Window on College's Troubled Soul

Habib Sadid has made himself an easy target. For many of his 22 years at Idaho State University, the professor of civil engineering has poked and prodded administrators. He’s run to the newspapers when he thought no one else would listen, espousing claims of rampant “corruption” within the university. In frenzied e-mails, he lambastes his dean as an ineffectual "liar." He’s even filed a lawsuit, alleging retaliation for his years in the loyal opposition.

August 31, 2009

Habib Sadid has made himself an easy target. For many of his 22 years at Idaho State University, the professor of civil engineering has poked and prodded administrators. He’s run to the newspapers when he thought no one else would listen, espousing claims of rampant “corruption” within the university. In frenzied e-mails, he lambastes his dean as an ineffectual "liar." He’s even filed a lawsuit, alleging retaliation for his years in the loyal opposition.

Now, administrators say Sadid has gone too far, and they are determined to fire the tenured professor for what they describe as a pattern of abusive and disruptive behavior.

Idaho State administrators probably believe that removing Sadid will help bring some peace to the College of Engineering, but an

Photo: Idaho State University

Habib Sadid, a professor of civil engineering, has been suspended from Idaho State University.

investigation of Sadid’s case suggests he may be just one symptom of a larger sickness within a long-fractured engineering program. The centerpiece of the case against Sadid is an April 21 faculty meeting, where Sadid often dominated the discussion, criticizing his .dean for shortcomings in fund-raising and leadership.

A previously unreleased tape of the meeting (clips of the recording can be found throughout the article) may call into question Sadid’s civility, though listeners will have to decide for themselves whether his behavior builds the case for firing.

But the recording also suggests that the situation at Idaho State is about much more than the behavior of Habib Sadid, and provides a window into a college fighting for preservation at a time when budget cuts and talk of broad-based transformation leave many fearing the worst.

Opening Questions: Richard Jacobson, dean of the College of Engineering, is questioned by Habib Sadid at the April 21 faculty meeting. George Imel, chair of the department of nuclear engineering, is the third voice you’ll hear in this excerpt, saying that the department’s workload policies are “pretty standard.” Imel then engages in back and forth with Sadid, one of several such exchanges between the two.

Those fears are exacerbated by a pending review of the college, which was prompted because a special budget committee questioned if the college was a “viable entity,” according to Richard (Jake) Jacobsen, the college’s dean. The nine-member budget committee, which included faculty members and administrators, suggested that internal and external reviews of the college be conducted, citing concerns about its financial position, according to Gary Olson, the university’s provost.

“The committee made the recommendation because they had serious concerns about the college’s fiscal flexibility in being able to meet their share of the university’s overall budget reductions,” Olson wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.

“There is certainly no predetermined outcome,” he added. “In fact, I should point out that energy studies, particularly nuclear engineering, is at the forefront of the university’s strategic direction…. So, at least on the face of it, it would be foolish to close down the College of Engineering.”

In the meantime, however, the college has the feel of a family in turmoil. By the second half of the April meeting, some employees seemed to bare their souls, lamenting that constant budget cuts and administrative scrutiny have bred infighting and toxicity. Ronda Mahl, an administrative assistant in engineering and a longtime employee of the university, sounded on the verge of tears as she described the increasingly hostile climate.

“I have just never been treated the way I have been in this college," she said. "And there are some wonderful people in this college, but honestly if I could leave I would, because of the way you all behave. I hate this. I hate this conflict."

"If I Could Leave I Would": Ronda Mahl, an administrative assistant in engineering, gets emotional as she describes the toxic work environment in the college. “I have never been treated by people I work with the way I’ve been treated by some of you.… Honestly, if I could leave I would, because of the way you all behave,” she says. Sadid suggests “leadership” is to blame for these problems, provoking a response from Jacobsen that Sadid has felt leaders throughout the history of the university were “no good, unethical or something.” Sadid says he has evidence “these people are power mongers.”

A Dean Under Fire

Despite Olson's assurance that the college won't be closed, trepidation exists among faculty members and even with Jacobsen, who soberly suggested that in the current environment, professors have the power to secure his ouster -- but should think twice about using it.

