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How far will Dixie State University go to fire a tenured professor? Ask Ken Peterson

By August 10, 2018

At the American Association of University Professors’ Academe blog, John K. Wilson has been following a troubling case involving the abrupt termination of two Dixie State University music professors. The termination of one in particular, tenured professor Ken Peterson, has free speech and academic freedom advocates deeply concerned.

In early March 2018, DSU issued termination letters to Peterson as well as to Glenn Webb, chair of DSU’s music department, hanging its case against the professors in large part on an alleged violation of employee confidentiality. Among other things, they were accused of disclosing to unauthorized persons the outcome of the tenure vote of another professor, Mark Houser, whose tenure bid was denied. (More details are known about Peterson’s case than Webb’s.)

Wilson has reported extensively on the case in multiple posts for Academe, and Inside Higher Ed has covered the case as well, so rather than regurgitate the full details of DSU’s alleged case against Peterson, I encourage readers to check out those sources. Briefly, though, DSU accused Peterson of disclosing confidential information showing inappropriate bias against Houser during the tenure review process. DSU also accused Peterson of “slander[ing]” Houser and DSU president Richard B. Williams as being part of a conspiracy to oust DSU theater professor Varlo Davenport. Davenport’s termination in 2014 was itself highly controversial (Inside Higher Ed described it as “questionable”), and Davenport is currently suing DSU over his treatment.

Peterson appealed his termination, and a faculty review board recommended his reinstatement. In July, the Utah System of Higher Education stated that it supported the faculty’s recommendation, and likewise supported his reinstatement. DSU claimed to welcome the outcome, with a spokesperson saying, “Dixie State University wholeheartedly supports this decision, and we look forward to working with Dr. Peterson again.”

Then came DSU’s “Last Chance Agreement,” which the university demanded he sign if he wished to return. Wilson described it as “one of the most extreme violations of academic freedom and free speech that I’ve ever seen,” and indeed the agreement’s restrictions are incredibly expansive and place fundamental restrictions on his speech. Among them are requirements that he cannot “make unfounded or untruthful derogatory statements about Dixie State University and its faculty, staff, students or administration,” including on his social media accounts. Also prohibited are “[v]erbal, written, and/or physical diatribes that would cast himself or DSU in an unfavorable light” and “[h]arsh, foul or coarse language used to insult others.” Peterson is also prohibited from providing music lessons anywhere on the DSU campus, or from recruiting or advertising his services as a private tutor “while on DSU property, facilities, or during any DSU sponsored event.”

The academic freedom and free speech implications from the agreement’s speech restrictions are clear. What will DSU interpret as “derogatory”? Is any perceived insult against anyone in the administration ripe for punishment under the policy? It’s far too easy to imagine how DSU can justify any slip of the tongue or perceived slight as a violation that would justify termination. Peterson posted the Last Chance Agreement to his Facebook page with a note that concluded, “It is punitive, vindictive, disenfranchising, and dehumanizing. I cannot sign it.” Wilson wonders if DSU’s agreement was purposefully designed to be so unattractive and punitive that Peterson would refuse to sign it, so that the university could use it as justification for firing him. I wonder the exact same thing. (Webb’s reinstatement has also been recommended, but it’s unclear under what conditions.)

While this may be a rather exceptional case of a university turning the screws on one of its own faculty, it’s worth also pointing out that a number of factors in Peterson’s case are increasingly par for the course with university administrations. If DSU has been determined to fire Peterson all along, it would hardly be the first university to ignore, undermine, or subvert the recommendations of its faculty to get there. FIRE has seen faculty recommendations ignored by university administrations in favor of their own preferred, harsher sanctions at institutions including the University of Denver, Appalachian State University, and Louisiana State University. The willingness to take such unilateral actions regardless of whether they enjoy faculty support erodes shared governance, and as such is a threat to academic freedom and tenure.

Likewise, FIRE has seen other faculty put in the untenable position of having to sign “professional development plans” and last chance agreements that infringed on their free speech and academic freedom, in some cases with termination being the explicit outcome for refusing to submit to violations of their rights. None of this is to diminish the brazenness of DSU’s demands against Ken Peterson. His case may well speak to an unaccountable university administration bent on retribution against a critic. Unfortunately for academics across the country, DSU is not the only university willing to use this playbook.

Schools: Dixie State University