Provost and Dean of the faculty, Jack Connell, addressed the student body at Monday’s Student Government Association (SGA) meeting, regarding concerns and questions surrounding Kevin Jackson’s sudden dismissal. Jackson was placed on administrative leave which went into effect the Friday before February Break. He will be officially terminated at the end of the semester.
Friesen stated SGA hopes to serve as a “bridge” to foster “communication between the administration and the student body.” Students were then invited to direct questions to SGA President Joanna Friesen ‘17, who then moderated them to Connell.
Connell noted while the specifics of the situation surrounding Jackson’s firing are confidential, “We were aware of the disruption” Jackson’s termination would cause. However, Connell stated, “we felt the decision needed to be made” regardless. “I’m not surprised to be standing here with you all today,” he said.
“The dynamic of this situation is that a lot of people are saying a lot of things, a lot of which is wildly untrue,” Connell said. He asked participants in the session to avoid asking questions with the purpose of trying to “get at what really happened,” as the college is unable to legally divulge that information.
Tahsha Keith ‘17 asked Connell, “How did you know?” about the potential fallout from the decision to fire Jackson. “What did you look into to understand what the effects would be? How did you approach that? As someone who has experienced a lot of fallout from this, it’s hard for me to understand that specific aspect.”
“We didn’t have a lot of time here,” Connell responded. “But we tried to anticipate” concerns “as best as possible”.
“We didn’t have months to prepare a contingency plan for every scenario,” he stated.
Genesis Allen ‘19, a music industry student, asked Connell to describe the process for firing a professor. Connell stated the process varies and depends on the situation, but noted that except in “egregious” cases, there is a “discovery phase” in which “concerns are investigated.” Connell said these concerns are “communicated with the professor” in question, and “after other efforts toward resolution have failed,” the professor may be terminated.
In regard to terminating a professor mid-semester, Connell said it is within Houghton’s right as an employer to do so because New York State is an “at will state.” This means an employer can terminate an employee at any time, for any reason, without cause or notice. An employee also has the same right to resign without cause or notice. There is “no legal recourse” for an employee dismissed under this law, according to Connell. There are exceptions in the case of tenured professors, though Connell said this was “not relevant in this particular case.”
Liv Dobmeier ‘19 noted that while a recent Star article quoted Connell saying the college does not believe Jackson engaged in any sexual misconduct, this assurance was not included in a campus wide email Connell sent late last week. “That made the rumors that may or may not be happening even stronger, because you did not fully address it,” she said.
“I was trying as much as possible to keep the memo general…it wasn’t my intention in that to get into the specifics of the situation,” Connell said. “That quote was in response to a direct question that I was asked, and I felt that it was appropriate to say in the context in which it was asked. I’m not here to say there was some grand strategic reason that wasn’t in the memo, I was just trying to keep the memo a little bit more general.”
Ben Rucquoi ‘20 asked if a statute of limitations on the confidentiality of the situation, and if eventually students would know why Jackson was fired. Connell said, “I’m not a lawyer so I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m not aware of one, there could be one, although I’m not aware of a situation in which after a certain amount of time [confidentiality was lifted]. This is a question in which Dale Wright, the Director of Human Resources, would be helpful.”
Allen asked a question which she said she thought “would be a good final question” for those who attended the meeting in support of the former professor. “After seeing all of the pain and the hurt and the destruction to our department and the money lost, and all of the things which all of us students have had to recoup from after this decision was made, going a month in the past, would you make the same decision? Or wait till the end of the semester?”
“I don’t know that I have a lot more to say [about that]”, Connell said. “We were aware of the fact that a mid semester change like this would be highly disruptive and upsetting, and felt that it was the appropriate decision to make anyway. The facts of the situation haven’t changed.”