Ken Peterson used to spend his days making music with his students at Dixie State University, where he says he had a “spotless record” with no disciplinary action during his 16 years.
But since he was terminated mid-semester last month, Peterson has been replacing shingles and carpet at his home and adding to a now-16-page document outlining the reasons he believes he was dismissed unfairly.
“My whole life I’ve been looking for someplace to put down roots and throw myself, invest myself in a community and people and build something. … And that’s exactly what we did,” he said. “And now I’m preparing my house to sell at a moment’s notice.”
Peterson is one of at least four tenured professors who have been terminated or put on extended administrative leave at Dixie State over the last four years — which, he notes, coincides with the leadership of university President Richard “Biff” Williams. Peterson is one of three professors terminated from the College of Arts.
One of the arts professors and at least two other former employees have filed suit against Dixie over the last two years, alleging they were terminated unfairly.
“It’s not a coincidence that these began in the fall of 2014,” Peterson said. “That was President Williams’ first semester.”
Jyl Hall, a spokeswoman for Dixie State, said Williams was unable to comment on the terminations. However, she disputed the assertion that the terminations were related to Williams’ leadership.
“President Williams is not even involved in this point of the process yet,” Hall said. “He has to stay completely impartial for the appeal process, so he’s not involved in the initial investigation or appeal process or termination at all.”
Since the university terminated Peterson and Glenn Webb, the former music department chair, a number of students have protested that the dismissals were based not on classroom conduct but on bureaucratic bickering, and have disrupted their educations.
Peterson’s March 2 termination letter, which he made public on Facebook, contends that he disclosed confidential information about another faculty member’s tenure hearing. Webb declined to comment on the details of his dismissal, which occurred on the same day.
Danelle Sullivan, a vocal performance major who studied under both professors, delayed graduation to obtain a newly offered music degree Webb had spearheaded. Now that he’s gone, she said, no one can answer questions about what she needs to do to earn that degree.
“I just don’t feel like it’s stable enough to attempt to stay and graduate,” she said, noting that she’s considering transferring to another university. “...If classes will keep being canceled or delayed or postponed because they have no teachers, then really I’m not getting the educational experience that I paid for.”
Hall said the university was unable to disclose personnel information regarding the terminations but noted that policy violations don’t necessarily reflect a professor’s classroom conduct.
“We have no doubt that these professors contributed greatly to our students’ education and inspired them and helped them find their passions and were great mentors and teachers to them,” she said. “But all employees are expected to follow all policy and procedures.”
Peterson’s termination letter asserts that he disclosed confidential information about theater professor Mark Houser’s tenure review, which the university’s Retention, Promotion and Tenure Policy notes could result in disciplinary action, and damaged Houser’s reputation.
Houser was not recommended for tenure in a 2014 hearing and did not gain tenure after a review last fall. He did not respond to requests for comment from The Salt Lake Tribune.
Webb has not made his termination letter public and declined to comment on his dismissal but said he has never been disciplined.
“My record at Dixie State has been one of incredible work for the university,” Webb said. “I never had anything — no discipline, no reprimand. Nothing.”
Peterson said he doesn’t think the charges against him constitute a fireable offense. He said he also believes his and Webb’s terminations are related to the 2015 dismissal of Varlo Davenport, the former head of Dixie’s theater program.
The university terminated Davenport, a tenured professor, in 2015, after a student who was a minor complained he had assaulted her in class by pulling her hair. Davenport said he had using a “physical restraint” technique intended to help actors come out of their shells and draw on their emotions. Davenport had not provided details of the technique on his syllabus — which Dixie State now requires, along with other warnings, The Spectrum has reported.
Peterson’s wife was a student in that class and was a witness when an assault charge against Davenport went to trial, where he was found not guilty.
Before the trial, Davenport had appealed his termination before the school’s Faculty Review Board, where Peterson and Webb acted as character witnesses. The board unanimously recommended reinstating Davenport, but Williams rejected the proposal, reiterating that the decision to terminate him was based on institutional policies and student safety.
Like Webb’s and Peterson’s terminations, Davenport’s generated community outcry, and more than 1,300 people signed a petition asking the president to reconsider. They were ultimately unsuccessful.
In a statement, Dixie State defended its decision to terminate Davenport and said witnesses had testified differently in trial than they had before the review board.
A fourth professor, Dennis Wignall, was put on administrative leave from the communication studies department around the same time as Webb and Peterson. He declined requests for comment.
‘Tenure is for life’
It’s not unusual to see four tenured professors terminated in four years, said Anita Levy, a senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors. However, she noted, most tenure terminations that happen in quick succession are because a school is having financial problems or eliminating a program.
“The AAUP’s recommendations are that tenure is for life,” Levy said. “...What we do say is that if a faculty member is going to be dismissed, it has to be for cause related to their fitness as a faculty member.”
At DSU, faculty seeking tenure are evaluated over six years and multiple groups of people review examples of their work. They must “demonstrate excellence in teaching and exhibit a strong commitment to serving students, colleagues, the department, the institution, and the greater community,” according to Dixie’s tenure policy.
The main purpose of tenure “is to safeguard academic freedom,” according to the AAUP. It’s a way to insulate professors from fallout over “free inquiry, free expression, and open dissent” — for example, from losing positions over publishing controversial research findings.
The AAUP notes that efforts to terminate tenured professors are “one of the most contentious issues in higher education.” One area that would never be considered adequate cause is interpersonal conflicts, Levy said.
“If one faculty member has an issue with another faculty member, they can file a grievance against that faculty member,” she said. Because tenure is earned through a rigorous process, she said, “for you to be stripped of tenure, it has to be an equally rigorous process.”
Hall said Dixie takes the termination process seriously and weighs the decisions carefully.
“We’re deeply meticulous when we’re investigating,” she said. “...These decisions are not made lightly and we do everything that we do in the best interests of our students and our faculty and our staff.”
But Davenport contends university officials deprived him of his right to due process and conspired to violate his rights, and he has filed a federal wrongful termination lawsuit. Webb and Peterson will likely be deposed as witnesses in that case, where Davenport is seeking damages of more than half a million dollars.
“How can I not fight this?” he asked. “My hope all along was that they would never do this to anyone else. ... But here they are doing it to Glenn and Ken.”
Davenport claims in the suit that Houser, then the chair of the fine arts department, targeted him for termination because Davenport served on the committee that considered Houser’s tenure in 2014. Houser categorically denied that claim in his response to the lawsuit.
In another suit, which was dismissed in December, Dixie’s former vice president of institutional advancement also raised concerns about the school’s termination process, alleging university officials had discriminated against her on the basis of gender and religion.
Williams placed Christina Schultz on administrative leave without providing a reason, the lawsuit states. She claimed she was never given a performance review or received any discipline during her time in the role. She was officially terminated at the end of 2014 for failing to make a scheduled appointment, the lawsuit states.
The court dismissed all causes of action pertaining to Williams. In its response to the complaint, Dixie had denied discriminating against her and denied that Williams had not provided her a reason for her dismissal.
Schultz did not respond to requests for comment but her attorney, April Hollingsworth, noted she still has a breach of contract claim and could refile in state court.
A third complaint, filed in January by Bryon Geddes, a former marketing professor at Dixie State, alleges his termination was “capricious” and “unfounded,” violated the university’s policies and breached his contract with the school.
Geddes dismissed the action in February and declined a request to comment on the details of his case.
A ‘roller coaster’ semester
Peterson said the recent terminations have adversely affected not only students but also faculty, who he said have told him they worry their jobs may be in jeopardy.
No members of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee responded to requests for comment. But one professor in the fine arts department, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, said the terminations have made faculty “a lot more careful than is necessary as far as what is spoken, what is done” in their classrooms.
“And of course faculty need to be mindful of the students, they need to be mindful of the law, mindful of responsibility, mindful of ethics,” the professor said. “But a lot of people question whether an atmosphere of fear and paranoia allows for any kind of complete education.”
Webb had been placed on administrative leave in mid-January. But Peterson’s students said finding out about his termination in March was a shock, and they felt there wasn’t enough transparency from administrators about what would happen afterward.
In the midst of their senior recitals, some students suddenly lost mentors they’d been working with for years.
“For eight semesters, I’ve been studying with [Peterson] and he’s helped me grow and get the confidence that I needed,” said Gwyn Gable, a senior vocal performance major. “And then three weeks before my recital that mentor that I’ve studied with for eight semesters is no longer there.”
Though Dixie noted in a March statement that it had secured faculty to take over the professors’ workloads for the rest of the semester, students said they feel it didn’t happen quickly enough for Peterson’s classes, which were left without an instructor for a week.
“That process just takes a little bit of time, but we were moving as quickly as we can,” Hall said, noting also that the school had to be careful about its communication with students to protect privacy interests.
Sullivan, a senior, said her new teacher has been supportive and is competent but that the relationship poses challenges.
“Putting a teacher in in the middle of the semester, they don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “...So the quality is just not there in what was paid for and what was expected. To ask someone to step in and try to teach someone else’s curriculum in the middle of a semester is really unrealistic.”
Suzanna Collett, a senior vocal performance major, called this semester a “roller coaster” and said she had to take private lessons with Peterson out of his home after his termination to supplement her preparation for the senior recital.
Both Webb and Peterson plan to appeal their terminations before the Faculty Review Board in coming days and students said they hope to see them reinstated.
“But aside from that, in a broader picture, I’m hoping for more transparency from the university,” said James Hetrick, a senior music education major. “It is still a state-funded school and there’s a lot of things we feel like we should be able to get answers for — and they ignored us or they were adamant about not giving us any information.”