ethical) step of allowing that employee the right to meet with the dean of the college is nothing short of a witch hunt. 

While Privett-Duren was communicating with officials at the school and with these outside agencies, her students launched their own protest in the form of an online petition. By June, 142 students of many faiths digitally signed a request to “bring Dr. PD back to Auburn University.” While the petition doesn’t directly address the reason behind her dismissal, it does highlight her reputation as a popular, well-loved teacher. Former student Sam Christensen said, “I don’t know anyone who disagrees with the petition. I can say that I would be surprised if there was serious student opposition to it, I haven’t known many professors as universally liked by students as her.”

Many of these students didn’t find out that “Dr. PD” was Pagan until the petition was made public. Former student Casey Jo Berland, a practicing Christian, said, “Kat kept her religion completely hidden from her students. I had absolutely no idea until after the semester was over and I called her for advice. And even then she was hesitant to open up about it.”

Privett-Duren’s hesitation to discuss her religion was more about professionalism than about fear of discovery. All of the interviewed students and faculty agree that Auburn’s climate is generally more progressive as compared to many other locations in Alabama or the Southeast. The university was even home to an active Pagan student organization, Pantheon, for years.

More recently, the town itself has become host to the only Pagan Pride Day event in the state. In fact, Auburn Pagan Pride Day is held at the Arboretum on the University campus. APPD organizer and longtime resident Linda Kerr says, “I’ve lived here since 1983, and have been Pagan here since 1988, and have never had any issues due to being Pagan. I worked at Auburn University for 25 years, and never had any trouble there either.” She holds the Pagan pride event on campus because, “the site is beautiful and lends itself well.” However, APPD is not endorsed or sponsored by the university in any way.

Kerr’s comments, however, were corroborated by other Pagan residents and students. Former Pagan AU student, Jillian Smith, actually applied to the university upon encouragement from Privett-Duren. She said:

Kat told me how open-minded and accepting AU was, allowing for a great deal of personal expression, pursuance of personal interest and acceptance of differing viewpoints when well presented. She spoke of AU as forward-thinking, encouraging of new ideas, and a supposed melting pot of creed, race, color, religion, sexual orientation, and so forth. This was not only a driving point for my application to AU, it was also the kind of community environment in which I wanted my son to be raised — an environment of AU “family” and “All in.”

Despite this progressive climate and academic environment, Privett-Duren still maintains that her termination was related to her religion. She says that the university is located in the very conservative South and that administrators are sometimes not as open-minded as the professors working in the departments. As she points out, her termination came from the college administration, who didn’t know about her religion prior to last fall, and not from her department head, who did.

Unfortunately, university officials declined to comment due to this situation being “a personal employment matter.” Both the AA/EEO department and dean’s office responded similarly saying that they are unable to speak publicly in such cases.

Dr. Privett-Duren

Privett-Duren in her garden

Therefore, the investigation into Privett-Duren’s termination and her allegations of religious discrimination now rest entirely with the EEOC. In the meantime, Privett-Duren has begun other projects. She will be teaching at Cherry Hill Seminary and at another online university. She is writing a memoir about life as a witch in the south and has already sent a fiction project to a publisher. In addition, she is the newest, regular writer at Crone magazine. Her column, which begins this October, is aptly called “Southern-Fried Crone.”  Dr. Privett-Duren says:

As a direct result of my termination, I have been forcibly outed by the process. For over a decade, I existed in fracture:  Seba O’Kiley, the country witch versus Dr. Privett-Duren, the academic. That fracture has healed from the chaos.  What I am now is quite a force of nature, and for that alone, I am grateful. I am now whole, a witch/teacher/mother/academic with no apologies.

Regardless of the outcome of the EEOC investigation, Privett-Duren says that she will keep fighting. She loves Auburn University and the students that call it home. With the spirit of “War Eagle” in her tone, she says, “I just want my job back. I just want to teach.”