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Attorney: Should UW-La Crosse chancellor be fired for his conduct?

By   /   March 20, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

MADISON, Wis. – The University of La Crosse employee fired – and then reinstated – for her comments in support of President Donald Trump would like to return to work, her attorney says.

SPEECH BATTLE: UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow finds himself in a free speech battle after the university fired an employee who made comments in support of President Donald Trump.

“However, it appears that an employee would need a doctorate degree in order to understand the ‘workplace expectations’ in the university’s disciplinary guidelines,” Lee Fehr, attorney for UW-La Crosse dispatcher Kimberly Dearman, wrote in a letter sent Saturday to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents.

“The university’s implementation of the guidelines appears to breach the protections of the Constitution of the United States as to due process and freedom of speech,” Fehr wrote. “The implementation defies fairness and any common sense as the terms would be understood by an average lay person.”

More so, Dearman seeks an investigation into whether UW-La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow should be held to the same standard as Dearman, whether he should lose his job for using “threatening or abusive language” or exhibiting “conduct unbecoming a university employee.”

It is clear Dearman’s attorney is after a settlement, a proposal that has been rejected by the UW System.

On March 13, the university fired Dearman after she made statements to a student employee about Trump’s temporary ban on immigrants from countries known to sponsor or countenance terrorism.

Two days later, after Fehr made the matter public, the university walked back its decision and moved to reinstate Dearman.

Fehr asserts Dearman was fired for making a political statement, just as Gow had made in his email critical of Trump’s immigration ban in late January.

Gow asserts Dearman’s comments were racist. But on the advice of a UW System attorney, UW-La Crosse quickly decided to reinstate the employee because “our people made a mistake” in only noting Dearman’s comments about Trump and immigrants in the termination letter.  Dearman, according to Gow, had “other performance issues” in her personnel file. He could not provide specifics.

“This racist statement was kind of the final act. This person is not a quality employee,” the chancellor said in an interview Thursday with Wisconsin Watchdog.

RELATED: UW-La Crosse chancellor defends employee firing, reinstatement

In his latest letter to the Board of Regents, Fehr includes the complaint filed by the university student employee, who had just begun her job at the dispatch center and was being trained by Dearman.

Dearman told the new employee that Gow deserved the backlash he was receiving from students and others about the email the chancellor had sent on Feb. 1. In it, Gow said he had “erred in not writing the original message more thoughtfully.”

In that message, sent two days before to thousands of students, faculty and staff, Gow wrote that he was “shocked and saddened by President Trump’s order prohibiting refugees and people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.”

The email added:

“At such an unsettling time, we are writing to reaffirm our University’s commitment to support our international students, faculty, and staff, and our commitment to the values of international collaboration and engagement. Our students, faculty, and staff from around the world are an integral part of our campus community, and play a crucial role in our educational mission. Likewise, we want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive campus environment for all individuals, regardless of their national origin, citizenship/immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and other significant aspects of individual and cultural identity.”

The student employee, according to the complaint, told Dearman, “Since you disagree with what (Gow) said originally, I assume you take the opposite stance in the political argument?”

Dearman said, yes, “and then continued on to say how we should respect our president and trust that he knows best,” the student noted in the complaint. “(Dearman) continued to say that people ‘who don’t belong here should leave’ and that Trump is trying to make the best of a bad situation and we as a country should support what he does.”

The student employee said she told Dearman that “most people were upset” with Trump’s executive order because the countries that “were banned weren’t places that terrorists were known to come from.”

Trump’s order attempted to keep out for 90 days travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, all with abysmal records fighting Islamic extremist terrorism or of outright support for it.

“After that, Kim seemed to agree, but then she went on for about five minutes about how immigrants don’t belong and then turned to look at me and said, “but no offense to you,'” the student employee — who is, according to Gow, of Asian descent — noted in her complaint. “(Dearman) then went on to say how she believe she wasn’t a racist, but she believes that all immigrants deserve to go back to where they were from.”

Photo by UW-L

LEGAL BATTLES: While the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has offered to reinstate an employee it fired, the legal battles appear to be far from over.

The student employee said she debated about what to do but ultimately decided to take the matter to a supervisor and not to human resources, “because I believe that Kim didn’t mean it as horribly as it sounded.”

“I didn’t want to cause a big problem, but I am glad that the incident is being handled and I hope that instead of being a punishment, it becomes more of a learning moment for Kim,” the student employee said.

But it became a punishment.

The Human Resource Department concluded that Dearman used “threatening or abusive language” and acted in a manner “unbecoming” a university employee.

Fehr, Dearman’s attorney, argues that the chancellor’s conduct was also less than becoming, and that he embarrassed the institution by his politically charged emails to the wider UW-La Crosse audience. He contends that Gow’s ultimate failure to recognize the due process rights of an employee fired without a hearing, too, was an embarrassment to the university.

The attorney in his letter to the Board of Regents points out that Dearman is a “low-level employee making a modest salary,” while Chancellor Gow makes roughly $220,000 per year, is “highly educated,” and his “job requires above-average decision-making skills and judgement.”

Fehr wrote that his client is “very apprehensive about returning after being fired for her response to (Gow’s) politically charged and retracted email.” Rather than return, the attorney suggested a “fair and equitable settlement.” He said the idea was rejected.

“I then offered the university a ‘specific number’ to resolve the issue,” Fehr wrote.  The UW System’s legal counsel responded that UW-La Crosse had instructed the attorney “to reject the offer and not to make a counter offer.”

“(Dearman) has no money in a client trust fund to fight the taxpayer-funded university,” Fehr wrote. “She proposes an alternate solution.”

Dearman wants the Board of Regents to investigate, to determine whether she violated the policies the university originally claimed she did. “If so, she desires to understand what makes her speech so offensive as to warrant termination,” Fehr wrote.

Dearman also wants the board to determine whether Gow violated the same employee codes through his conduct and language.

“If the Chancellor’s conduct is found to be in violation of the Guidelines, Ms. Dearman would request a finding as to whether his violations warrant termination as her alleged violations did,” Fehr wrote.

If the Regents find Dearman committed a more serious violation than the chancellor, Dearman will provide a written apology to the university, the attorney offered.

“If not, she would request a fair and equitable process to resolve her claims outside of the court system,” Fehr wrote.

M.D. Kittle is bureau chief for Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment reporter for Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.