“If that’s the answer you want, you know you can probably get it from this point on,” he told faculty members at the April meeting. “But I don’t know if that’s going to help. I really don’t know if that’s going to be what you want when you’re going through this review. You say ‘OK, we have no leadership,’ and I can tell you we have no followership -- you just said that; we’re not working together. So what are you going to do? Are you going to tell them the college is dysfunctional and needs to be eliminated? You’re asking for trouble if you do that, and I don’t believe it, first of all. I do not believe that statement is accurate. I believe this college is viable.”

"You're Asking for Trouble": Ellis questions “what’s the criterion” for program reviews, and Jacobsen says faculty are "asking for trouble" if they tell the viability committee the college is dysfunctional.

This is not the first time in recent history when Idaho State's engineering dean has come under fire from disenchanted faculty. Jay Kunze, who resigned in 2005, had his own friction with faculty, leading some on campus to question whether engineering faculty would be pleased with any dean. But it wasn’t merely faculty who expressed disappointment in Kunze. Ex-President Richard Bowen, who would later resign in response to a no confidence vote, told the Idaho State Journal in 2003 that Kunze was “not the best administrator,” adding that, “Frequently you find people in positions that are not exactly right for them.”

If Jacobsen is as vulnerable to removal as he says, it’s in no small part due to the perception of some faculty members that he hasn’t fought hard enough on behalf of a college that has felt under assault in recent years. Some have questioned the dean’s focus, citing the two days he spends each week on a satellite campus as an example of Jacobsen’s questionable dedication. The Idaho Falls campus, which serves Idaho State students as well as those enrolled at the University of Idaho, is about 50 miles away from the main campus in Pocatello.

"Everybody's Problem": Sadid, listing his credentials and accomplishments, questions how chairs evaluate faculty, urging Jacobsen to explain the reasons Sadid “barely meet[s] expectations,” as his most recent evaluation stated. Jacobsen declines to discuss an individual faculty member’s evaluation in a public forum. When an unidentified faculty member asks that the meeting move toward discussion of college-wide issues, Sadid says, “This is everybody’s problem.”

“It’s not something I’m doing on an extracurricular basis,” Jacobsen told Inside Higher Ed. “It’s part of our campus in a real sense.”

While administrators may view Idaho Falls as integral to the college's mission, Jacobsen has taught a course there that did not include a single Idaho State student -- a fact that gave him the title of “part-time dean” in the eyes of some. But the story Jacobsen tells of how he came to teach a class with no Idaho State students is, in and of itself, an illustration of the tenuous state of trust in the college. Jacobsen said there were initially three Idaho State students enrolled in the course, but a faculty chair told students the dean’s course was insufficiently rigorous to count toward their major.

“That had to me the general feeling of a set-up,” Jacobsen said.

The students dropped the class, but Jacobsen says he carried on teaching it because it had already begun.

“They feel that’s some kind of a crime for a university dean to [teach at Idaho Falls],” Jacobsen said.

Olson, however, doesn't see anything wrong with Jacobsen's teaching schedule -- and has said there might come a time when it makes sense to move the entire college to Idaho Falls. The college’s nuclear program is viewed as its crown jewel, and Idaho Falls is home to the Idaho National Laboratory -- a major hub of nuclear research.

"They Haven't Listened": Jacobsen is first questioned by Mikle Ellis, an associate professor of electrical engineering, about how faculty workloads are determined. Sadid then suggests department chairs have not developed metrics for evaluation in a timely manner. Sadid further questions Jacobsen's leadership in this arena, saying, “You have been telling [department chairs] for three years [to develop metrics]; they haven’t listened to you,” Sadid says.

“It’s part of his job in his particular college to be up in Idaho Falls,” Olson said. “We want him to be up in Idaho Falls because that’s where the action is in engineering. They can’t say he’s not giving us his full attention. That’s ridiculous.”

While criticism of Jacobsen persists, Olson says he would “start to get suspicious if someone were uniformly loved as a dean.”

