Fired DSU professor says signing reinstatement document would be akin to having ‘gun pointed at my head’

Ken Peterson, a Dixie State University professor, directs the Southern Utah Heritage Choir, St. George, Utah, date not specified | File photo courtesy of the Southern Utah Heritage Choir, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A Dixie State University music professor who was fired and subsequently recommended for reinstatement says a condition of his reinstatement would force him to sign an agreement that would prevent him from teaching in his specialized field and otherwise tightly restrict his ability to function as a faculty member.

“If I ever were to sign this, which I won’t, I would forever have a gun pointed at my head,” Ken Peterson said, speaking metaphorically, in an interview with St. George News Monday.

Ken Peterson speaks to supporters after being terminated from his teaching position at Dixie State University, St. George, Utah, March 2, 2018 | File photo by Michael Egbert, St. George News

A tenured professor of 16 years at DSU, Peterson was fired in early March for allegedly violating university policy regarding confidentiality and “slandering” the university president and others. He went through a monthslong appeals process that resulted in the Utah System of Higher Education recommending on July 10 that he get his job back.

Days after receiving the news of his pending reinstatement, he said the university presented him with a “Last Chance Agreement,” a five-page document that lists 28 explicit conditions of his reemployment.

Peterson published the document in its entirety on social media Monday afternoon. In it, the university says Peterson has “demonstrated unprofessional/uncivil behavior towards DSU and its faculty, staff, and administration” and alleges that he displayed “inappropriate behavior toward DSU students.”

“The people who know me best are the people who find this document laughable,” Peterson said. “People who don’t know me at all would think I’m a criminal after reading this.”

As a result of his alleged behavior, the document says Peterson would have to teach general education courses.

They told me I can’t do what I was hired to do anymore,” he said, noting that all of his degrees are specialized in voice performance. “I would be teaching classes that I have not received an education to teach.”

Part of his curriculum included providing private voice lessons, which he would be forbidden from doing under the agreement.

The document says the university “has lost confidence in Dr. Peterson’s ability to act professionally and appropriately, in unsupervised or secluded areas.” The document also specifically says he shall not violate non-discrimination laws in his educational practice.

Peterson and many of his supporters say they are baffled by the language implying discriminatory behavior and accusing him of being inappropriate toward students.

“I have never witnessed him being ‘inappropriate,’” DSU music graduate Gwyn Gable said in reference to the document. “This does feel like a smear campaign to me.”

A Dixie State University graduate wears a graduation cap in support of fired music professor Ken Peterson, St. George, Utah, May 4, 2018 | File photo by Spencer Ricks, St. George News

A throng of supporters on social media echoed this sentiment Monday after Peterson made the document public.

“The students considered my office a safe space,” Peterson said.

He said that prior to his termination, he had never received any disciplinary action in his entire 28-year career in higher education.

“The hallmark of my career is to treat my students with love and respect unconditionally at all times,” he said.

“Ken Peterson was the best college professor I have ever had,” Gable said. “He cared about his students. I learned more from him than any other professor I’ve ever had, because he was super passionate about teaching music. When it came to teaching voice, I can say there is no one like him.”

Peterson said signing the document would severely restrict his ability to function on the campus, which includes some ambiguous language, including a nonspecific reference to “ceasing unprofessional behaviors” or otherwise face termination.

Other parts of the document are more specific, including one in which he is forbidden from coming within 500 feet of Mark Houser, a fine arts professor at DSU that Peterson is accused of slandering. The document forbids any “threatening” or “intimidating” language or conduct toward Houser.

Peterson said he had already been going out of his way to avoid Houser and has never been violent toward anyone.

“Since the termination of Varlo Davenport, I have probably said four words to Mark Houser,” Peterson said.

Varlo Davenport with a group of friends after being found not guilty in court, St. George, Utah, July 14, 2016 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

Peterson previously vouched for Davenport, a tenured DSU theater professor, after he was terminated in 2014 for accusations he was later acquitted of. Davenport has filed a lawsuit against the university in which Houser is alleged to have led university President Richard “Biff” Williams to fire Davenport under false claims.

Ultimately, the part of the document Peterson said he took most issue with was the final paragraph, which states all of the terms of the “Last Chance Agreement” would last for the entirety of his employment at DSU.

Peterson said the university refused to negotiate the document to allow it to be probationary rather than permanent.

“We (Peterson and his lawyer) exhausted every opportunity to find some sort of compromise regarding this last chance agreement, and they utterly refused to change anything,” Peterson said. “There isn’t a person in their right mind that would ever sign away their life like this.”

He said this is likely the end of the road for his employment at DSU. He has been preparing his house for sale and said he will be speaking with his realtor soon so that he and his family can “start a new chapter” elsewhere.

Fired Dixie State University professor Ken Peterson demonstrates across the street from the university in St. George, Utah, May 3, 2018 | File photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

“Everything that I’ve spent the last 16 years trying to build – a large, successful vocal studio, a very active recital performance program, and at one time a nationally renowned theater performance program – is currently all in ashes,” he said, noting that enrollment in the music program has dropped dramatically.

Read more: Firing of 2 Dixie State University professors will have ‘drastic’ effect on education, students say

Peterson said he hopes his decision to publicize the document will shed light on the university administration.

“This administration has been desperate to keep all of their dealings secret. And they hide behind confidentiality, when in truth they do not want people to know what they’re doing to their employees,” he said. “In publishing this last chance agreement, I think people will get a very, very clear picture of how this administration operates.”

Update Aug. 7, 7:15 p.m. DSU issued the following statement Tuesday:

Dr. Peterson’s appeal of his Notice of Intent to Terminate his tenure appointment began with a Faculty Review Board hearing. The recommendation for reinstatement with a verbal or written warning from the Faculty Review Board, a recommending body, then went to an independent reviewer for a final decision. President Williams, being a party mentioned in the investigation, elected to recuse himself as the final decision maker to avoid any possible conflicts. President Williams was not involved in the initial determination to terminate Dr. Peterson, nor was he involved in the hearing, the final determination of Dr. Peterson’s employment, or the drafting of the Last Chance Agreement.

The University selected Dr. Elizabeth Hitch, Associate Commissioner for Academic & Student Affairs for the Utah State Board of Regents, as the independent reviewer. Dr. Hitch reviewed the evidence and testimonies presented at the Dixie State Faculty Review Board hearing and, in accordance with Dixie State University policy, made the final determination of reinstatement contingent that certain terms and conditions be included in a Last Chance Agreement. The terms of the Last Chance Agreement are based upon Dr. Hitch’s independent determination that Dr. Peterson’s actions violated DSU policy.

Email: jwitham@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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19 Comments

  • John August 6, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    Bu-Bye!! You’re not as important as you think, Ken Peterson, you’re just like the rest of us. Totally replaceable!

    • Anon August 7, 2018 at 8:51 am

      Being replaceable is not the issue here (though he is a might fine teacher to be tossing to the side like this). The issue is that, if you are an instructor at Dixie and disagree with the administration on absolutely anything, your job is in jeopardy and NO ONE, especially in education, should have to work in an atmosphere like that. Education should be the epicenter of free thought and discussion and new ideas and techniques to forward the next generation. Instead, this administration is turning it into a dictatorship. And a disagreement over an appointment is not justification for termination. It would be like one of your coworkers getting promoted over you and you getting fired for saying that you disagree with management’s decision.

      • Happy Commenter August 7, 2018 at 12:48 pm

        DSU is an “at will” employer which means they can fire him for whatever reason they want, whenever they want, they don’t even really need a reason and this clown should be glad they are offering him a job! Too bad for him.

        • Robert August 7, 2018 at 4:53 pm

          Any “at will” employer would be liable for any oppressive retaliatory dismissal. Especially, as we have here, civil rights at issue and such are clearly protected and cannot be the basis for ANY dismissal. Most first year law students know that. The real question here is “who is the legal moron” advising this board? I foresee a multi-million dollar law suit in the professors favor that ends with the removal of all involved. I cant for the life of me see any way out for DSU.

          • Happy Commenter August 7, 2018 at 7:20 pm

            Sorry but you are wrong, They can fire anybody for any reason. He does not have a pot to pee in..

          • Icomments2 August 8, 2018 at 4:54 am

            I agree with you Robert, as for Happy Commenter it may be an at will state but firing of a employee still has to be justified!!! Duh!!!

          • Happy Commenter August 8, 2018 at 12:30 pm

            Until Mr Peterson can produce a document that is a legal agreement between himself and DSU that states he can never be fired , he does not have an argument period. He should be thankful they offered him a position. It doesn’t matter how you “feel”, it is what it is!

      • Icomments2 August 8, 2018 at 4:57 am

        Agreed!!! No one should have to work with anyone like or with the name of a person named Biff!!!

