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Punished for passing out fliers, Truckee Meadows math professor Lars Jensen takes his case to court

Lawsuit: TMCC “engaged in willful retaliation” in “a concerted effort to punish” Jensen for flagging the college’s declining academic standards.
Hearing at Truckee Meadows Community College to fire longtime tenured faculty member Lars Jensen had 11 witnesses testifying in support of Jensen

Administrators at Truckee Meadows Community College retaliated against math professor Lars Jensen (pictured) after he criticized the college’s academic standards. After a letter from FIRE, Jensen was allowed to continue teaching at the college. Now, he's filed a lawsuit against the administrators who targeted him. (Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, copyright, 2021.)

Lars Jensen, a tenured math professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, sued TMCC administrators yesterday for retaliating against his exercise of First Amendment rights. TMCC punished Jensen for criticizing the institution’s academic standards, the lawsuit alleges, by twice issuing him baseless “unsatisfactory” performance evaluations, then attempting to fire him.

Jensen is seeking a court order forcing TMCC to remove all negative personnel files and to return his performance evaluations to their previous “excellent” status. He is also seeking compensation for the harm the college caused by violating his First Amendment rights and recoupment of raises in salary to which he would have been entitled had he not received the allegedly retaliatory negative performance evaluations. 

Jensen’s job at TMCC was first threatened in 2021 after administrators gave him two consecutive unsatisfactory annual reviews for alleged “insubordination” despite positive reviews from his department chair. But thanks to a letter from FIRE in October, and critical intervention by an attorney with the Nevada Faculty Alliance, Jensen was not terminated.

Public college administrators cannot demand that faculty give up First Amendment rights then punish them for “insubordination” when they refuse.

While Jensen’s job was saved, yesterday he took the first step toward redressing the harm that TMCC caused by violating his right to free expression.

TMCC administrators “engaged in willful retaliation and attempts to publicly humiliate him with letters of reprimand, negative annual performance evaluations, and investigations,” the complaint alleges. “The pattern of actions taken by the defendants demonstrates a concerted effort to punish Dr. Jensen for [commentary at a] Math Summit and criticism of a deterioration of shared governance at TMCC.”

After dean’s retaliation, Jensen faced termination

The conflict between Jensen and TMCC stems from a professional development session at a math conference held in January 2020. Jensen attempted to comment on what he viewed as diminished academic standards that TMCC used to prop up enrollment, but was prevented from speaking because the schedule called for a break period to begin. So, Jensen went back to his office, typed and printed his comments, and distributed them to his colleagues during the break. 

Julie Ellsworth, TMCC’s dean of the Life Sciences, Allied Health and Public Safety Division, told Jensen not to circulate his fliers during the break, but he continued to do so without interrupting the professional development session.

“The pattern of actions taken by the defendants demonstrates a concerted effort to punish Dr. Jensen."

That incident led the dean to issue Jensen the first of two unsatisfactory reviews later that year. Jensen’s second unsatisfactory review came the following year, in April 2021, after he disagreed with TMCC over various syllabus requirements. 

Because TMCC policy provides that two consecutive unsatisfactory reviews can create grounds for termination, Jensen faced the loss of his job as a consequence of the dean’s retaliation. 

Jensen’s suit latest in pattern of faculty speech rights controversies

Public college administrators cannot demand that faculty give up First Amendment rights then punish them for “insubordination” when they refuse. Faculty have a right to comment on matters of public concern, even when doing so as part of their job duties. Jensen’s expression about the college’s curricular standards engaged a matter of public concern, and there was no evidence Jensen caused any disruption on campus. 

FIRE will be closely watching Jensen’s case as he fights to ensure that TMCC faces consequences for violating faculty speech rights. 

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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