Dixie State University is terminating professors under questionable circumstances

Photo: A graphic created by supporters of Dr. Glenn Webb (left) and Dr. Ken Peterson (right), terminated music professors at DSU

The firing of beloved music professors Glenn Webb and Ken Peterson is just the tip of the iceberg at Dixie State University, where students and advocates allege a disturbing pattern of politically motivated terminations amid battles over artistic freedom and Mormon values. 

Something strange is going on at Dixie State University.

Current and former students of the small public university in St. George, Utah are in an uproar over the firing of two beloved music professors, Dr. Glenn Webb and Dr. Ken Peterson. Both Webb, the chair of the music department, and Peterson, the director of vocal studies, had tenure. Firing tenured professors is usually rare and involves serious misconduct allegations — but according to Inside Higher Ed, Webb and Peterson appear to be charged with nothing more than routine gossip about one of their colleagues.  

The controversy isn’t just about Peterson and Webb, however. Over the last several years, DSU has developed a disturbing pattern of firing tenured professors under questionable circumstances. All of the firings seem to connect back to one person in particular — Mark Houser, the former chair of the theatre department — who now faces a lawsuit that accuses him of conspiring to get several colleagues fired, because they voted against his application for tenure and because they produced art that Houser saw as violating Mormon values. High-level members of the administration, including the president and dean of students, are also being accused of violating university policies to help Houser accomplish this goal. And students, parents, alumni, and community members are demanding answers and accountability from the university.

Ken didn’t just teach me about vocal performance. He taught me about friendship and trust.

This case is a personal one for me. I’m an alumna of DSU, and Ken Peterson was my voice professor. Though I got a degree in technical writing, I was always in the music building when I was in college. When I transferred to DSU as a junior, I’d been through so much at my previous school’s music department that I’d sworn I’d never sing again. Ken changed that. He taught me to sing again, and it was a gift. But more than that, Ken became a treasured friend. He didn’t just teach me about vocal performance. He taught me about friendship and trust. He’s a truly good man.

I was upset over Dixie State University firing other professors for what seemed like no good reason. But when they came for Ken, it got personal. That’s when I knew I had to tell this story to the world — or at least as much of it as I can reach.

It’s personal for a lot of other DSU students and alums, too. A crowd of them stood outside Webb’s and Peterson’s determination hearings, giving support with their presence. They’ve planned a concert to honor Webb and Peterson. They’ve been writing to the president of the university and the DSU Board of Trustees (they had to contact members at their day jobs because the college wouldn’t share any contact information). They’ve contacted the Board of Regents, the Governor, everyone they can think of.

'We see the lies, we see the corruption, we see the negative impact on the school and community. We will not put up with it any longer.'Corinne McFerran, Full Disclosure

And most importantly, they’ve formed an organization, Full Disclosure, which exists to gather information about the terminations and make that information public. Their members believe that far too much goes on behind the scenes with no public scrutiny in St. George and at DSU.

“We see the lies, we see the corruption, we see the negative impact on the school and community. We will not put up with it any longer,” said Corinne McFerran, the elected leader of Full Disclosure. “We are a united front with a mission, and that mission is to have our voices heard, to rid the school and community of that corruption, and to reveal the truth to the public. The people responsible hope they can wait us out, that people will forget and go quietly back to their lives. It won’t happen until we see change.”

The controversial firing that started it all

The inciting incident of this drama was the controversial firing of theatre professor Varlo Davenport in February of 2015. Davenport is now suing Mark Houser and various university officials for $22 million because, he claims, they violated his right to due process and destroyed his career.

Davenport and Peterson were on the 15-person tenure determination committee that voted, unanimously, to deny Houser tenure in 2014. Davenport’s lawsuit alleges that Houser was trying to retaliate against him for this vote. (Houser also lost a second tenure bid in September of 2017, but still works for the university. Webb was on that second committee.)

“Houser stated to two DSU professors that his only chance at maintaining employment in academia would be to undermine the credibility of the tenure committee, and specifically Davenport, believing that Davenport had ‘poisoned’ the other committee members against him,” Davenport’s complaint reads. “In November 2014, Houser indicated to another professor that he was going to ‘take Davenport out.’”

(After this article was published, Glenn Webb posted it to his Facebook account and added: “I can also state with authority that Houser indicated to another professor of his desire to find a way to oust Varlo well before November 2014.”)

