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.)