Truckee Meadows Community College professor Lars Jensen’s lawsuit against the college is proceeding in federal court. His attorneys last week filed an amended motion opposing the Nevada System of Higher Education’s attempt to get the suit tossed.
They are requesting oral arguments in the case filed in January. Jensen is suing TMCC officials, including President Karin Hilgersom and former NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose, after TMCC tried to fire him last year for alleged insubordination.
Jensen said his civil rights were violated. After two days of rare faculty firing hearings last year, 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. He proceeded to print out his objections and handed them out at the meeting.
For that, his dean, Anne Flesher, called him insubordinate.
“Dr. Jensen has demonstrated a consistent pattern of defiance and disrespect by his refusal to apply the repeated directives and not responding to the dean’s requests in a timely manner,” she said.
His case made headlines in higher-education news media sources around the country after higher-education faculty rights groups, including the American Association of University Professors, issued letters to TMCC demanding they refrain from attempting to fire Jensen.
They said insubordination is a dodgy pretext to fire a tenured faculty member.
“The AAUP has long challenged the appropriateness of insubordination as a ground for dismissal,” the AAUP’s Mark Criley wrote in a letter to Hilgersom. “When Association investigating committees have (all too frequently) encountered it, their members have questioned how a general requirement of subordination to authority can be reconciled with the faculty’s responsibility, under principles of academic freedom, to pursue truth wherever it may lead and to express views regarding educational policy institutional governance that may diverge from those of the administration and governing board.”
‘New facts’ emerge
In his latest filing, Jensen said more than a year ago he made a public records request for emails from TMCC officials related to his complaint. Some of those records were provided early this month, according to a court filing by Jensen’s attorneys.
“This newly discovered email thread reveals that Plaintiff was targeted specifically for disciplinary action for his prior speech in emails.”
“Prior to this matter being before this Court, Plaintiff was subject to a termination hearing that took place on October 1 and October 22, 2021. In preparation for that hearing, Plaintiff made various public records requests for information on September 16, 2021,” they wrote. “Part of the request, which is still not completely responded to, was released to Plaintiff on September 7, 2022, and contained additional ‘new facts’ that clearly show Defendants’ intent to retaliate against Plaintiff for his constitutionally protected speech.”
Jensen’s attorneys said an email chain shows TMCC science Dean Julie Ellsworth and Flesher “coordinated with others at TMCC prior to the Math Summit … to retaliate Plaintiff’s constitutionally protected speech.”
The emails show that TMCC’s HR Director, Kim Studebaker, offered to Ellsworth to have police be at the math summit specifically because of Jensen.
“It sounds like from your response to Anne that Lars has been disruptive and bullying in your recent Math Dept meetings-is that correct?” Studebaker wrote to Ellsworth. “Do you want the police nearby during your summit and breakout sessions?”
Ellsworth responded, “He bullies all the time [sic] I will play today as we go. Do not need anyone on hand. But will call if needed,” she responded.
In a later email, Ellsworth wrote, “He disobeyed my request of process in the meeting and I will be writing him up.”
Jensen’s attorneys said the email shows Jensen was targeted by his bosses for speaking out against math curriculum changes.
“The email chain also shows that at one-point Defendants were seriously considering having police present to arrest Dr. Jensen because they felt his professionally articulated concerns were ‘bullying,’’ they alleged. “This newly discovered email thread reveals that Plaintiff was targeted specifically for disciplinary action for his prior speech in emails.”
Other faculty, during the termination hearings, spoke in defense of Jensen, calling him firm but kind. Other faculty have had police called on them, by TMCC administrators, for being outspoken at faculty meetings.
Professor Tom Cardoza, who also sued TMCC and won, said NSHE attorney John Albrecht sent university police to Cardoza’s house late at night after he prevailed in his case against the community college.
Faculty member quits math department, also citing problems with TMCC leadership
One of Jensen’s colleagues this past summer quit TMCC in disgust. He penned a letter to TMCC administrators that was also shared with faculty members.
“TMCC has been my home and my colleagues have been my family for the last six years. It saddens me to write this last letter,” the professor, who got another job, wrote. “The dean is inconsistent, micromanaging, and incapable of deanship.”
He was referring to Flesher.
TMCC officials and Jensen’s attorneys would not comment for this article.
In court filings, NSHE attorneys said TMCC has done nothing wrong and Jensen’s case should be dismissed.
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 in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR.