When a 'Threat' Derails a Career

La Verne seeks to terminate a gadfly professor for allegedly threatening to "assassinate" a colleague. Is it going too far?

February 17, 2020
 
Diane Klein

Diane Klein saw the writing on the wall in 2016: the University of La Verne, where she works as a professor of law, was going to either close the law school or dramatically change the way it did business. Wanting to give the program and its tenured professors a fighting chance, she joined the university’s Faculty Handbook revision committee. Her immediate focus was shaping how La Verne would terminate tenured faculty members, if it came to that.

Fast-forward four years and the law school is still open, with plans to transition to California Bar Association backing from the more stringent American Bar Association accreditation. The reason for the change, among others, is that La Verne has struggled to meet ABA standards for bar exam passage rates. But Klein’s tenured job is still on the line, not due to any program closure, but because she stands accused of threatening the life of a colleague.

Any institution must take violent threats seriously, especially in an era of mass shootings. But Klein and her supporters believe that the case against her stretches the term threat into absurdity: following a separate ad hoc committee meeting about the future of the law school, in November, Klein verbally told a third professor that the group would have to decide if it wanted to “assassinate” Jendayi Saada, assistant dean at La Verne’s Center for Academic and Bar Readiness, if the law school were to survive. Klein allegedly also said that she, for one, was willing to "assassinate" Saada.

Klein has made professional enemies because she is outspoken. And she was already in hot water with her administration because, in her capacity as president of La Verne's American Association of University Professors chapter, she'd helped a group of education professors discuss a tenure case in their college. In that incident, administrators charged Klein -- and not anyone else involved -- with violating the confidentiality surrounding tenure decisions.

In other strikes against her, Klein is a stickler for details and procedure, including when it comes to shared governance -- something that may be difficult for her peers to understand. Still, she's not a criminal and thought that her “assassination” remark was private.

It was not. The comment made its way back to a Saada at the bar readiness center, and, in December, Klein was suspended, escorted off campus, and subject to a strict no-contact order regarding students and employees. Klein was notified that Saada also sought to pursue a restraining order against her, but that case was apparently dropped when Saada did not appear at the hearing.

“This is torture -- I’m being terrorized, from my point of view,” said Klein, who only recently received a notice regarding an opportunity for a "rebuttal," though she's not quite clear what that means or how she should prepare. "They’re leaving me here to languish.”

Simultaneously, she said, La Verne’s law program is transitioning to the California Bar program and the university will be laying off faculty members. So while Klein worked hard to make sure that process would be fair to those with tenure, it will probably work against her, as long as she's operating in an informational vacuum. That's if she doesn’t get terminated for cause first.

“It appears the administration has clearly aligned itself with the person making a ridiculous allegation against me -- made clear that it won’t defend me, even in the face of these ridiculous allegations -- and my tenured colleagues are all in a fight to the death for a maximum of six jobs. Who’s going to defy the president, the provost, the general counsel?” she said. “The timing of this is obviously designed to have an effect on governance by removing a knowledgeable and determined faculty leader. And that’s demoralizing, undermining and distracting to the faculty who shared my views. That’s where we are.”

More to the Story

Saada said she did not file the complaint against Klein. Rather, she said via email, two witnesses overheard the statement and filed a complaint with “appropriate authorities,” in accordance with the university’s workplace violence policy.

Asked if she took the comment seriously, Saada said, “absolutely."

“We live in a time of school shootings and other acts of violence, both random and targeted, and I am deeply concerned and fearful for my own safety and for students and co-workers around me who might be victims of violence aimed at me.”

She further cited California Penal Code Section 422 on criminal threats. Although Klein continues to “justify her assassination threat as ‘colorful language,’” Saada said, Klein is a trained attorney “who is well aware of the implications and significance of the term ‘assassinate’ and the legal ramifications of making such a threat against a coworker. I am thankful to the University of La Verne for taking all threats of violence seriously and for the no-contact order that it put in place.”

Saada also read a statement to the Faculty Senate in January, saying that there is “absolutely no protection under any reasonable interpretation of academic freedom for any faculty members, tenured or not, to harass or bully other faculty members or staff, or to threaten the lives or professional reputations of faculty members or anyone else.”

She further explained then that she and her colleagues at the bar center, who are all untenured, feel undervalued and underrepresented in conversations about the future of the law school. It appears race is also a factor. Klein is white and Saada is black, and a colleague who heard Saada speak wrote in a mass email to his faculty colleagues, “I do not wish to see this campus further divided. I want the current division to go away. However, I will not stand for the mistreatment and ganging up on of another Black colleague, who has done nothing wrong but tried her best to serve our students as we all have.”

Rod Leveque, a spokesperson for La Verne, wrote in an email that the university also disagrees this is “solely a matter of ‘colorful language.’” The university “takes all threats of harm seriously, and it is obligated to protect all faculty, staff and students from harm or harassment,” he said. La Verne "will not tolerate any threats or threatening behavior that create a hostile learning or working environment.”

Klein was placed on “indefinite administrative leave without pay with the intent to terminate her tenure based upon an investigatory finding that she made serious threats to harm another university employee,” Leveque also said. In addition, she “was previously disciplined for similar inappropriate conduct, including severe harassment and bullying of employees.”

Leveque didn’t elaborate on that prior conduct, and La Verne is of course legally restricted as to what it can reveal about its employees. But Klein said that she had previously crossed swords with Saada about two years ago when she asked for topic-specific information on bar-passage performance. Klein said she wanted to see it to determine what sections and questions students were having problems with, as part of her interest in the future of the law school, but that she never received it. Saada allegedly said Klein was harassing her, and Klein has had to keep her distance since.