“Jake has been doing a very good job for ISU,” Olson said. “He’s got, let’s put it this way, very good credentials. I can’t say that about some of the faculty, to be honest.”

Free Speech “By No Means Absolute”

In the spirit of soul-searching candor that flowed throughout his statements in the April faculty meeting, Jacobsen closed by saying, “It’s been a good meeting. Don’t hate this kind of discussion. It’s not a bad idea to do this.” Apparently, however, Jacobsen was not including Sadid’s contributions to the meeting within his assessment. In a letter dated two weeks later, Jacobsen informed Sadid that his “unprofessional, non-collegial, disruptive and insubordinate” behavior at the meeting may warrant dismissal.

"Good Meeting": Toward the close of the meeting, Jacobsen says “It’s been a good meeting. Don’t hate this kind of discussion. It’s not a bad idea to do this.” Two weeks later, Jacobsen reprimanded Sadid for his "non-collegial" behavior in the meeting.

“The college cannot move forward in a poisoned atmosphere in which you blame others but never acknowledge or take any responsibility, whether for your own role in any obstacle that the college faces, or for causing friction within the college,” Jacobsen wrote. “Your contentious workplace practice of calling others ‘liars,’ ‘corrupt’ and ‘incompetent,’ for example, is not only defamatory in a legal sense, but also totally unprofessional, particularly disruptive, and violates your contract with the university. Regrettably, valued university faculty and staff have expressed a desire to pursue professional opportunities elsewhere as a means of escaping the negative atmosphere you have created. Your aggressive, angry, and hostile outbursts have created tension and a sense of fear among much of the administrative staff in the college.”

Jacobsen ultimately suggested that Sadid be dismissed, and since August 4 Sadid has been on paid leave and barred from campus without approval from security. He has since entered into grievance proceedings and will appear before a committee of five professors, three of whom are appointed by the Faculty Senate's executive committee. Sadid and the provost each will appoint an additional member.

While Sadid has contested the particulars of a host of allegations made against him, the overall rationale for his potential dismissal has implications across academe. Sadid’s case raises an essential question: What is the line between free speech and “unprofessional conduct,” which the university’s faculty handbook specifically cites as “adequate cause” for discipline or dismissal? While there's no doubt he criticized the dean in the meeting, whether Sadid crossed the line of professionalism remains a matter of debate within the college.

Throwing in the Towel: Jacobsen says, “This is the first time I’ve ever heard the dean’s performance discussed with the provost in a public setting.” Sadid responds that administrators at all levels are not communicating, adding that they “do whatever they want” and aren’t accountable to the public. Ellis (barely audible) moves that the meeting be adjourned, suggesting the college may be closed within the next year anyway.

Michael Fischer, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Trinity University, in San Antonio, has wrestled with this very question. While not privy to the details of Sadid’s case, Fischer said he believes a distinction can be made between a faculty member making pointed but acceptable remarks, and engaging in unacceptable behavior.

“Without commenting on this specific case, I draw the line at bullying, or speech or conduct intended to harm or threaten, not just criticize, another person,” Fischer wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “Such speech or conduct stifles free speech and in extreme cases forces its victim not just into staying quiet but in withdrawing altogether: no longer participating in discussions, maybe even leaving for another job.

“We are all for free debate but we need to protect those conditions that allow people to speak freely. We cannot demand to be agreed with or even listened to. We do, however, have a right to speak without fear of physical or mental harm.”

Jacobsen has accused Sadid of making people feel threatened, but the dean's case for dismissal made a broader -- some would argue troubling -- claim about the scope of free speech. Jacobsen has suggested that Sadid’s speech rights – and presumably those of all faculty -- are more strictly limited in the context of faculty meetings than in other settings.

“It is also my understanding that you have taken a position that all of your university-related speech is legally protected,” Jacobsen wrote. “However, the university has been advised that speech rights under U.S. law are by no means absolute. Exceptions to these rights include statements made under official university duties, including your disruptions [at the faculty meeting]. In a scheduled university meeting a university faculty member does not speak as an ordinary citizen, but instead as a university representative and employee. Furthermore, no aspect of U.S. or Idaho law insulates your communications from employer discipline, nor does the law protect you from the consequences of slanderous statements.”

There are plenty of buzzwords in Jacobsen’s letter that will jump out to those familiar with Garcetti v. Ceballos, a 2006 Supreme Court decision that severely limited public employees’ speech when conducting “official duties.” Indeed, Jacobsen’s letter is a close paraphrase of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in the 5 to 4 decision.

"We hold that when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline," Kennedy wrote.

While the Supreme Court’s decision specifically noted that the ruling might have limited application to public college professors, the American Association of University Professors has expressed concern about a recent federal court ruling that applied Garcetti in a case involving a university. Upon reading Jacobsen’s letter to Sadid Wednesday, AAUP President Cary Nelson said the letter “represents a dangerous application of Garcetti v. Ceballos to a faculty member at a public institution of higher education.”

Interestingly, Sadid was not the only person in the faculty meeting to challenge the dean, although he was the only one reprimanded for it. During a question-and answer session with the provost, Mikle Ellis, an associate professor of electrical engineering, accused Jacobsen of being a “part-time dean.”

“I don’t understand why, if this is the issue, I’m not in trouble,” Ellis told Inside Higher Ed.

"Major Issues": Provost Gary Olson joins the meeting and takes questions, starting with Ellis, who says, “I have some major issues with the performance of our dean.” Sadid says he hasn’t seen “a single thing the dean takes responsibility for."

Even Provost Olson himself had a few choice words for authority figures during the meeting. Olson, who came to Idaho from Illinois State University, was quick to take a shot at the State Board of Education when the discussion turned to budgetary issues.

“I thought I had already been in the state with the wackiest state government with [impeached Gov. Rod] Blagojevich, but this really takes the cake,” Olson said. “If you think this is really something, you ought to go to the State Board of Education meetings. That’s really like going to a circus. So, I don’t think any of those people have ever gone to a college, much less gotten a degree at one.”

Asked about the provost’s remark via e-mail, a spokesman for the state board said: “The matter is resolved. We have no further comment.”

Worse than Blago: Lynette Mitchell, university business officer for the college of engineering, tells the provost no one has received information about budgetary plans. This provokes a response from Olson, who criticizes the state process and the state Board of Education, which oversees universities in Idaho. "I don’t think any of those people have ever gone to a college, much less gotten a degree at one.”

Season of Reprimands

Jacobsen’s letter contemplating Sadid's dismissal was one of several written over the spring and summer, reprimanding Sadid both for his behavior and for an unauthorized purchase. Stacked so close together, the reprimands illustrate either a faculty member coming steadily unglued or an administration determined to paper a file. Sadid, unsurprisingly, says it was the latter.

“They are just witch hunting,” he said.

Sadid, convinced that all the charges were erroneous, agreed to provide his letters of reprimand to Inside Higher Ed. The first came in April from Manoochehr Zoghi, chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering. Zoghi wrote that Sadid’s “questioning of the dean’s honesty and administrative assistant’s integrity and judgment, via widely distributed e-mail messages, are outside the bounds of professionalism and are disruptive.”

There’s no doubt Sadid has questioned Jacobsen’s integrity; he regularly calls him “a liar.” But Zoghi’s expressed concern may present something of a Catch-22 for Sadid. While Zoghi suggested it was inappropriate to question the dean’s honesty in an e-mail, the dean’s integrity was at the very heart of an issue Sadid aimed to address in his e-mail. Convinced that the dean had altered faculty minutes to impugn him, Sadid wrote the dean's assistant to inquire “who was involved (if any) in preparation of the minutes.…”

“I never said the faculty should be consulted about decisions at all levels [as the minutes reflect],” Sadid wrote March 18. “Yes, I did express my dissatisfaction with Dr. Jacobsen’s performance [in the meeting]. Dr. Jacobsen has done nothing for the college in three years.…”

Show Me The Money: Sadid criticizes deans' fund raising, a comment Jacobsen would later take issue with in a letter of reprimand.

