ST. GEORGE — Faculty at Dixie State University and a group of Utah state senators are seeking investigation into the school’s administration in light of the way the university has handled the termination of tenured professors.
On Thursday, a request for a performance audit of DSU to examine compliance with the university’s policies regarding employee termination was submitted by five state senators to the Legislature’s Audit Subcommittee. The request comes just one week after a group of faculty members drafted a letter asking the school’s Faculty Senate to review policies intended to safeguard faculty rights and due process.
The calls for investigation come after two music professors, Glenn Webb and Ken Peterson, were fired for allegedly violating university policy. Both were later reinstated after appealing their termination, but the university would only agree to Peterson’s reinstatement if he signed a “Last Chance Agreement” that would have prevented him from teaching in his specialized field and otherwise restrict his ability to work on campus.
Citing what they call “unreasonable demands,” the senators’ letter says the university is failing to meet its legal and ethical obligation to follow consistent and fair practices in human resources.
The letter posits that the action taken against Peterson appears to be “part of a larger pattern” of punishing school employees who speak out against the leadership of the administration and university President Richard “Biff” Williams and that DSU is hiding behind university policies “in order to punish dissent and undermine academic independence.”
“The principle of academic tenure is of vital importance to the quality and vibrancy of our higher education system,” the letter reads. “Any attack on this academic independence and open debate in order to silence dissent is a dangerous road and one that should be chilling to anyone who values free speech, whether you stand on the political left or the right.”
The senators – Karen Mayne, Gene Davis, Luz Escamilla, Jani Iwamoto and Jim Dabakis – are asking the Audit Subcommittee to determine whether DSU has enacted policies that reflect best practices formulated by, among others, the American Association of University Professors.
The AAUP has taken an active stance on Peterson’s case, submitting a letter to the university president arguing that the professor’s terms of reinstatement violate academic freedom.
“Taken together, the sanctions against Professor Peterson, listed in the ‘Last Chance Agreement,’ plainly constitute severe sanctions and should not have been imposed without administration’s having afforded him the requisite protections of academic due process,” the Aug. 24 AAUP letter reads.
The “DSU Faculty Call to Action” letter, which was emailed to fellow faculty Sept. 13 and signed by four “Concerned members of the DSU Faculty,” also defers to the AAUP, which states that Peterson has not been afforded due process, even under the university’s own policies regarding termination and reinstatement.
The faculty letter asks the Faculty Senate to support the AAUP’s recommendation that the “Last Chance Agreement” be withdrawn as a condition of Peterson’s reinstatement. The letter argues that the Faculty Review Board that recommended his reinstatement should have been notified of any such agreement and allowed input on any terms or conditions.
The senators are also asking auditors to determine what impact such personnel decisions have on faculty and student morale.
The faculty members who drafted their own letter make it clear that, in their view, morale has been affected negatively.
“We are fearful of our livelihoods and concerned for the well-being and job security of our colleagues,” the faculty letter reads. “We fear that our own minor policy violations or poorly worded phrases will result in significant discipline. … We suspect that we may be threatened with termination barring consent to unreasonable and degrading working conditions.”
The faculty members say they have lost confidence in the administration’s judgment and are “dumbfounded” by its decisions.
“Whether justified or not, the perception is growing that something is seriously amiss at DSU,” the letter reads. “We believe that as a faculty we have left these concerns unaddressed too long already, and now seek a prompt and appropriate response.”
While the university has not commented on the “Faculty Call to Action” letter, in a statement to St. George News, the institution said it does support the senators’ wish to look into its policies. The statement reads:
Dixie State University is supportive of any effort to improve our current policies and procedures when needed. The University is dedicated to engaging in best practices and will work closely with our local and state leaders in this endeavor.
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