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Ethiopian Staff Fired by PUC Raises Fairness Questions in Community

Elias Mulleta at Pacific Union College

An employee at Pacific Union College (PUC) was recently fired and ordered to move out of his mobile home after being seen urinating in the woods near a path. Faculty, staff, students, and some former and current administrators have expressed sympathy for him, and confusion about the situation. 

Elias Mulleta, an Ethiopian immigrant, who has been a custodial employee for 14 years at PUC, has now filed a lawsuit against the college. He insists that PUC has not followed its own rules “for fair play” and wants his “good name back.” 

On March 25, the 61-year-old man was walking to work on a steep, wooded path—he does not own an automobile. An urgent, unexpected need to urinate led him to step off the trail—making sure no one was in sight—to relieve himself. A female student walked by during the process. Mulleta apologized; she said, he recalls, “Don’t worry about it. It is no big deal.” 

That evening he was placed on administrative leave, setting in motion a process that, according to him, has “turned his life upside down.” Mulleta was told only that he had engaged in “inappropriate behavior.” According to a source close to the situation who requested anonymity to comment, the school is basing its action on a report that the act appeared to be sexual. He was ordered to stay off campus and refrain from discussing his case with faculty, staff, or students. 

The police were called to investigate the incident, but after interviewing both Mulleta and the student, the officer reported that no laws had been broken. 

Mulleta’s story has caused extensive discussion in the PUC community. Faculty and staff who characterize Mulleta as “cheerful and hardworking” have called this an outrageous decision. “Would they treat tenured faculty or staff—people like me—this way?” asked one department head privately. 

“The charges against Mr. Mulleta are preposterous,” stated Girma Damte, a pastor who leads the Angwin Ethiopian Seventh-day Adventist Group. “The administration at PUC rushed to judgment without a shred of evidence and without following its own policies and procedures. This is a miscarriage of justice at its worst.”

Mulleta has not been allowed to petition the campus Grievance Committee as that’s a process reserved for faculty and students. This left him feeling like the administration has not followed a professional investigatory process in which he can share his side of the story. 

The case of Elias Mulleta has the potential of “serious embarrassment and loss” for PUC, according to Adu Worku, longtime director of the Nelson Memorial Library at Pacific Union College, now retired. Northern California Ethiopian Americans are especially angry, seeing both racism and xenophobia at work. Mulleta is experiencing a “nightmare,” says one friend.

PUC offered Mulleta $20,000 in severance or a temporary job in the College Market, with no contact with students, staff and faculty. But these proposals were unacceptable to a man intent on preserving his honor. In response to a request to comment, Pacific Union College states that it, “Takes seriously all allegations of misconduct and that it cannot comment on the specifics of any ongoing litigation asserted by Mr. Mulleta at this time.” It adds, “We are committed to protecting our students and our employees and ensuring a safe learning and working environment for all.” 

Elias Muletta in front of the Angwin Village Church
Elias Mulleta in front of the Angwin Village Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“On April 15, Pastor Girma and I went to the president’s office and pleaded with him to reconsider,” stated Worku. “Pastor Girma cried out loud while pleading with the president, saying they had tagged one of the nicest and most faithful guys on campus with a horrible accusation.” Worku added, “Unfortunately, our desperate peace making efforts fell on deaf ears.”

Facing the additional threat of losing his home, Mulleta has hired an attorney with expertise in racial discrimination cases. Mulleta says, “At 61 years old, with a false sexual offense on my record, there is no way that I will be able to find another job.” He adds, “I am scared, deeply saddened, and very confused. PUC’s cruel and unusual punishment, based on fabricated accusations, feels like a death sentence.” 

About the author

Yemeseratch Girma graduated from Oakwood University. She received her Master of Social Work degree from San Jose State University. More from Yemeseratch Girma.
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