Recently fired president of Utah’s Dixie Technical College says she was the target of blackmail and collusion

Kelle Stephens, head of the St. George school since 2012, claims legislators pressured board of trustees for Utah’s network of technical colleges with threats to fire her or face budget cuts.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) A student at one of Utah's applied technology colleges, seen in 2015. Kelle Stephens, president of Dixie Applied Technology College in St. George, was fired Wednesday after a 6-5 vote by the board of trustees over the Utah System of Technical Colleges.

Kelle Stephens, president of Dixie Technical College, was fired Wednesday, and she says she is the victim of blackmail by a disgruntled former employee.

Stephens, who headed the St. George technical school since 2012, was terminated in a 6-5 vote Wednesday by the board of trustees over the Utah System of Technical Colleges.

Board chairman Jim Evans released a written statement Thursday thanking Stephens for her years of service, but offering no clarification on the factors that led to her dismissal.

“We are committed to the success of the students, faculty and staff of Dixie Technical College and have begun the process to find a new president to oversee the school,” Evans said in the statement.

David Woolstenhulme, Utah’s commissioner of technical education, will act as president of the school until an interim replacement can be selected, said Joseph Demma, spokesman for the state’s technical education system. Once an interim president is in place, Demma said, a nationwide candidate search will be carried out to select Stephens’ successor.

But in a document shared with The Salt Lake Tribune, Stephens claims she was blackmailed by a former employee who sent deceptively-edited audio recordings of Stephens to trustees and Utah lawmakers.

Those recordings and an accompanying letter implied discriminatory behavior on Stephens’ behalf and threatened public disclosure of the materials if she was not fired from her position, she claims.

Stephens told The Tribune that she believes lawmakers threatened to withhold funding from the Utah System of Technical Colleges if she was allowed to retain her position over the St. George school.

“I believe the commissioner [of technical education] felt a need to remove me before the beginning of the legislative session,” Stephens said.

While declining comment on the reasons for Stephens’ ouster, Demma did say that her firing was unrelated to a whistleblower lawsuit against the school that became public Wednesday evening.

The vote dismissing Stephens occurred on the same day that a former Dixie Technical College employee, Milan Tripp, filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming he was fired after sharing concerns about the college and refusing to lie about program growth in government reports.

Demma called the timing of that news and Stephen’s dismissal ’“totally coincidental.”

Tripp’s claims are reminiscent of a 2015 legislative audit that found the Utah System of Technical Colleges — then known as the Utah College of Applied Technology, or UCAT — had inflated its graduation numbers to appear on track for statewide education goals.

Lawmakers were critical of the organization, calling its reporting “fraudulent” in formal hearings. And over the last two years, they have passed a series of laws changing the name, governance structure and operations of the state’s technical education network.

Rob Brems, president of UCAT, also stepped down and was replaced in September 2016 by Woolstenhulme in the newly-created position of technical education commissioner.

Stephens confirmed that Tripp is not the same employee who allegedly blackmailed her, whom she declined to name.

Her firing was preceded by months of closed-door meetings by the board of trustees, she said, during which her performance was discussed without any ability for her to respond. Allegations were raised regarding improper financial moves and nepotism, Stephens said, stemming from her nomination of Brecken Cox to join the Utah System of Technical Colleges Board of Trustees.

“I assumed that many, many people knew that Brecken was my son-in-law,” she said. “I felt that he had a lot to offer and he was an outstanding candidate.”

Stephens said her termination was inappropriate and that she intends to pursue legal recourse. The Dixie Technical College Board of Directors approved resolutions supporting her, she said, which were ignored by the trustees.

She said she hopes that an independent investigation can be carried out by a neutral party, in order to separate fact from hearsay.

“Government corruption doesn’t start with some great big event,” Stephens said. “It starts with collusion and a little bit here and a little bit there.”

While declining to comment on Stephen’s claims, Demma said trustees met several times with the Dixie board of directors, and that the power to hire and fire campus presidents is held by the Utah System of Technical Colleges Board of Trustees.

“The commissioner didn’t remove her,” Demma said. “The commissioner doesn't have the authority or the wherewithal to do that.”

— Tribune reporter Paighten Harkins contributed to this story.