In November 2014, Houser indicated to another professor that he was going to ‘take Davenport out'

There was another reason Houser had it in for Davenport, according to the complaint: “Houser professes pious beliefs that profanity, romantic or sexual acts, and acts of violence are serious sins which should not be portrayed, in any forum, irrespective of academic freedom, free speech, and DSU policy.” Houser complained in an email that thanks to Davenport, the theatre department was now developing “a standing reputation of doing nothing but Dark Shows.”  

Davenport’s attorney obtained 20,000 emails from DSU servers that included communications between Houser and high-level DSU administration officials — emails that allegedly reveal a conspiracy to get Davenport fired and ruin his career. Dixie State University president Richard “Biff” Williams is also prominently implicated.

And merely discussing this conspiracy in a public place was one of the reasons the university gave for firing Ken Peterson this year — because doing so “slandered” both Houser and Williams.

Neither Houser nor DSU responded to requests for comment on this story.

How the alleged conspiracy against Varlo Davenport played out

Officially, Davenport was fired over allegations from an acting student that he physically hurt her during a class exercise, which involved several students and Davenport trying to annoy her in order to get her to express more emotion. Davenport, the student, and multiple witnesses agree that the exercise involved Davenport physically restraining the student and touching her hair. But the student has said Davenport aggressively yanked her hair, while Davenport says he lightly picked up strands of hair to tickle her. Most of the other students in class at the time said they didn’t think anything inappropriate had happened, although a couple expressed discomfort. But none said that Davenport appeared to have physically hurt the student at the time.

According to the emails Davenport’s attorney obtained from the university, Houser specifically advised the student on what to write in her statement to the school about what had happened that day. The new statement claimed that Davenport didn’t normally use physical restraint as an acting technique, which was untrue. That statement (which, among other things, said that the student spent the rest of class crying as a direct result of the exercise) also contradicted what actually happened in that class session, according to multiple eyewitnesses — and according, allegedly, to security camera footage that was later deleted.

After students asked for the footage, the complaint alleges, university president Williams ordered maintenance to remove the camera in the classroom.

Don Reid, head of campus security, saw that security video but failed to book it into evidence, according to the emails. Footage was routinely wiped and destroyed, and the footage from that class was deleted as well. After students asked for the footage, the complaint alleges, university president Williams ordered maintenance to remove the camera in the classroom. And in the court case that followed, Reid testified there was never any camera in the classroom to begin with.

Two weeks after the incident in Davenport’s class, the dean of students, Del Beatty, emailed Dr. Jeff Jarvis, the dean of the school of the arts. Beatty told Jarvis “there was a steady stream of students from Varlo’s [Davenport’s] classes claiming unfairness and favoritism” and said he had six years of complaints against Davenport in his files. Those files, it turned out, did not exist; the best Beatty could do was claim that he had received numerous informal complaints from students over the years that he had referred elsewhere.

Later that day, according to the complaint, Beatty, Jarvis, and Houser met. They decided they would do everything they could to get Davenport fired from DSU.

Clockwise from top: Dr. Ken Peterson, former director of vocal studies; Varlo Davenport, former theater department chair; Dr. Glenn Webb, former music department chair, all at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah.

A five-member faculty review board ruled that assault allegations against Davenport were unfounded. Houser presented additional allegations, unrelated to the acting class, that Davenport had threatened colleagues and behaved in other inappropriate ways. But the faculty review board found it couldn’t consider those allegations because Davenport hadn’t been given the chance to respond to them.

The board voted unanimously that Davenport be reinstated. Williams overruled them, however, and fired Davenport on February 24, 2015.

In firing Davenport, Williams allegedly violated university policy several times. The president of the school is supposed to have no part in faculty terminations other than reviewing the board’s recommendations, but Williams was very involved. The lawsuit claims that Williams first fired Davenport without a preliminary hearing, manipulating events so it appeared he was not involved. Williams realized his error and changed Davenport’s termination into a suspension. Then he sought information that was not given to Davenport or the faculty review board. Finally, he used this information to overrule the faculty review board’s decision to reinstate Davenport.

In firing Davenport, university president Williams allegedly violated university policy several times.

Despite repeatedly breaking several policies, Williams’ termination of Davenport held. Current and former students wrote to the Board of Trustees and Board of Regents, asking that the decision be reversed. But the boards responded only to say that they trusted in Williams’s leadership.

