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.
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 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.
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.
“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.
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.”
St. George News asked DSU for comment about the document, but a spokeswoman said the university would not be prepared to comment until Tuesday.
Update Aug. 7, 7:15 p.m. DSU issued the following statement:
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.
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