The recent firing of untenured associate professor Stephen Roberds by Southern Utah University has ignited some smoldering discontent among some SUU students.
There are a lot of bad feelings on campus right now, and the response by the SUU administration is probably contributing to festering angst among some faculty.
One thing that is clear is that the displeasure of students and the faculty nervousness intersect only with the Roberds case - a casual perusal of the student protest website and the campus newspaper quickly confirms a lack of other serious connections.
Nonetheless, the general feeling is that cases like Roberds' do not come up at other schools in other states; that the situation here is uniquely ugly.
The student protest website says it all: OnlyInUtah.org. Only in Utah - that reddest of red states - can a popular liberal professor be fired. And only in Utah - a state viewed as a theocracy by much of the country - can "they" get away with this.
But here's the scoop. This has happened before - different university, different year, same professor, and a similar pattern of protest by students.
Yes, you read that correctly. Seven years ago, Stephen Roberds was let go by the University of North Alabama in the midst of his tenure process, and student protests broke out to support him without visible support from other faculty.
The items below are not available online, but they are in the public record, and can be obtained readily in Florence, Alabama.
On October 9, 1997 the Flor-Ala, the student newspaper at the University of North Alabama, reported in an article entitled "Tenure Denial Scandal In Political Science Department" that "Dr. Stephen Roberds tenure status was turned down".That article continues with a report by a student that she was pushed by another UNA faculty member to commit any displeasure she had with Roberds to paper.
- This is similar to reports that Roberds' chair at SUU solicited commentary about Roberds from students (that one way or another ended up being negative).
The same student then opines that "the tenure process does not give you a chance to learn from your mistakes".
- Let me suggest that it does give you a chance to learn from your mistakes, just at another school. The situation this year at SUU suggests that Roberds did not learn from his mistakes.
Roberds' chair at UNA is then quoted that "students get a very narrow viewpoint of the [tenure decision] process".
An October 16, 1997 article from the Flor-Ala entitled "Impact of Tenure Denial Hits Home" quotes five students who all have positive impressions of Roberds.
- No neutral or negative viewpoints are included in this piece. A similar thing occurred at SUU, and is summarized in this opposing op-ed piece.
Roberds is quoted "I've ... been harmed in ... that if I didn't get tenured here, some other school is going to want to know why".
- It is not clear if anyone at SUU knew prior to last week that Roberds had been fired previously; what is certain is that this was not known generally among the SUU faculty.
A letter to the Flor-Ala published the same day notes that: "...UNA is a conservative school with conservative teachers teaching conservative ideas. Without someone to stand up and make some noise we will be allowing ourselves to throw away our RIGHTS [sic] ...".
- Roberds is well known on the SUU campus for taking the liberal position in a series of annual debates. (However, the next link down makes the point - one that I agree with - that Roberds also espoused many conservative points too. But, this also could have come straight off the contemporary OnlyInUtah.org.
It continues with "...nobody is really saying why Dr. Roberds was denied his tenure..." and later "... this is the way to be rid of such a liberal who is such a threat to our school..."
- Both points were made again this year in an op-ed piece in The University Journal (by a former colleague from Roberds department).
An October 19, 1997 article from the Florence TimesDaily entitled "Tenure Denial Sparks Outcry At University" notes that "University officials said tenure denial is not uncommon. What may be uncommon is the outcry from the student body." The article continues with two new positive student views of Roberds, the repetition of one positive viewpoint from the earlier Flor-Ala piece, and the views of parents of two students who question whether UNA is an appropriate school for their children.
- Our local paper featured this article on the second day of the Spring 2005 semester, noting that "students returned to school Monday with more than class schedules on their agendas", which followed an earlier piece presenting only positive views of Roberds.
A piece on the same page of The TimesDaily entitled "Tenure Process Similar to that At Other Schools" discusses the generalities of the tenure process, and points out the similarities between UNA and other schools. It also notes that the process is " ... currently under review by the faculty senate [at UNA]."