Williams wasn’t done after all of that. When Davenport was fired by DSU, the school convinced the city to charge him with assault — a move that, Davenport’s lawsuit alleges, was orchestrated by Williams, because the university president was facing intense public scrutiny over firing Davenport and hoped the news of criminal charges would quiet the controversy.

On April 21, 2015, the St. George City prosecutor’s office filed a criminal assault charge against Davenport.

Davenport was acquitted of all charges.

Through the trial, Webb and Peterson supported Davenport. And Peterson’s wife, Lizzy, who was a senior and a student in Davenport’s class at the time, gave key testimony that damned the prosecution’s case.

Following the case, DSU released a statement that reads, in part: “DSU is disappointed with the defense’s witnesses openly perjuring themselves in court.”

In August 2015, the complaint alleges, tenured DSU history professor Joel Lewis assigned his students to investigate Davenport’s termination and determine whether due process was followed. Administration immediately demanded Lewis rescind the assignment and called him into a meeting.

Lewis asked if he should have his attorney present at the meeting; administration assured him the meeting was casual. Yet Lewis was told in the meeting that he was going to accept a severance package and leave the university. Afraid of damage to his reputation, Lewis complied and now teaches high school.

How Dixie State University’s most recent firings tie in

Peterson published his termination letter publicly on Facebook. It claims the causes for Peterson’s firing include “professional incompetence, serious misconduct or unethical behavior, and serious violation of University rules and regulations.”

The letter goes on to detail 11 conversations that Peterson supposedly had with unnamed people, in which he allegedly slandered Houser and Williams.

There were no disciplinary discussions with Webb or Peterson. They were not given due process under DSU’s 'three strikes' policy.

According to Inside Higher Ed, Webb’s “main transgression was telling a family member overseas that he believed his department had rejected Houser’s tenure bid.”

In a statement, DSU said Webb and Peterson were terminated according to DSU Policy 371: 4.1, 4.1.3 and 4.1.4.

Those policies read:

4.1 Dismissal for cause may be imposed on a faculty member in the following circumstances:

4.1.3 Serious misconduct or unethical behavior.

4.1.4 Serious violation of University rules and regulations.

However, DSU violated many of its own policies when terminating Webb and Peterson — just as with Davenport.

There were no disciplinary discussions with Webb or Peterson. They were not given due process under DSU’s “three strikes” policy. They were not told of any derogatory information in their personnel files.

Davenport was also not told of any derogatory information in his personnel file, and was not given due process under “three strikes” for any of Houser’s claims against him. When he asked for the contents of his personnel file, he was given nothing; he found out later that it was empty.

Varlo Davenport speaks to 50 States of Blue

I met with Davenport shortly after Webb’s and Peterson’s terminations. He sat on my couch and told me that his career as a theater professor is over, and that his reputation has been completely ruined. He told me how he was lied about, denied due process, terminated, arrested, prosecuted for assault, and found not guilty. He told me he couldn’t find a job in St. George, not even at the call center where his daughter was a supervisor. He eventually ended up selling used cars. He now lives in Salt Lake City and works for the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Why did Houser and DSU administration seem to have such a vendetta against him? Was it just the denial of tenure for Houser, or was it more?

Davenport chose and directed many of the theater department’s shows at DSU. And Davenport’s complaint says that DSU is being run as a parochial school, following the tenets of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormonism).

'It was repeated often that we needed to do material that the LDS (Mormon) audience would be comfortable with.'Varlo Davenport

“The most obvious place that [the theatre department was] impacted by parochialism, was in the pressure put on our season selection. It was repeated often that we needed to do material that the LDS [Mormon] audience would be comfortable with,” Davenport said.

The last show Davenport directed that may have offended Mormon sensibilities was Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

What was offensive about Sweeney Todd?

“The violence,” Davenport said, “and there was a discreetly blocked rape scene in the show. I dealt with all of the characters in my shows as real people, not sugar coated idealizations. Nothing was added to scripts, but nothing was edited either. And they were popular with the audience, they sold well.”

Davenport and Peterson worked together on Sweeney Todd, and they had good reasons for choosing the show.

“Part of what guided our decision was the musical challenge. Ken and I were always trying to do shows that would strengthen and expand our students skills. And it’s a great story,” Davenport said.

Ken Peterson also told me that nothing was ever indecent about DSU’s shows.

“As a matter of fact, if any student was uncomfortable cursing as you find in most scripts or kissing a romantic lead, [Davenport] never, not once, required them to do so,” Peterson said. “He was most accommodating and allowed them to do whatever they needed to do to feel comfortable in the role.”

