TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Can A University Fire Tenured Faculty For Revealing Confidential Tenure Deliberations?

Inside Higher Ed, Is Gossip Grounds for Termination?:

Discussions about tenure votes are considered private on most campuses, but some say Dixie State is trumping up breach of confidentiality claims against two professors to get rid of them for political reasons.

While institutions are beginning to take more action on faculty misconduct, tenured faculty terminations remain rare and typically follow reports of serious misconduct. So the mysterious firings of two longtime, tenured professors of music at Dixie State University in Utah last week are attracting attention — including a petition to bring them back.

“Both are widely loved and known in their community and were fired for minor policy violations,” reads the petition, organized by a group called Full Disclosure DSU. “We believe that termination should be saved for the most severe actions, and their punishment does not fit their ‘crimes.’”

Even in scare quotes, “crimes” is probably too strong a word for the main claims against Glenn Webb, chair of music, and Ken Peterson, director of vocal activities: not liking a colleague and then discussing the vote on that colleague's tenure bid.

Peterson, who did not respond to a request for comment, posted on Facebook his notice of dismissal, dated Friday. It accuses him of “professional incompetence, serious misconduct or unethical behavior" and "serious violation” of university rules and regulations.

Specific charges include disclosing “confidential information” about the employment, including the tenure-review process, of Mark Houser, an assistant professor of theater and program chair, to “unauthorized third persons.” At least one such “unauthorized conversation” took place at a campus cafe, the letter says.

Peterson is also accused of “improperly representing” the music program in telling an unnamed faculty member in the music and theater department that he wanted Houser “terminated.” He’s accused, too, of “slandering” Houser in commenting -- to someone -- that he was “destroying” the theater program, “a direct impact on Houser’s professional reputation.”

Without direct evidence, the letter says that Peterson’s (presumably low) scoring of Houser’s tenure rubric shows his “biases towards Houser.”

The dismissal letter links Peterson’s case to a third, also questionable faculty termination in 2014 — that of Varlo Davenport. The former tenured professor of theater was fired after a student said she’d been physically hurt in a theater exercise. A faculty committee recommended against dismissal after Peterson and Webb spoke on Davenport's behalf during the appeals process. But Dixie State fired Davenport — who was acquitted in a related criminal case and is now suing the university in civil court — nonetheless.

Several years after the incident in the theater class, Dixie State has accused Peterson of “slandering” both Houser and President Richard “Biff” Williams in saying “loudly in a public place” that both were corrupt and had conspired against Davenport.

Peterson is charged with generally failing to demonstrate “professional standards of behavior, including collegiality and the open exchange of ideas through civil discourse.”

Webb, meanwhile, declined to share his letter of dismissal. But a group of his colleagues past and present -- most of whom declined to be named, citing what they described as an atmosphere of fear and intimidation on campus -- say his main transgression was telling a family member overseas that he believed his department had rejected Houser’s tenure bid. The family member had no affiliation to Dixie State and colleagues say Webb based his assessment on the tenor of the music and theater faculty's conversation before the vote.

Legal Education | Permalink


It sounds to me like Houser and President Richard “Biff” Williams wanted him gone because of a personal feud, and this was a trumped up excuse.

Posted by: richard40 | Mar 9, 2018 8:38:39 PM

Again, it's kooky to fire someone for this kind of thing, but I doubt that's all that happened ...

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Mar 9, 2018 11:38:44 PM