A professor's termination raises questions about free speech at Weber State
It's not unheard-of for a college to tell a faculty member partway through a probationary period before tenure that things just aren't working out. And that may well be why Weber State University failed to rehire Jared Lisonbee, a professor of child and family studies. But the timing of his termination – after he and his wife spoke out against plans to name a new family program after a Mormon leader who has expressed controversial views on gays, women and intellectuals – has raised suspicion about what motivated the decision.
“Because there was no discussion or justification given for the decision not to renew my contract, I can only speculate,” said Lisonbee, who recently completed his second year on the tenure track at Weber State. But because his department chair’s behavior became “hostile” following his speaking out against the naming of the center, Lisonbee said the decision was “likely” related to his comments.
Lisonbee said he spoke out against naming of the public university’s new family program after Boyd K. Packer, a senior Mormon apostle and Weber graduate, and his wife, Donna S. Packer, when the idea was proposed at a faculty meeting in December. The center administers support to eight area education and community outreach programs.
“I think my initial response in the meeting was to exclaim, ‘That’s a horrible idea!’ ” said Lisonbee -- "horrible," because of Packer’s long history of statements against homosexuality, feminism and interracial marriage, among other matters. He's classified gay people, feminists and "so-called scholars or intellectuals" as the biggest dangers to the Mormon church and, most recently, in April, warned followers not to fall into a "tolerance trap," even as the nation changes its laws to "tolerate legalized acts of immorality." The statement was widely interpreted to be in reference to the two high-profile gay marriage cases before the U.S. Supreme Court at the time.
Lisonbee said he felt naming "a family and community education center in the college of education after the Packers does not communicate inclusiveness among families and individuals who will be served by the center.”
Because the department of child and family studies’ mission statements advocates diversity and using culturally competent practices, and because several of the center’s programs are tied to the department, he added, naming it after Boyd K. Packer “seems contrary to our stated mission of respecting diversity and promoting inclusiveness.”
Lisonbee also said he objected to the center’s name due to concerns about separation of church and state, which can at times be “thin” in Utah. (He pointed to a statement made by the wife of Allen E. Hall, chairman of the university Board of Trustees, at the center’s naming ceremony in May, as one example. There, Jeanne Hall described her decision to donate to the center she made during a visit to a temple as “a very distinct prompting” and told the Packers: “We as a family feel very grateful that the Lord has provided a way for us to have your names associated with this university forever.”) Donors attracted to the center due to its name could attempt to steer its mission, and the center’s name could alienate some it might otherwise serve, said Lisonbee, who was raised as a Mormon.
Following his public objections to the name, including an e-mail to Jack Rasmussen, dean of the Jerry Vickie Moyes College of Education, Lisonbee said Paul Schvaneveldt, department chair, singled him out for criticism. During his third-year review, in February, Lisonbee said Schvaneveldt responded to the assistant professor’s comments about the at-times pervasive Mormon influence on the culture of the university and department by saying, “Well, you know, Weber State isn’t a good match for everyone.” And at the college’s graduation ceremony, Lisonbee said, Schvaneveldt accused him of leaving early when he had temporarily stepped to the side of the stage to greet students.
Lisonbee said a letter from his wife published in a local paper after the formal naming of the center in May also may have harmed his chances at Weber.
“Naming a public university’s program to support families after Packer is a slap in the face for many in the community, given positions advocated by Packer,” Shairylann Lisonbee wrote in her letter, which inspired an online petition that’s gained more than 2,600 signatures against the naming of the center. The Utah Stonewall Democrats, a group supportive of gay rights, also protested the naming of the center following the letter’s publication.
“While I cannot be certain, with the letter informing me of the decision not to renew my contract coming so close in the wake of the negative publicity associated with the letter to the editor, I suspect that the letter to the editor did contribute to the decision,” said Lisonbee.
Rasmussen and Schvaneveldt referred questions to the university.
Allison Hess, university spokeswoman, said Lisonbee’s termination had nothing to do with the Packer center controversy. Privacy regulations prohibit the release of details about personnel decisions, she said, but Lisonbee underwent the standard third-year review process and received letters from the department, college and dean about his termination.
Lisonbee said he did not receive a letter from the dean. He did receive two identical letters from Schvaneveldt notifying him of his non-renewal of contract, effective June 2014, as well as a separate letter from Michael Vaughan, provost, notifying him that he had been given sufficient notice of his nonrenewal of contract, according to university guidelines. No additional details were given.
There are signs in his third-year review, however, that he may have been underperforming. While his service was ranked as “good” by a college-level committee, his teaching and scholarship were ranked as “satisfactory.” The committee recommended that Lisonbee address areas in his teaching evaluations (most of which show his courses to be “satisfactory” to “effective”) that needed improvement, and to seek out help from his peers. It also recommended that he clarify his research agenda and bolster his publication record, to which he had not added since his appointment two years prior (Lisonbee completed a first year on the tenure track at Washington State University at Pullman but his position was eliminated due to budget cuts, he said).
"In conclusion, the Moyes College of Education Ranking Tenure Evaluation Committee finds that you are not making adequate progress toward advancement in rank and tenure,” it says. “[We] recommend that you request a 5th year review of your progress from the dean in order to prepare for the next formal review.”
But nowhere does the report indicate he was about to lose his shot at staying.
In response to the review, Lisonbee said that he’d submitted a manuscript for review and was finishing another this month. He’d also expanded his service involvement, he said, and notified his department chair of those improvements two weeks prior to receiving his termination letter, at the end of June. Neither in the review or in the interim was there talk of termination of contract, he said.
“I definitely did not see it coming and I had to read the short letter several times before it even started to sink in that my contract was not going to be renewed,” he said. “It was definitely a shock, especially since there was no reason or justification included with the decision.”
Lisonbee said he’s working with the faculty ombudsman to request an appeal, and that he’d like to be reinstated. Hess said he’s eligible to request a formal request with the Faculty Board of Review, according to the university’s Policies and Procedures Manual, despite not having completed his full probation (the document language refers to those who have completed their probationary period and been denied tenure).
Robert Kreiser, associate secretary of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors, said Lisonbee’s also entitled to reasons for his termination, upon written request.
“It may well be that the decision not to renew [Lisonbee’s] appointment at Weber State was based primarily on concerns about perceived deficiencies in his academic performance,” Kreiser said. “I have no way of knowing whether that was or was not the case, and indeed Professor Lisonbee himself appears not to have been given a statement of reasons for the negative decision — contrary to AAUP-recommended standards that have been widely adopted in the academic community. Declining to provide reasons raises basic questions of minimum decency and elementary fairness.”