Friday’s hearing at Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) to fire longtime tenured faculty member Lars Jensen had 11 witnesses testifying in support of the professor.
Most were his faculty colleagues in TMCC’s math department. Other witnesses included a retired biology faculty member and an academic freedom expert.
Math Professor Rebecca Porter, who has been at TMCC for 38 years, said the college was in disarray and she was horrified by how Jensen has been treated by TMCC administrators.
“He’s kind to students [and] answers questions — always,” she added. “When I observe him in the classroom, I walk away in awe. He’s kind to the students. When he speaks out it’s because he truly believes what he is talking about. He is passionate and sincere.”
Porter said what was happening to Jensen was damaging to the institution and faculty morale.
“It’s devastating,” she said. “I’m having trouble sleeping. I love my college, [and] I love my colleagues. What they are doing to him is petty. It is affecting us physically and mentally.”
Academic freedom expert John Wilson said Jensen was exercising his free-speech rights.
“A public college does not get to dictate the means of communication,” Wilson testified. “What he was doing in distributing a flier to his colleagues [during a math summit] was engaging in … extramural utterances. These are protected under the realm of academic freedom. He cannot be subjected to punishment for [it].”
“The contrived termination case against Professor Jensen … is another and extreme example of retaliation against an outspoken faculty member.”
Wilson also testified the insubordination Jensen is charged with by TMCC violates Nevada law.
“I would strongly object to principles of insubordination as a way of punishing a faculty member,” he said.
A policy of insubordination should be narrowly defined, he added. Under existing Nevada law and NSHE code, what Jensen is accused of would not constitute insubordination.
Wilson also said unsatisfactory evaluations of Jensen by two deans was “very disturbing.” TMCC attorney John Albrecht tried to prevent Wilson from testifying about matters related to the law, something Jensen’s attorney, John Nolan, objected to.
“TMCC publicly touts its adherence to the principles of academic freedom, but at the hearing TMCC’s lawyer tried to squash any discussion of academic freedom by an expert in the field,” Kent Ervin with the Nevada Faculty Alliance told This Is Reno.
NSHE attorney denies sending police to professor’s house
Tom Cardoza, who recently prevailed in his lawsuit against TMCC, testified in support of Jensen. He described TMCC as having “a toxic climate of fear.”
Cardoza said his testimony might be unclear because he and his family had been suffering nightmares and insomnia after University Police were sent to his house.
“This is because [NSHE attorney John] Albrecht sent armed police officers to our home at 10:15 at night on Oct. 6 on the pretext of serving me a routine letter informing me about a Regents meeting,” Cardoza said. “I believe this is relevant because it speaks to a pattern and a practice of abuse of power and silencing people…”
Albrecht interrupted Cardoza.
“I did not send anybody to his home at any hour of the night,” Albrecht retorted.
He asked the hearing officer to strike Cardoza’s comment from the record. She agreed.
Cardoza told This Is Reno he asked Chief of University Police Services, Eric James, who sent the officers to his house. Cardoza’s email was forwarded to Albrecht. Cardoza said Albrecht then responded to Cardoza’s attorney, Michael Langton.
In response to the statement, “Please tell me who requested the service by armed officers,” the answer provided was “TMCC General Counsel John Albrecht.”
TMCC officials said the sending of police was routine — however, when asked for how many times it has happened in the past, spokesperson Kate Kirkpatrick said the institution doesn’t maintain that data.
The Albrecht email explained the police visit in the future tense:
“UNR Police Services will serve notices and other legal documents on behalf of the college. If the recipient cannot be located during the day either on campus or at home the service may need to be accomplished at the recipient’s home at night.”
Listen to Cardoza’s testimony
Faculty Alliance hints at litigation
Faculty representatives from each NSHE institution on Saturday issued a letter of protest (read it below) about the hearing to fire Jensen. The letter followed three statements by outside organizations expressing concern about TMCC’s actions.
“His termination would be a violation of his academic freedom and his rights as an academic faculty member and would constitute a travesty of justice,” the faculty members wrote. “In addition, it would very likely lead to successful litigation against TMCC.
“The State Board of the Nevada Faculty Alliance has previously criticized the TMCC administration for a campus climate of retribution and fear,” they added. “The contrived termination case against Professor Jensen, who is passionate about his students and about upholding academic standards, is another and extreme example of retaliation against an outspoken faculty member.”
The letter followed three statements by outside organizations expressing concern about TMCC’s actions. The American Association of University Professors, the Academic Freedom Alliance and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education each issued letters of concern over what was happening to Jensen.
Watch closing arguments
Jensen gets final comment
Jensen stood at the end of the hearing and read a two-page statement. He said the past three years at TMCC have been a nightmare.
He had sharp criticism for the two deans, Anne Flesher and Julie Ellsworth, who gave him negative evaluations and want him fired.
“Dean Ellsworth’s allegations that I was insubordinate [were] not substantiated in testimony,” he said.
He was referring to the math summit where, when he was cut off by Ellsworth because the group had to take a break. Jensen went to his office, typed his opinion on the curriculum changes being discussed at the summit, then passed them out during the break.
He said Ellsworth then asked to speak with him away from other faculty and “berated” him. Ellsworth admitted she raised her voice “in frustration.”
Jensen said Flesher, who gave him a second unsatisfactory evaluation, did so to proceed with firing him. Two consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations can lead to a tenured faculty member getting fired.
“Testimony here has shown that Dean Flesher does not hold herself to the same high standards she holds faculty to,” Jensen alleged.
He said if he ends up getting fired, it will set a new precedent for tenured faculty to be fired within NSHE.
“Please consider that upholding the charges in this case will set a terrible precedent within the NSHE that may ultimately result in tenure becoming meaningless, and lower the standards in education,” he added.
After he finished his statement, he thanked a faculty committee and the hearing officer for attending the hearing. He proceeded to hand out copies of his statement to about a dozen people in the room.
Nobody objected and the hearing concluded.
The hearing officer will issue facts in Jensen’s case in the coming weeks. Based upon her determinations, a faculty committee will then forward its recommendations to TMCC President Karin Hilgersom in early December.
Hilgersom can fire Jensen regardless of the hearing officer’s and committee’s input.
Read letters of support
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.