ST. GEORGE — A large gathering of peaceful protesters at the Dixie State University campus Monday morning ensured that the first day of the school year would be anything but routine.
Students, alumni, teachers and community members of all ages made their grievances clear, saying the university’s treatment of a beloved music professor, Ken Peterson, is a grave injustice.
The protesters rallied in the heart of the university campus near the newly built clock tower then moved to the steps of the university library. Organizers said about 100 people participated in the gathering over the course of three hours. Demonstrators held handmade signs questioning and criticizing the university administration’s treatment of Peterson and other professors.
With phrases like “Stop the Abuse of Power” and “Investigate Dixie State,” the colorful signs attracted the attention of curious students on their way to class, whom protest leader Corinne McFerran and other vocal participants took the time speak to.
“We’re all here because he (Peterson) deserves his rights; he deserves to be treated with respect,” said McFerran, a DSU music graduate who heads the watchdog website Full Disclosure DSU.
Peterson, who was present at Monday’s demonstration, was fired from his 16-year tenured teaching position in March for allegedly violating university policy but was later reinstated after his case was reviewed by the Utah System of Higher Education. However, DSU’s terms of reinstatement have been decried as stiflingly infeasible.
“It’s a horrible, horrible document that they were unwilling to negotiate because they frankly just didn’t want him working here, and they’re trying to get away with that,” McFerran said of the contractual agreement that the university insisted Peterson sign in order to be reinstated.
The five-page “Last Chance Agreement” lists 28 conditions of re-employment that would have restricted his movements and speech on campus and mandated he no longer teach in his specialized field.
In a statement to St. George News Monday, the university said the agreement was based on specific policy violations that occurred during Peterson’s employment.
“Dr. Peterson has rejected the agreement and thereby resigned his position,” the university’s statement reads.
Peterson published his termination letter shortly after his dismissal, in which he was accused of disclosing confidential information about another professor’s employment, slandering university President Richard “Biff” Williams and “failing to demonstrate professional standards of behavior,” among other alleged violations of policy.
“They’re treating him like a criminal and he has done nothing criminal,” McFerran said. “He is a pillar of the community and he’s an incredible, incredible educator. … It’d be a tragedy to lose him.”
Of the many gathered coworkers and students of Peterson with whom St. George spoke, all gave nothing but effusive praise for the now-jobless voice instructor.
“My experience with Ken is vast on so many levels. I’ve experienced him happy, I’ve experienced him sad. Every single one of my encounters with him have been good, pleasant, above board,” DSU music graduate and continuing student Jalee Scott said. “He has always been 100 percent professional, ethical, compassionate, helpful. He has never been anything less.”
Another current student, percussionist James Hetrick, said Peterson went out of his way to mentor him in voice instruction.
“Ken is really great. He’s never done anything to spark concern. He took the time to befriend me and offer lessons.”
Amanda Pearson, an adjunct professor teaching introduction to music courses this semester, said Peterson’s dismissal has been a massive loss for music department.
In the wake of Peterson’s and another music professor’s mid-semester termination, Pearson was asked to pick up some of the course load resulting from their dismissal.
“Last semester was pretty demoralizing,” she said. “The music department really functioned like we were in mourning. It really felt like someone had died. It was definitely the worst work conditions I’ve ever faced in my life.”
Pearson said Peterson’s talent is irreplaceable.
“I think there are a few professors in the School of Music who could be teaching anywhere, and the reason they stick to here is because they enjoy the culture and the city and the people they work with – and that’s Dr. Peterson. He’s an expert in his field and a stand-up guy.”
In its statement, the university says Peterson’s position as a vocal instructor has already been filled.
“DSU has secured skilled faculty to fill the position, which will ensure that students have full access to instruction,” the statement reads.
But Pearson said the situation goes far beyond the position of just one professor.
“We kind of find ourselves in the same situation as last semester where suddenly we’re looking around and thinking, ‘What does this mean for my career? What am I allowed to say and not say?’” she said, referring to faculty members.
“The goal used to be, you get a full-time position here and hopefully get tenure and then you’re allowed to establish yourself and hopefully build something that sticks. And if professors can’t do that, and they know tenure doesn’t guarantee you anything at Dixie State, then we’re probably not going to get the best people sticking around here to teach.
“It’s not good for alumni. It’s not good for donations or future scholarship funds.”
St. George News confirmed that at least two scholarships have been pulled as a result of the firings and suspensions of Peterson and other professors.
Rhonda Tommer, who was at Monday’s protest, said the scholarships that she and her husband oversee were rescinded – The Tommer Family Music Education Scholarship and the Tommer Family Communications Scholarship.
“We have since rescinded the scholarships due to what we consider to be very unfair treatment of several faculty members at DSU,” the Tommers said in a statement. “The timing of this disengagement shows us that the needs of the students are last on administration’s list of priorities.”
Tommer and several protesters with whom St. George News spoke said the university should either rescind the last chance agreement or allow Peterson to negotiate the terms.
Peterson said the university refused all of his and his lawyer’s attempts to negotiate the agreement. He said the person responsible for confirming his reinstatement, Elizabeth Hitch, associate commissioner for academic and student affairs for the Utah State Board of Regents, only suggested three conditions for his reemployment: that he be fined, that he not lie about DSU and that he not divulge faculty matters to students.
“That’s an agreement that, although I disagree with in principle, I would have signed,” Peterson said.
After the Aug. 15 deadline passed to sign the last chance agreement, Peterson said he expected to receive a response from the university saying they would take his refusal to sign the document as his resignation.
“To this day I have not received any official communication from the university,” he said, explaining that he only found out indirectly that he was no longer employed when he was denied tuition waivers for two of his sons attending the university.
Peterson said he is preparing for the likely eventuality that he will not have a future at DSU and will probably have to leave Southern Utah.
“I love these people,” he said, referring to the gathered protesters and many other friends he’s made in his 16 years at DSU. “On the flip side, all these people who want me to stay and are fighting for me to stay, I will be torn from. It’s hard to think about, honestly. In order to function normally, I have to try not to think about that.
“What do you say to people who would make sacrifices for you? Thank you isn’t enough.”
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