On the 30th of October, a Flor-Ala article entitled "Tenure Probe Continues" provides some anecdotal evidence of other tenure cases at UNA that were handled differently, but not any that were handled similarly to Roberds.
- Note that the absence of evidence from that piece in no way implies that evidence was not available at UNA. All tenure cases are idiosyncratic, and there are many that appear far more egregious than either of Roberds (here is a recent and well-known example).
An October 23, 1997 piece from the Flor-Ala entitled "Input on Tenure Decision Requested" reported that "... petitions were being circulated on campus asking the administration to reverse the decision..." and "... a demonstration on Roberds' behalf was in the works..." (that demonstration occurred on October 30, 1997).
- Petitions in support of Roberds were also circulated on the SUU campus last month, and student protest demonstrations were staged on the SUU campus this month.
The UNA President at that time then states in the same piece that "it's frustrating because I can't speak to the specifics of Dr. Roberds situation."
- This is similar to opinions expressed at SUU this past fall. Of course, this doesn't prove that something nefarious did not happen, but it is observationally equivalent to what would be said if the SUU administration is on the level.
The only piece that might be interpreted as anti-Roberds is a letter to the Flor-Ala published on October 23, 1997.
Not all students believe Roberds is the only professor who care about his students at UNSA, as was implied in the Flor-Ala!!
If you [the Flor-Ala writers] think a professor at UNA has done wrong - show us the facts. Do not give a whole issue of accusations based on hurt feelings. Research both sides of the issue and report. I believe it's called journalism! Think for yourself!
- I have to fully agree with this sentiment. Indications of the backstory reported here have been available on the SUU campus for over a week. The school newspaper (The University Journal), the local newspaper in St. George and Cedar City (The Spectrum), and the two major newspapers in Utah (The Salt Lake Tribune and
The Deseret News) have dropped the ball by not reporting this. Please note the next post which corrects my claim that The Deseret News has not reported on this issue.
A letter to the editor of the Florence TimesDaily (date unavailable - approximately the same date) argues that:
...UNA has fully displayed its shortsighted, arrogant, anti-intellectural personality toward the citizens of ... the UNA community.
Whatever the petty, personal, or infantile reasons the administration had in denying tenure to Dr. Roberds, they do not begin to measure up to his worth as a member of the faculty ...
... [Roberds'] denial sends a clear message to the other faculty members who care about students. At UNA, it is career suicide to support student activities ...
...the entire community should be outraged at the administration's blatant abuse of power and arbitrary actions.
- I'm not going to provide a direct cite to something current for this one; suffice to say that any number of comments on OnlyInUtah.org or the forum at SouthernUtah.com make similar points.
I'd like to make two broader points as well.
First, Roberds could always choose to make his personnel files public. This could solve a lot of problems in one fell swoop. Yet, he has kept his files closed in both cases. Why? I'm an economist - this screams to me that divulging this information would put him at a disadvantage.
Second, Roberds could sue. Yet, he hasn't in either case. Why? I'm an economist - this screams to me that he doesn't think he can win.
So, let's sum up the similarities here:
- A professor's contract is not renewed when he is up for tenure.
- Allegations are made that negative views were solicited from students.
- Students complain that the tenure decision is not transparent, and administrators acknowledge that this may be part of the reason that students are upset.
- The school newspaper prints mostly positive views of the professor in question.
- The local newspaper follows that lead.
- Supportive students make clear that they feel there is an element of prejudice towards liberals on the part of conservative faculty.
- Petitions are circulated on campus in support of Roberds.
- Student protests in support of Roberds occur.
- University administrators claim that they can't divulge anything about the decision because of privacy considerations.
I'm going to make the claim that this list of similarities is long enough that it did not occur by chance. Read what you like into that.
I'll also tell you that people-in-the-know in Florence did not divulge any of this for seven years. Even then, it was weeks after reading about this case in a December 17 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education before they came forward. Why, I wonder?