State auditors release findings into firing of DSU professors

ST. GEORGE — The results of an investigation by a state auditing agency into Dixie State University’s policies regarding the termination of tenured professors were released Monday.

The Utah Office of the Legislative Auditor General sent the findings via letter to the state’s Legislative Audit Subcommittee after a group of five state senators requested the audit in September in response to the high-profile firing of two music professors.

The professors, Glenn Webb and Ken Peterson, were fired in March for allegedly violating DSU policy. Both were later reinstated after appealing their termination, but the university would only agree to Peterson’s reinstatement if he signed a “Last Chance Agreement” that would have prevented him from teaching in his specialized field and restrict his ability to work on campus.

Read more: Fired DSU professor says signing reinstatement document would be akin to having ‘gun pointed at my head’

In their Sept. 18 letter, the senators said the action taken against Peterson appeared to be part of larger pattern of punishing school employees who speak out against the school’s administration. They wrote that it appeared DSU is hiding behind university policies “in order to punish dissent and undermine academic independence.”

The senators asked state auditors to examine three points of concern, including:

  1. Whether DSU’s termination policy meets best practices.
  2. Whether DSU followed its policies in the termination and discipline of tenured professors.
  3. How faculty and student morale at DSU has been impacted by the school’s disciplinary practices.

In Monday’s letter, signed by Auditor General Kade R. Minchey, the office says it completed an “initial survey” into the senators’ questions, but the auditors also emphasize that a more in-depth investigation would be necessary to determine if DSU’s response to the violations was appropriate.

Dixie State University students and faculty gather in support of music professors Glenn Webb and Ken Peterson. The professors were fired from their tenured positions for allegedly violating university policy, St. George, Utah, March 2, 2018 | File photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

In regard to whether the university followed best practices, the auditor letter states, “based on our limited work, we believe that DSU policy is in line with Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) policy and polices across other Utah higher education intuitions.”

The auditors say they believe DSU “adequately established that the faculty in question violated policy,” and that they recognize that “management discretion must be used in discipline decisions.”

On the question of whether the actions affected morale, auditors found that measuring the impact of morale on students and teachers would be difficult without there already having been measurements of morale before Peterson and Webb were fired.

St. George News asked Sen. Gene Davis, one of the signers of the original letter requesting an audit, whether the Auditor General’s findings satisfy their original inquiry.

Davis met with fellow members of the Legislative Audit Subcommittee during a regularly scheduled meeting Monday where they received the letter. However, as the item was not on the meeting’s agenda, Davis said the senators didn’t bring it up for discussion nor ask the auditors to go into further depth, at least for the time being.

State Sen. Gene Davis speaks at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, July 29, 2014 | Photo by Kirstenfrankly via Wikimedia Commons, St. George News

“I made the motion that what I would do is refer that for discussion at the next audit subcommittee meeting,” he said.

Davis said the next meeting won’t be until January and he will no longer be on the subcommittee at that time and it will be up to his successors to decide.

Based on the pending discussion on the matter, he said the subcommittee may very well decide to perform a “full-scale” audit.

Even though he said he couldn’t speculate on whether a full-scale audit would be necessary, Davis said he originally signed the letter requesting an audit because of real concerns about the recent upheaval at DSU.

“I had looked at some reports and some letters that had been sent to me and some concerns were raised by other faculty,” he said, “so it was just a natural thing to do for us.”

On whether Peterson was treated fairly in regard to the requirement that he sign a “Last Chance Agreement” in order to be reinstated, Davis said that is still unresolved.

“The board of regents allows for those kinds of agreements to be agreed to but they may have been a little more stringent than what the regents recommended,” he said. “Those kinds of things a full audit would explore and look into.”

And further investigation appears to be a likely scenario, given how many times the auditors say “more work would be needed” to make more solid conclusions. The auditors state:

The issue in question is whether the specific policy violations by some tenured faculty rise to the level of immediate termination without prior recourse to DSU’s lesser disciplinary measures. To answer that question, a more detailed audit would examine all DSU terminations/discipline in recent years as well as tenured faculty terminations at other USHE institutions in recent years.

Webb and Peterson aren’t alone in having been subject to high-profile disciplinary proceedings at DSU. Near the same time they were terminated, communications professor Dennis Wignal was put on more than a semester’s worth of suspension before finally being allowed to return to his teaching post in the fall semester this year.

Varlo Davenport with a group of friends after being found not guilty, St. George, Utah, July 14, 2016 | File photo by Julie Applegate, St. George News

In 2014, 15-year tenured theater professor Varlo Davenport was terminated despite a faculty review board and the faculty senate clearing him of wrongdoing after a student accused him of pulling her hair, a charge of which he was later acquitted. Davenport has since filed a $20 million lawsuit against the school and its president claiming his civil rights were violated.

According to the dozens of students and teachers at DSU with whom St. George News has spoken over the last nine months, these disciplinary actions have indeed resulted in decreased morale at the school.

Read more: On first day of school, campus protesters tell DSU administration, ‘shame on you’

For its part, DSU says it supports an audit into its policies, previously issuing the following statement to St. George News:

Dixie State University is supportive of any effort to improve our current policies and procedures when needed. The University is dedicated to engaging in best practices and will work closely with our local and state leaders in this endeavor.

Email: jwitham@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

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