The minutes were later changed to reflect Sadid’s concerns, and future meetings were recorded -- a further reflection of deteriorating trust across the college.

Interestingly, Zoghi’s reprimand came just about a year after Sadid’s 2008 evaluation, in which the chair said that “Dr. Sadid continues to excel in teaching, [is] very successful in securing research funds, and [has] made significant contributions regarding service activities.” Jacobsen concurred, saying Sadid’s efforts were “recognized and appreciated.”

Something clearly changed for Zoghi and Jacobsen over the course of 2009, however, as the two moved from patting Sadid on the back toward a clear plan for his dismissal. Sadid believes it's no coincidence. He filed a lawsuit in September 2008 alleging retaliation for his outspokenness, and since that time his evaluations have been less flattering and his reprimands increasingly frequent.

The season of warning shots continued for Sadid in mid-April, when Jacobsen reprimanded the professor for his behavior at a faculty awards reception. Sadid had pulled Jacobsen aside to discuss his most recent evaluation, which had marked a stark departure from his two previous favorable evaluations. Jacobsen objected to the venue for such a discussion, adding that Sadid “made several accusatory, threatening and denigrating comments about me and several other individuals.”

Sadid disputes the characterization, but concedes he was “a little emotional.”

The last reprimand came in July from Provost Olson, who said that Sadid -- for a third time -- had broken university policy by making unauthorized purchases. The purchase, in the amount of $1,263.25, was for student recruitment materials. Sadid says the materials were more than covered through a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant he’d procured years earlier, but concedes he didn’t fill out the proper paperwork for the expense.

“It’s my money,” he said. “This was just harassment.”

Where's Our Dean?: Jacobsen, who goes by “Jake,” asks Mikle Ellis what he believes has provoked the administration’s decision to conduct a viability study of the college. Jacobsen also reveals he only learned that the college would undergo a review a day earlier, prompting criticism of the dean’s involvement in matters that affect the college.

Not Universally Loved

In the eyes of other faculty, Habib Sadid is something of a paradox. Even for close colleagues, he is at once a crusader for justice and a distracting annoyance.

“There are a good number of faculty and friends of Habib who have said this has gone too far,” said Ken Bosworth, a professor of computer science and mathematics. “[But] none of his rants -- and many of them are rants [and] they are embarrassing -- are motivated by himself. He really cares about the college.”

Others have been more blunt. Michael Lineberry, director of the institute of nuclear science and engineering, referred to Sadid as “a nut case who cannot help himself” in a 2008 e-mail to a colleague, court records show.

While Lineberry's description was far from clinical, there's evidence to suggest Sadid's continuing battles have taken a toll on his mental health. He has been treated by a psychiatrist since July 2007 for post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, among other conditions. A letter from Sadid's psychiatrist, which Sadid provided to Inside Higher Ed, attributes many of the professor's health issues to his conflict with Idaho State administrators.

"All of these disorders occurred in the context of his ongoing difficulties with the administration at Idaho State University and what he has perceived as an ongoing and accelerated harassment by ISU's administration because of his opposition to them and their policies," John B. Reichman, Sadid's psychiatrist, wrote in a July 13 letter to Sadid's attorney. "His obsessive compulsive disorder is really only characterized by ongoing preoccupation with the issues of Idaho State University."

With the exception of suffering a panic attack in class April 15, Sadid "credibly reports not only being able to enjoy teaching in the classroom but doing so competently without substantial impairment," Reichman wrote. Sadid's teaching in years past have won him accolades. Over the course of his career, Idaho State has named him “Master Public Servant,” “Master Teacher” and “Distinguished Teacher.”

While his work is admired, Sadid's battles with the administration have not always resonated with the rest of the faculty. In 2003, Sadid was unsuccessful in persuading the Faculty Senate to pursue a no confidence vote in then-President Bowen. When that failed, Sadid did an end-run around the Senate and held his own informal vote. At least one member of the Senate moved to censure him in response, although that same body passed a vote of no confidence in Bowen in 2005.

