Blogs > Cliopatria > Academic Freedom, Southern Utah Style

Dec 17, 2004 4:19 pm

Academic Freedom, Southern Utah Style

This morning’s Chronicle features a highly disturbing account of a recent tenure controversy at Southern Utah University. Political science professor Stephen Roberds had won several teaching awards, including having been named the college’s teacher of the year in 2003-2004; he also had been promoted from assistant to associate professor in 2003. But he was recently denied tenure for reasons that the college has refused to disclose. From what has been publicly revealed, it appears as if the college has refused to disclose its rationale because its rationale is indefensible.

Roberds is a left-of-center professor on a campus that, like almost all universities in Utah, public or private, leans right. (SUU’s mission statement lists one of the college’s aims as preparing “students as informed and responsible citizens and for effective roles in families”; it’s tough to imagine many schools in the other 49 states that place preparing students for their roles in families on par with citizenship training.) A student website publicizing Roberds’ case claims that the university is"weeding out" professors who do not fit the"Conservative Utah Brand.” Facts for that assertion don’t seem present, but there obviously was an ideological element in the administration’s handling of the Roberds case.

Roberds applied for tenure this past September. Lamar R. Jordan, chairman of the department of political science and criminal justice, initially supported his tenure, but changed his mind after a class incident in which, during a heated discussion, Roberds swore at a student. Though Roberds immediately ironed things out with the student and publicly apologized to the class at the start of the next meeting, Jordan, it appears, used the incident to torpedo a candidacy that he would have liked to oppose from the start but until that point had no excuse for doing so.

Shortly after the swearing incident, Jordan, a 22-year former FBI agent, summoned several department students to his office, saying that he wanted to discuss curricular matters for the 2005-2006 academic year. Instead, he asked for information about Roberds. The students told the campus newspaper that Jordan “asked them misleading, deceitful questions designed to elicit negative anecdotes,” although each of the students interviewed appears to have offered positive comments about Roberds and to have supported Roberds’ tenure. In the words of one of the students, “It was very misleading and deceitful. I felt like I was being interrogated. I thought what (Jordan) did, calling me in under false pretenses and asking me to keep it confidential, was more unprofessional than what Dr. Roberds did in class.” A second student added, “I knew I had to be careful with my words because of (Jordan’s) interrogation background. I didn’t want my words twisted; you could tell what his questions were leading toward.” Jordan then concluded the meetings by asking them not to tell anyone, including Roberds, about the conversation. The day after the second meeting with students, Jordan amended his tenure recommendation to urge a denial of tenure. Though the dean of the College of Education and the chair of Psychology Department both have publicly questioned the tactic of surreptitiously calling in the students, the university went along with Jordan’s recommendation.

Chairman Jordan’s public defense of his actions badly undermines his case. He conceded that he invited the students to meet with him under the “pretext of ‘a curriculum matter,’” but fantastically claimed that he had done so “out of concern for the privacy of Dr. Roberds.” To have disclosed “the purpose of my interview in advance to the students,” he continued, “would have been inappropriate and violated Dr. Roberd's [sic] right to privacy.” The students who came forward to reveal the meeting’s occurrence, according to Jordan, “did Dr. Roberds a disservice by violating his right to privacy.” He concluded by asking that “the normal process in this matter be allowed to continue without further speculation and questioning from the Journal and other members of the media.” That request would be much easier to honor, of course, if Jordan himself hadn’t violated “normal process” by secretly soliciting dirt about a professor that he wanted to dismiss.

The Spectrum, a local newspaper, reports that Roberds “has a reputation of pushing the envelope." Last April, for instance, he referred to a student as “a stupid, ignorant, hate-monger” during a club-sponsored demonstration against gay marriage. And he could have been more judicious in his public statement to his tenure denial, writing in an e-mail that the university's administrators"act like thugs" and"have no respect for diversity or true academic freedom." Virtually every student interviewed, however, stated that while he was passionate in expressing his views in the classroom, he did not attempt to indoctrinate and encouraged debate. As one student informed the Salt Lake City Tribune,"It's like the administration is sensitive to ideas of the majority, but not those with opposite views . . . [the dismissal] does make the school look like a backwater place when it really isn't."

