SUU professor's cussing may hurt his tenure hopes

Published November 24, 2004 1:10 am

Oops: He let a swear word fly during a heated classroom debate and later apologized
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A popular political science professor dropped an "f-bomb" in class at Southern Utah University, and the fallout has triggered a departmental probe and student allegations that the Cedar City school may deny the teacher tenure.

Stephen Roberds - the choice of the university's students for professor of the year in 2003-04 - let loose with the swear word last month during a dispute with a student about a Supreme Court ruling.

At one point during the debate, Roberds asked: "What the [f-word] are they teaching you in criminal justice?" - referring to an academic discipline that SUU recently combined with political science.

Roberds quickly apologized to the student and his classmates, according to senior Tasha Williams, a political science major who witnessed the exchange.

"The student [involved] told me personally that he and professor Roberds had chatted about it for more than 45 minutes," she said. "[The student] said it was resolved. I don't understand why it's still an issue."

But it is.

Lamar Jordan, chairman of SUU's Department of Political Science & Criminal Justice, said the student filed an official complaint. "I was obligated to follow [SUU's] policy and look into it," Jordan said.

However, that investigation also is causing a stir.

Senior Megan Brown, a political science major from Sandy, said the student - who has not been publicly identified - told her he was approached by Jordan and urged to complain.

The controversy could not have come at a worse time for Roberds, who after seven years at SUU is under review for tenure.

Roberds said this week he was "not prepared to make public comments at this time." But he said he is considering legal representation.

So did the professor's profanity violate SUU policy?

The school requires faculty to "provide a respectful atmosphere and not reward agreement or penalize disagreement with their views on controversial topics."

Human Resources Director David McGuire said Roberds' outburst could be read as a violation of that policy. "There will be people who would say that was not a very respectful atmosphere or a sensitive atmosphere."

Even so, Susan Olsen, vice president for faculty at the University of Utah, said she doesn't think one cussing incident - even if it occurred "right in the middle of tenure review" - would stop a professor from gaining tenure at the U.

Barry Gomberg, director of Weber State University's equal employment office, said he doesn't believe an isolated curse word in class would be enough to deny tenure at the Ogden school either.

Jordan's inquiry at SUU included calling a group of students to his office to discuss "curriculum issues."

At least four of the students told the University Journal student newspaper that they were "interrogated" and asked questions designed to elicit negative anecdotes about Roberds.

In a letter published Monday in the student paper, Jordan acknowledged that he invited students to his office under the "pretext [of discussing] a 'curriculum matter.' ”

This was done "out of concern for the privacy of Dr. Roberds," he wrote. He also characterized his conversations with the students as interviews, not interrogations.

SUU President Steven Bennion told The Salt Lake Tribune he had no qualms about how Jordan invited students to his office, noting that it was better than saying, “ 'I want to talk about such and such professor' and broadcasting that."

"When we review faculty, we take into account students as well as faculty and administrative assessment," Bennion said. "That's what the department's chair was doing."

Although Jordan balked at the student paper's coverage of the dispute, Journal Editor Melissa Nielsen said other SUU faculty and staff have praised the Journal's stories as "some of the best journalism" they have seen in a long time.

"People think we have more credibility now," said Nielsen, a senior communication major from Grantsville. "There are lots of sides to this story. . . . Just having Lamar Jordan write in to give us his side enhances our credibility."


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