To some engineering faculty, Sadid’s 2003 no confidence vote was prescient. Sadid was critical of a previous attempt to merge the College of Technology and College of Engineering, which he said would ultimately undermine if not obliterate the college altogether. As the college now faces a budgetary review, many faculty fear the same outcome.

“I think half the faculty in the college share the same concerns,” Bosworth said. “It’s a very widespread opinion.”

The college is among the youngest colleges of engineering in the state, and many of its programs are duplicative of others in Idaho. At a time when budgets are thin, the college is particularly vulnerable, Bosworth said.

Adding to the anxiety in the college is a sense that its fate has already been sealed, and Bosworth sees developments in the last few months as evidence of that. At the end of the spring semester -- without prior warning to faculty -- the college merged its departments of computer science and electrical engineering on an interim basis, Bosworth said.

In the process, Bosworth was stripped of his chairmanship in computer science, and replaced by a program adviser who holds an appointment in the College of Business -- not engineering. Additionally, the departments of mechanical and nuclear engineering were merged, and the chair of mechanical engineering -- who happens to be Bosworth’s wife -- was stripped of her leadership position.

The Die is Cast: Jacobsen says “You don’t want to be the K-Mart or the Wal-Mart of engineering programs in the country,” but concedes progress has not been sufficient to satisfy administrators. Ken Bosworth, former chair of computer science, says he believes the administration has already made its decision about the college, and the "viability" study is just a smokescreen. The day after the meeting Bosworth was stripped of his chairmanship and informed of two departmental mergers he knew nothing about in advance.

“No input from the faculty, none whatsoever, not a single bit,” Bosworth said of the reorganization.

David Beard, who took over as computer science program adviser after Bosworth was removed as chair, said the reorganization came as something of a surprise to him as well. Beard, who still teaches computer information systems in the College of Business, says he had little forewarning that he’d end up with a “meaningless no authority title” in the College of Engineering this year.

While he holds a Ph.D. in computer science, Beard is coming in as an outsider from another college -- and he still reports to the business school's dean. As such, Beard is well aware that some see him as an unwelcome reformer in a department with lagging enrollment and an uncertain future.

“It’s clear I’m being perceived as a big sledgehammer that is being brought in to beat on people,” he said. “I’m working really hard not to be in that role. But necessarily I’m a person that’s probably not on the top of their favorite list for some people, and I’m working really hard to overcome that image. I can understand why people would be unhappy with that situation.”

Beard has clearly won the trust of Olson, who has picked Beard as his lone appointee on the grievance committee considering Sadid's case.

Beard says the future of computer science is as much a mystery to him as the rest of the department. Others, however, feel the “viability” review is just a smokescreen for a predetermined outcome.

“Just like the decision to dismiss chairs and merge our departments, those decisions have been made, and they are going through these motions to justify their decisions,” Bosworth said.

Olson, who was named provost in January, says the review has no predetermined outcome. On the other hand, he makes no bones about the fact that changes are afoot on Idaho State’s campus. The university is working to expand its research enterprise, and in so doing it has rolled out plans to limit teaching loads for faculty with proven research prowess, while increasing loads for those who’ve been less active in that area. That direction has generated criticism from faculty, who say they've been given very little information about how research and teaching loads will be determined, and how their performance will ultimately be evaluated.

For Olson, these concerns reflect growing pains -- not systemic issues that can't be overcome.

“There are people screaming that the sky is falling and so on,” he said. “Usually, there’s like a year transition and at the end of the day when you get on the other side even a lot of the naysayers say, ‘Wow, I’m happy where we are now.’ But you can’t say that in advance, because no one will believe you.”

And therein lies the problem. At a time when Olson most needs the trust of the faculty, there is precious little to go around.

"There is a way of changing the culture of the university," Sadid said. "If the administration wants to move into research, first they have to get faculty's trust and support, [and put funding behind it]. Faculty agree that we need to move in research direction, but there is a way of doing that. This administration doesn’t know how to do it, and it's making faculty upset.”


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