        • Pigtut August 8, 2018 at 3:05 pm

          As a totally uninformed commentor, you should not comment on articles unless you get even the least amount of information, otherwise, you are just a gadfly. Biff Williams never terminated Peterson, although he would have been fired at any other business for the things he had done. Look at the letters he posted online. The Academic Vice-President authorized the termination. He would not have done that without the approval of the Dean of Fine and Performing Arts. And the Dean would not have done anything without the approval of the Department Chair. And none of these people would have taken action except it was approved by University, Board of Regents, and Utah Attorney General’s office legal counsel. In addition Board of Regents and DSU Board of Trustees would also have to approve. By my count, that is a least 33 highly intelligent and successful people who are well aware of employment laws and how they should be administered. Biff Williams does not deserve your angst. He is a very good President who is well respected by the University Community both locally and on a state level. If you were informed, you would have never made them.

  • comments August 6, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    Well, DSU sounds like a tyrannical dictatorship. I don’t know this Biff clown personally, but it sounds to me like someone ought to put him in his place. Now I’m not implying violence or anything of the sort, but how do you go about dealing with these sort of clowns. And I’m sure it’s not just this Biff character. It’s probly the entire “board”. I’m glad it isn’t my problem. Sound like a bunch of nazis. Maybe one of these days they fire someone who turns out to be a loon and goes all postal. Never know. hahahah 😉

  • Kilroywashere August 7, 2018 at 10:59 am

    The bold and the beautiful Dixie State Soap opera never ceases. Anon is right and Comments reductionist analysis is spot on. John on the other hand is just reflecting his slave mentality. Let’s be honest Biff, talking to you personally, do you really think any Professor worth a damn would want to teach at Dixie St. after a few Google searches? And how do you think current professors feel about being associated with this non stop soap opera, as well as knowing one misstep could tarnish their reputations? The answer, YOU DON’T CARE. This has become a joke, and unfortunately, your clientele, i.e. customers, i.e. referred to as the STUDENT BODY , are impacted by the reputation of the institution. Until you turn this around, you are devaluing their education, which they pay $$$ and spend years of their lives studying to obtain. Time to focus on the core constituency. Whether you like it or not, reputation is everything when it comes to a College degree. Reputation in this case comes from having great professors, and creating an environment that challenges and empowers students. But hey, wasting my breath as the board of directors have checked out.

  • Mild Winters August 7, 2018 at 11:28 am

    Losing Dr. Peterson at Dixie State University is a tremendous loss to the students! He’s a superior music professor.
    If Mr. Williams and those persons in his “circle” are in the wrong… the time will come when God will make them pay for their wrongdoings, either professionally or personally, or both. You mark my words on this date, August 7, 2018. “Those who laugh first, seldom laugh last.”

  • Robert August 7, 2018 at 4:44 pm

    This appears to be an ongoing issue with the inept powers that be at DSU. Its about time that the leaders at the state level take control of local leadership run amok. Perhaps several of the Board members condoning this behavior or proffering such an egregiously unfair and oppressive agreement as we have here should lose their jobs. Simply put in the world of professional academia this is clearly unfair and bullheaded. It seems to me that there is a scheme or plan to create an agreement intentionally so oppressive that no intelligent educator would sign it. Then administration can simply hide behind it saying he could have “a” job but we are never giving him “his” job back. I would look for a cause of action under the civil RICO statute as this seems like an organized scheme to oppress and unfairly eliminate employees that could not otherwise be dismissed .

  • Icomments2 August 8, 2018 at 4:50 am

    Biff needs to go away!!! These are a bunch of liberals at their finest!!! Trying to tell you what you can or cannot do lime what they like or you can’t be their friend!!! My child attends DSU and because of this he is giving up his passion in music!!! They fired his mentors of many yrs and for what absolutely nothing!!! And the people they are bringing in are looking elsewhere now, knowing they could be next of they disagree with Biff and the board!!! I know my other children will not attend DSU if Biff is still there and they don’t clean up this mess!!! There are a lot better Universities than this one around!!! Biff is someone that thinks he lives in the 80’s and needs to have his head checked!!! Biff you are a nobody and nobody likes you!!! At will doesn’t actually mean you can get fired for just any ole reason!!! It has to be justified and obviously their termination was not justifiable!!! I really hope they didn’t do this to Glenn Webb too!!! Cuz then they will have an even bigger mess!!!

    • comments August 8, 2018 at 11:57 am

      It seems that this Biff does these things because no one stops him. This Biff is just one man, but people must treat him like he’s some kind of DSU god or something, lol. If you people want this Biff to behave in a civilized way you should do something about it rather than just site back and take it and whine about it afterwards. I got no dog in this fight so I don’t care, but if you allow these sort of clowns to walk all over you they will take every chance to do so.

    • Pigtut August 8, 2018 at 3:27 pm

      Biff a Liberal, that laughable! Your ignorance is unbelievable.

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