Klein said two other, prior complaints about her relate to the Senate, of which she is a member. In one instance, Klein said she emailed a fellow senator to tell her to “do her job” with respect to conversations about shared governance. In another instance, Klein publicly expressed concern about whether an adjunct professor of law who was also a graduate student could appropriately serve on the Senate alongside professors who might evaluate his academic work at some point.

Apparently sick of such questions, that adjunct emailed the Senate to demand that Klein to stop contacting him. She emailed back to explain that she’d only ever contacted him about Senate matters.

Interestingly, the adjunct who complained about Klein emailed the Senate last month to express concern that Saada was working with the administration to take down Klein. The adjunct, who declined an interview request, said in his email to the Senate that everyone deserves due process. He later wrote another email to the Senate saying that he was being retaliated against by La Verne for his disclosure.

Saada did not respond to a question about the adjunct's claims.

Mr. Confidentiality

Around the same time she was clashing with members of the Senate last spring, a group of Klein’s colleagues in La Verne’s education program asked her to help them with a tenure case. The colleagues said that their recommendation against tenure for a particular candidate had been ignored and that the candidate had advanced up the tenure and promotion approval chain, against their guidance.

Klein made clear to the faculty members at the school that she was not their attorney, but that as their AAUP president, she could help them draft a letter of concern. She says she acted as their scribe during an April meeting at the library and then compiled the notes into a letter. She then sent the letter to the education school’s tenured professors. Soon after, Klein -- not the professors she’d been helping -- was charged with violating the confidentiality of the tenure process.

Things came to a head in October when she was told to report to the main campus to sign a last-chance agreement regarding her alleged confidentiality violation. Earlier that month, Klein had received a letter saying that her tenure was at risk. In addition to the confidentiality charge, the letter noted previous complaints from faculty members about Klein's tone in emails -- presumably the two cases involving the Senate. It also listed various concerns about Klein's teaching, such as that she had a "whatever" attitude regarding a collaborative teaching initiative, and previous administrative attempts to address some of those concerns. But the letter said a meeting with human resources would be scheduled -- not that she'd be required to sign any last-chance agreement.

The day was hell. And in a Kafkaesque detail, Doajo Hicks is the university's new general counsel. Hicks had previously helped Dixie State University fire several faculty members over alleged violations of confidentiality, including a professor who emailed his grown son in another country a note about his day and some thoughts about a tenure case he'd weighed in on. Hicks is also named in the adjunct's letter to the Senate about alleged coordination between Saada and the administration regarding Klein.

Klein said that the last-chance agreement was not provided for in the handbook, and "required me to admit to wrongdoing I deny engaging in," and waive some of her faculty rights. While she's "aware of some colleagues' alleged issues with me," she said, "I deny any problems with my teaching or collaboration that were unique or serious enough to warrant any of this discipline." She never ended up signing the agreement.

John Bartelt, a professor of education at La Verne with whom Klein worked on the letter about the tenure case, said recently that he wrote both the interim law school dean and human resources in the fall to affirm that about “a dozen faculty members on the Tenure and Promotion Committee in my college, uniformly disgusted with what we perceived to be egregiously unethical and overreaching behavior by our administrators, invited Diane Klein, as our AAUP representative, to take notes as we talked.”

The group discussed only the tenure and promotion process itself, he said, and “no one viewed anything about our meetings as a breach of confidentiality. Anyone who attended that meeting would confirm that.” ​Bartlet said he also told the administration that “we as faculty have every right to discuss procedural and governance issues with one another, and clarified that Diane only tried to mediate discussion at our specific request.”

'Toxicity'

Bartlet said he couldn’t discuss anything else because “I fear retribution. That’s how bad it has gotten. I can only hope the toxicity doesn’t reach our students.”

In the meantime, La Verne is planning to do away with tenure entirely in the law school. That's against the advice of the ad hoc faculty committee on the program transition and of deep concern to the Senate. The Senate also recently voted no confidence in La Verne’s president, Devorah Lieberman, and has asked the administration to put Klein on paid leave. It has also recommended that her campus communication rights and access be restored, and that a time for her hearing be set. 

A separate petition, signed by La Verne colleagues, asks the university to restore Klein's ability to participate in her elected shared governance roles, at the very least, during any investigation.

The university has not responded to their requests for action thus far.

The national AAUP and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education are also following what's happened to Klein.

Will Creeley, an attorney at FIRE, said there appeared to "be a lot going on" at La Verne, but that the most concerning aspects, from his organization's point of view, are "the seeming lack of procedure governing the university's response, including an apparent lack of communication with Klein throughout," the "interpretation of the alleged use of the word 'assassinate' as a threat," and "the gag order."

Hicks also seems to reprising what "we criticized him for back when he was at Dixie State," Creeley said. "We're still checking it all out, but it seems dysfunctional, to say the least."

Asked whether she’d want to return to La Verne, given all that’s happened, Klein thought for a while. The truth, she said, is that she believes in La Verne law's mission to provide inland California -- parts of which are underserved by attorneys -- an able supply. She said she's also interested how the law school will evolve, including through the thoughtful use of hybrid technologies.

More than her own career, Klein said this fight is about due process, tenure and the fate of the university.

“The protections of tenure and shared governance and academic freedom are the essential values that should distinguish a university from every other sort of entity,” she said. “The advancement and protection of those values is at the very soul of the university and if they’re not, what are we trying to keep the university around for?”

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