Peterson also argues that a desire to portray art that is consistent with Mormon values isn’t what any of this is about.

“Most of the victims in this case are faithful Mormons, and most of the perpetrators are not,” Peterson said. “The attempt by some to justify such attacks based on Mormon culture is a smokescreen for political aspirations. Behavior like this is the most difficult thing for true believing Mormons like myself to stomach.”

Davenport told me that he knew Webb and Peterson were going to be terminated the night before it happened. He looked down at the floor as he told me.

“Knowing that [Webb’s and Peterson’s termination] was coming, knowing what they were feeling, I was kind of an emotional wreck,” Davenport said. “I was having PTSD real bad for them.”

Then he looked up at me, resolute.

'I said, for all of you people who supported me, it’s time for you to support them.'Varlo Davenport

“I got an email from Ken [Peterson] saying, it’s going to happen tomorrow. I forget what it said. That’s when I put it out [on Facebook]: This is going to happen. I finally said, screw it. Neither of them [Webb or Peterson] approved it. I said, for all of you people who supported me, it’s time for you to support them.”

Because of the foreknowledge Davenport gave the community, current students, former students, parents of students and members of the community rallied around Webb and Peterson. A crowd of supporters stood outside Webb’s and Peterson’s termination hearings, standing strong for each of the professors as they exited.

And the community is continuing to support Webb and Peterson.

The galvanized community

Supporters are writing to members of DSU’s Board of Trustees — and have had to contact trustees at their day jobs because the university will not share their contact information.

Supporters are writing to the Board of Regents and to Governor Gary Herbert. The governor’s office tells supporters that Herbert trusts local officials to follow their policies. The Board of Trustees and Board of Regents are dispassionate or simply unresponsive.

Governor Gary Herbert’s office wrote to a supporter, in part:

[The commissioner of higher education]’s office is aware of the situation. This in an institutional personnel matter, and Dixie State University has policies and procedures in place to handle these types of situations. The office of Higher Education is aware that the situation is still unfolding and they have confidence in the leadership of President Williams.

Current students and alumni shared their thoughts about Webb and Peterson with 50 States of Blue.

Glenn Webb

Nick Lanners earned a Bachelor of Music Education at DSU. “Dr. Webb’s guidance and instruction has helped me grow as a musician and as a teacher,” Lanners said. “His support through my teaching career (6 years thus far) has helped make me the teacher I am.”

“Glenn has been a mentor, friend, teacher, and father-figure to both me and my wife,” Garrett Peterson, a music minor, said. “He is always looking to serve the best interests of his students, his school, and the arts community. Glenn never tires of lifting those around him to greater heights.”

Bonnie Eckman started at DSU in 2011 as a psychology major, but changed her major to music and became Peterson’s voice student after experiencing his “scientific, matter of fact voice coaching” in the university choir.

“Ken Peterson has been there for me as a voice teacher, as a choir director, as a professional reference, as a life coach, as a father,” Eckman said. “There has NEVER been an occasion where I’ve gone to Ken for help or advice either academically or personally and he hasn’t come through, giving everything he can. In my book, there is no better voice teacher, choir director, pedagogy expert. There is no better man.”

'This administration doesn’t seem to care about its students or their beloved professors.'Heather Gibson, DSU alumna

Heather Gibson is an alumna with a degree in biology. Even though she didn’t study the arts, she’s disheartened. “We fought so hard when this happened to Varlo, but it all fell on deaf ears,” Gibson said. “While I can’t say I’m surprised it’s happening again, my mind can’t reconcile the fact that this administration doesn’t seem to care about its students or their beloved professors.”

Webb and Peterson’s supporters plan to protest the DSU Board of Trustees meeting on March 9. They are holding a concert in honor of Webb and Peterson on March 26. They plan to protest the Utah Board of Regents meeting at DSU on March 30. They’ve created T-shirts that read: “I stand with Ken I stand with Glenn I stand with Varlo #thepillars” The hashtag #thepillars refers to Webb, Peterson, and Davenport as pillars of the community.

Webb and Peterson are appealing their terminations, and will each present their case before a faculty review board.

Should the board decide in Webb’s and Peterson’s favor, supporters can only guess if Williams will, again, override a faculty review board’s decision to reinstate.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Glenn Webb was on the 2014 committee that denied Mark Houser tenure for the first time. He was, in fact, on the second committee that also denied Houser tenure in 2017.