A fired Dixie State University professor says the school’s conditions for his return are ‘vindictive’ — and he’s refusing to sign on

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ken Peterson with his wife, Lizzy, and daughter, Jenny, on Friday, April 6, 2018. Peterson taught music at Dixie State University and was preparing students for their senior recitals when he was terminated in the middle of the semester.

Last month, a faculty review board at Dixie State University rejected the midsemester firing of music teacher Ken Peterson, saying there was insufficient evidence to support the school’s decision.

But he’s now calling the agreement he’d have to sign to return to work “punitive” and “vindictive.” He shared it to Facebook on Monday in a last-ditch effort to publicize what he calls an administrative misuse of power.

“I realize that most likely this will spell the end of my career,” he said, since the “Last Chance Agreement" contains a clause specifically prohibiting him from sharing its details. “I would at least hope that by publicizing this document that the general public and those who have oversight will become more aware of the abusiveness of this administration.”

If signed, the agreement would have required Peterson to teach general education classes and banned him from advertising or recruiting for private voice lessons on school property. He said publicizing the document was a “last resort” after working with the school to find a compromise.

In a statement, Dixie State University said the agreement was drafted with the input of an independent reviewer from the Utah State Board of Regents.

Elizabeth Hitch, associate commissioner for academic and student affairs for the board, made the final decision to reinstate Peterson “contingent that certain terms and conditions be included in a Last Chance Agreement,” the statement says. The terms “are based upon Dr. Hitch’s independent determination that Dr. Peterson’s actions violated DSU policy,” it says.

Peterson’s March 2 termination letter, which he also made public on Facebook, contended that he had revealed 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.

The agreement contends that Peterson has “demonstrated unprofessional/uncivil behavior towards DSU and its faculty, staff and administration” and sets out requirements for his return, saying they are a result of the university’s “lost confidence” in his ability to act appropriately.

He believes its conditions were aimed at facilitating his removal.

“They essentially forbid me to do what my entire academic and professional career has trained me to do: teach singing lessons,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune shortly after he published the agreement online on Monday. “My bachelor’s degree, my master’s degree, my doctorate are all in voice performance. And they’re saying, ‘You can no longer do that.’”

A spokeswoman for Dixie State declined to answer questions beyond what was included in the school’s statement.

After a nine-hour hearing before his peers on May 29, Peterson said, the faculty review board found there wasn’t enough evidence to support the university’s stated reasons for his termination, and it recommended his reinstatement.

The agreement the university offered to allow for his return would have required Peterson to stay 500 feet away from Houser and his family at all times, except in group settings where both are “appropriately present.”

The school’s statement notes that university President Richard “Biff” Williams, who would normally make the final call about discipline, recused himself to “avoid any possible conflicts,” since he was mentioned in the investigation into Peterson. Williams was not involved at any point in the process, including in drafting the agreement, the statement says.

Peterson says the agreement, which the school’s provost has signed, doesn’t align with the faculty review board’s recommendations.

“The administration has made their intentions unmistakably clear, and so I can’t really say I’m surprised at this point, having seen it happen to friends and colleagues for the past four years,” he said.

Peterson is one of at least four tenured professors who have been terminated or put on extended administrative leave at Dixie State over the past four years. One of those professors and at least two other former employees have filed suit against the school over the past two years, alleging they were fired unfairly.

After the university terminated Peterson and Glenn Webb, the former music department chair, a number of students protested that the dismissals were based not on classroom conduct but on bureaucratic bickering and had disrupted their educations.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dixie State University students Chris Flinders, Courtney Gordon and James Hetrick practice in the music room on campus. Each of them has spoken out against the way the university handled the terminations of music professor Ken Peterson and Glenn Webb, the recently terminated music department chair. Friday, April 6, 2018.

Webb was placed on administrative leave in January and was terminated in March, on the same day as Peterson. He appealed his termination in two separate, hours-long hearings before the school’s faculty review board at the end of May and the beginning of June. He was notified that he would be reinstated toward the end of last month.

“I will return to teach classes in jazz and percussion this fall semester in my tenured position in the music department, and I look forward to it immensely,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Webb has declined to comment on the details of his dismissal and said he also could not offer specifics about his hearing. But he did say he is apprehensive about his return.

“I’m trying to balance the optimism of the appeals process — the due process working out in my favor — and knowing that for some people, I do have a target on my back,” he said.

As Webb prepares to return to DSU, where classes begin later this month, Peterson said he plans to put his house up for sale and start a new life with his family in Wyoming.

“I was prepared to face this decision on March 2 when I first received the termination notice,” he said. “It’s obviously still painful but not surprising.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ken Peterson lays tile in his home as he prepares to put his house on the market. Peterson taught music at Dixie State University and was preparing students for their senior recitals when he was terminated in the middle of the semester. Friday, April 6, 2018.