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Was prof fired for protesting naming center for Mormon apostle Packer?

Published July 12, 2013 9:32 am

Jared Lisonbee says others in community share his opposition.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A Weber State University assistant professor says it appears he lost his job because he disagreed with the school's decision to name a new family center after senior Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer, who has stirred controversy with comments critical of feminists, intellectuals and gay people.

Jared Lisonbee, an assistant professor of child and family studies, said he got a letter "out of the blue" last week stating his employment would be terminated at the end of the 2013-14 academic year. He spoke against the decision at a faculty meeting in late 2012.

"I kind of see, at least at Weber, that only a certain type of speech is valued or valid," he said. "I don't think it's an issue for most of the faculty — as long as you don't do anything that your department chair disagrees with."

A Weber State spokesman said the Ogden school supports free speech and academic freedom but declined to comment on Lisonbee's case.

Lisonbee has worked at Weber State for about two years and said his performance evaluations have not been negative. But his relationship with department Chairman Paul Schvaneveldt changed dramatically in late 2012, Lisonbee said, after Schvaneveldt announced at a faculty meeting that a new fundraising and support group for community programs would be named for Packer. The family center is not a building.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apostle previously has spoken against interracial marriage, called same-sex attraction morally wrong and declared the greatest threats to the LDS faith came from feminists, gays and intellectuals. Packer earned an associate degree from Weber State before continuing his education at Utah State University and Brigham Young University.

Lisonbee spoke up at the meeting.

"I said, 'I really don't think this is a good idea. I don't think it represents the diversity of families the center will be serving,' " he said.

He also outlined his concerns in an email to Jack Rasmussen, dean of the College of Education, who acknowledged the issue to Lisonbee but kept the name.

Afterward, Lisonbee said, his department chairman seemed to watch him more closely. Schvaneveldt accused him of walking out of graduation halfway through the ceremony, although Lisonbee responded that he had only changed positions to greet students.

In another conversation, Schvaneveldt "basically said not everyone is a good fit for Weber," Lisonbee said.

After the new Boyd K. and Donna S. Packer Center was announced May 1, Lisonbee's wife, Shairylann, wrote a letter to Ogden's Standard-Examiner calling the name "a slap in the face for many in the community."

The letter sparked a change.org petition started by James Carroll, a native Utahn who now lives in New Mexico, advocating for a name change. It now has 2,500 signatures. The Utah Stonewall Democrats, a gay-rights group, later wrote a letter to Weber State protesting the name.

But Rasmussen told The Salt Lake Tribune that officials hoped the name would connect with donors, and it appeared that it did, based on the funds raised.

Shortly before Lisonbee received his termination letter June 25, he said, he had a positive conversation with Schvaneveldt about his progress toward tenure. He would have been eligible for tenure after six years of employment. Lisonbee earned a bachelor's and master's degree from Brigham Young University and a doctorate from Auburn University.

"I was definitely making progress in the areas we identified," he said. The letter didn't outline a reason for his dismissal, and "because I'm pre-tenure ... I doubt I will ever really know."

Schvaneveldt couldn't immediately be reached for comment. A university spokesman, though, denied that the school makes personnel decisions based on employees' beliefs.

"Employees are evaluated on neutral, job-related criteria," said Weber State's John Kowalewski, pointing out that the school has an employment appeals process. "Dr. Lisonbee underwent the normal tenure-review process during the '12-13 academic year."

Lisonbee said he plans to finish out next year and look for a new job. "It'll be an uncomfortable year," he said. "Next year, I'll be somewhere else."

lwhitehurst@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lwhitehurst