The attempt to fire longtime college math professor Lars Jensen by Truckee Meadows Community College administrators failed last year. This week, Jensen filed a lawsuit against five TMCC administrators and Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Melody Rose.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, and after a committee of TMCC employees recommended President Karin Hilgersom not fire him, Jensen’s attempt at a mediation with the college was rebuffed, he said.
“After having agreed to mediation on Dec. 9 on my EEOC complaint against TMCC for retaliation and discrimination, TMCC has suddenly cancelled mediation and declined to reschedule before the mediation deadline on Jan. 31,” Jensen told This Is Reno last month.
An email from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows TMCC “decided not to participate in a mediation session before 31 January 2022,” a federal mediator wrote.
Jensen filed the EEOC complaint in August and said the federal agency scheduled a mediation session for Dec. 9, 2021.
“I received an email from the employer stating that it was cancelling the mediation session, scheduled for Thursday 9 December 2021,” the mediator wrote. “This is very unfortunate; particularly because this charge has been at the Alternative Dispute Resolution Unit since 30 August 2021, and I am only able to retain it until 31 January 2022.”
Jensen, in December, said litigation was the next step. Three attorneys representing him filed the lawsuit this week on his behalf.
He has been supported by free-speech and professors’ rights organizations, which have issued statements protesting his treatment at TMCC.
Lawsuit alleges civil rights violations
Jensen is suing for what he says are civil rights violations. TMCC administrators wanted him fired last year, and after two days of hearings in the case, a committee recommended against his dismissal.
Jensen objected to NSHE’s lowering of math curriculum standards, and during a faculty meeting, he said he was denied the opportunity to speak after others were allowed to.
After TMCC Dean Julie Ellsworth cut him off mid-sentence, saying the meeting was scheduled for a break, Jensen went to his office and typed up his response to the math curriculum changes.
He then passed out copies of his views. Ellsworth, he alleged, then called him out into a hallway and ordered him to stop handing out sheets of paper.
“In the hallway Dr. Ellsworth stated to Dr. Jensen that this was ‘her workshop’ and he was not allowed to distribute anything,” the lawsuit alleges. “Dr. Ellsworth then made disparaging remarks to Dr. Jensen. She accused him of being a ‘bully,’ ‘disobeying her,’ and being ‘disruptive.’ Then Dr. Ellsworth stated to Dr. Jensen that he had ‘made an error by defying her.’”
Ellsworth, in sworn testimony during the hearing to fire Jensen, admitted she may have raised her voice during the encounter.
TMCC tried to fire Jensen, despite his tenured status, in part for insubordination.
Kent Ervin with the Nevada Faculty Alliance last year said TMCC was violating his academic freedom.
“From the hearing so far, TMCC is offering only extremely flimsy pretexts to terminate a tenured professor and even those don’t stand up to scrutiny,” he told This Is Reno in October. “If TMCC’s motive is anything other than silencing a critical voice on curricular issues well within Professor Jensen’s area of expertise in mathematics — it is not evident. His academic freedom is being trampled.”
His lawsuit raises the same issues and says TMCC administrators retaliated against him.
“Dr. Jensen has witnessed the deterioration of shared governance and lowering of curriculum standards at TMCC over a multiyear period and felt obligated to exercise his First Amendment rights on multiple occasions to professionally communicate his concerns,” the lawsuit notes. “Defendants engaged in willful retaliation and attempts to publicly humiliate him with letters of reprimand, negative annual performance evaluations, and investigations. All of these actions were directed at Dr. Jensen to harass him for exercising his First Amendment rights.”
TMCC officials did not respond to requests for comment. An NSHE spokesperson said the system does not comment on pending litigation. Jensen said he was advised by legal counsel not to comment on the case.
Cardoza gets payout after prevailing in court
Another TMCC professor, Thomas Cardoza, said he received a check from NSHE after prevailing in court in his lawsuit against TMCC officials after they removed him from his department chair position in violation of the collective bargaining agreement with faculty.
Cardoza won his case last year in district court, and TMCC attorney John Albrecht sent university police to his house to notify him NSHE was considering appealing the decision.
NSHE Board of Regents, however, did not meet at the scheduled date to consider the appeal, so Cardoza received back pay for wages lost from his removal as department chair. He said most of the money went to attorney fees.
“There is no evidence in the record that Petitioner Cardoza failed to perform his duties as Humanities Department Chair or that he committed any act which would constitute a violation of the NSHE Code,” District Court Judge Dave Hardy wrote in his decision. “The Court finds Mr. Cardoza’s grievance procedures were timely and [former NSHE] Chancellor Reilly exceeded his jurisdiction created by the TMCC-[Nevada Faculty Alliance Collective Bargaining Agreement].”
Cardoza said the late night visit by university police to serve him with a notice was further retaliation against him.