In any event, the key figure in this case is not Roberds but Jordan. A tenure process in which a chair violates procedures to solicit one-sided secret information is about as low as things can go in the academy. (I speak, as many know, from personal experience in this regard.) Such a record by the university makes almost comical the claim of SUU President Steve Bennion that the university “made every effort to be fair and balanced.” I suspect that the courts will disagree.

Update, 4.19pm: Roberds has issued a statement to the Tribune, noting that the university has fallen back upon the last refuge of academic scoundrels . . . collegiality! He concedes that he had strong disagreements with other faculty members, largely over an attempt to change the faculty constitution, which he claimed gave too much power to the administration, and that as a result some accused him of not being a"team player." Also, the Trib--hardly a liberal paper--revealed that the faculty tenure committee at SUU made no recommendation on Roberds' case, contending instead that the issue of his employment status"should be an administrative decision." (Thanks to Mitch Lerner for the reference to the above article.)

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Dave Tufte - 12/23/2004

I am an economist with the only substantial weblog at Southern Utah University.

I have a post on what is going on in our heads here at SUU.

Please read it at:

Robert KC Johnson - 12/17/2004

Erin, I should note, is absolutely correct: FIRE did not become publicly involved with my tenure case, as part of its general policy of refraining from involvement in tenure matters.

I attempted to get involvement from the ACLU, but its NY branch had little interest because of the nature of the case--it will be interesting to see if the Utah branch becomes involved here.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/17/2004

Erin O'Connor is reporting at Critical Mass that she doubts that FIRE will take on the case -- not because Roberds is a liberal -- but because it is not taking on tenure cases.

King Banaian - 12/17/2004

I agree; there's something here we don't know yet. Even if the guy was fired for being a royal pain to the administration, the administrative leave indicates a firing "for cause" rather than a denial of tenure. I can't believe the cause is the f-bomb.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/17/2004

There is something strange in the Salt Lake City Tribune article that KC links to. It suggests that Roberds has been fired, with his salary paid through the end of this, his sixth year. The non-decision on tenure tends to confirm that. Ordinarily, a tenure denial would allow a terminal seventh year at the institution.

Richard Henry Morgan - 12/17/2004

As I understand it, FIRE took catholic University to task for refusing to recognize a chapter of the NAACP. Furthermore, the news accounts seem to indicate that Roberds hasn't been denied tenure yet, the department has refused as of now to act on his application -- is he in some sort of administrative limbo due to his abusive comments? One interesting thing I picked up on is that a 22-year veteran FBI agent is head of the department. it is little appreciated outside law enforcement or intelligence circles that there is something of a Mormon "mafia" within the FBI. In what other state would you find a 22-year FBI veteran as head of a department.

Robert KC Johnson - 12/17/2004

We'll see if Roberds goes to FIRE; if so, I'd be surprised if they didn't take the case. FIRE was the lead backer of the Loyola (Chicago) professor disciplined for writing a (nasty) anti-military email after he was asked to contribute funds for a student pro-military event. Jon's right, though, in that FIRE's cases tip to the right. Probably around 80% of their cases involve the central mission of fighting speech codes or other ideologically motivated behavior restrictions at either public or private secular institutions, where the appealing party always represents views that could be considered conservative, or at least not politically correct.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/17/2004

Good test for FIRE. I suspect that it will pass with flying colors.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/17/2004

I would be very interested to hear what FIRE's reaction was, as I have not yet heard of their taking up a case in support of a non-conservative.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/17/2004

I've e-mailed Roberds to call his attention to your post and suggested to him that, in addition to other sources of support in what may be an extended struggle, that he contact FIRE.