Truckee Meadows Community College wants to terminate a tenured instructor of math for “insubordination.” The professor, Lars Jensen, says the college wants to get rid of him because he’s telling inconvenient truths about how the college is lowering math standards.
“Let it be clear that this hearing is not about deliberation of two unsatisfactory annual performance ratings that I have earned, but rather about two unsatisfactory annual performance ratings that have been pinned on me in retaliation for speaking out on academic matters,” Jensen said in his opening statement for his termination hearing before a faculty panel last week. “This case is about whether a faculty member at TMCC is permitted to use his or her academic freedom to speak on academic matters and matters of public concern. We will show today that the insubordination charges against me are unsubstantiated and incompatible with an open and free academic environment.”
TMCC, by policy, may pursue termination of a tenured faculty member following two years of poor annual reviews, which Jensen received. Some of Jensen’s previous evaluations have questioned his ratings by students, specifically their end-of-course comments about groupwork and Jensen’s ability to help struggling students. But student evaluations of teaching have been found to be flawed measures of teaching effectiveness and Jensen has generally gotten good overall annual performance reviews. As recently as 2018, his dean praised him for caring about students, for his disciplinary knowledge and for his passion. What changed, Jensen says, is that he began to criticize the college for effectively forcing the math department to remove content from its required courses, in order to adopt a new state mandate.
Jensen says that math standards have been eroding nationwide for some time, but that things took a turn for the worse at Truckee Meadows after the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents voted in 2019 to ditch traditional remedial math and English courses in favor of a new, “corequisite support” program.
“By redesigning first-year math and English classes, adding additional instruction time to these college-level courses, and requiring mandatory tutoring for students who need the support, we have seen very promising data across the nation that students are more successful,” Thom Reilly, system chancellor, said at the time. “This approach allows students to kill two birds with one stone by completing the college-level work while also receiving needed remedial support designed to ensure greater success.”
Jensen said there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and many student success advocates say that forcing students to take remedial noncollege courses before they begin actual college coursework only hurts their chances of ever getting a degree. But Jensen said that in adopting the corequisite support program at TMCC, the college aggressively pressured the math department to remove content from its required courses, specifically the core algebra content that had always been included in the college’s math requirement for liberal arts-oriented students. (Jensen says that math requirements for students who wish to pursue math and the natural sciences have been less affected.)
Jensen railed against these changes as “criminal,” including on a campus Listserv; in one instance, in a tangentially related all-faculty email, Jensen suggested that confidentiality can hurt the greater good, such as when “Black women [are] sent to the back of the bus by the driver.” Jensen was told to stop emailing on this issue until further notice and reported for racial discrimination. He was ultimately cleared of that charge and apologized to his colleagues, saying he’d used that hypothetical, among others, to make a point, not to hurt anyone.
While Jensen was speaking out in ways that offended some of his colleagues, the actual disciplinary charging letter against him — that is, the college’s grounds for termination — cites his two unsatisfactory annual performance reviews.
The first bad review, included in the letter, cites Jensen’s “insubordination in two instances.” In the first instance, Jensen handed out a one-page paper, at left, criticizing the college’s math standards at a system math summit. The college said this amounted to disrupting the meeting. An initial appeals committee also found that the summit was meant to inform, not facilitate deliberation. Agreeing with the college, that committee found that the appropriate forum for Jensen’s message was a whiteboard located in the parking lot of the meeting.
In the second instance of insubordination, Jensen is alleged to have not followed his dean’s guidance in revising his syllabus, because he would not allow students to take their final exam unless doing so meant they had a chance of passing the class. A student had previously complained about this policy.
“It is fine to tell students that taking the final may be futile,” Jensen’s dean wrote in that 2020 evaluation, “but I could not find any educational literature to support the punitive approach of not letting students take the final, whether it be for practice or to try to raise a grade to some degree with remaining points.”
The dean, Julie Ellsworth, wrote that Jensen did ultimately allow students who had no chance of passing the course to take the final, but she objected to the fact that Jensen still didn’t let students “benefit from any potential points this might generate.” The dean described this change as “more punitive” than the original policy itself.
Jensen’s 2021 evaluation, completed by Anne Flesher, his new dean, says that he failed to “fully achieve” his remedy plan over the course of the year, particularly as he failed to “show respect for the dean’s supervisory role by responding to requests in a timely manner.” Jensen has “demonstrated a consistent pattern of defiance and disrespect by his refusal to apply repeated directives and not responding to the dean’s requests in a timely manner,” the review continues. It lists offenses such as requiring seven revisions to his annual plan and needing a reminder to complete his Canvas online platform training and missing a department meeting to finish it.
Jensen, in turn, alleges that Ellsworth, Flesher and his president, Karin Hilgersom, retaliated against him for criticizing how the college chose to adopt the corequisite program, by unjustly scrutinizing him and rejecting his applications for a phased retirement program while approving colleagues seeking the same agreement. (In emails to Jensen, the college said it couldn’t accept his four- and five-year phased retirement requests to teach only in the fall because this would require finding too many replacement instructors for other terms.)
Jensen, who is 67, also alleges age and sex discrimination on the part of the college in a related complaint under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972; he says the college is more hospitable to younger faculty members than to older ones and to women over men. He’s also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and says that the commission has scheduled a mediation date between him and the college for later this year.
Jensen will get one more day to make his appeals case before a faculty advisory committee to the president, later this month. He said in an interview Monday that he’s not confident things will go his way, based on his treatment thus far. But he said his case isn’t just about him, but about what’s happening to math standards at the college.
“When you teach a course for 10 years and sort of stick to the curriculum, there may be a slight slide in standards, but this is a discontinuity,” he said. “It’s gone over the edge. When we’re deciding on the core curriculum and no longer requiring the algebra, that’s a major step.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has reached out to the college on Jensen’s behalf, saying in an analysis of his case that while Ellsworth had asked Jensen not to pass out his fliers directly to other math summit participants and to instead put one on the parking lot whiteboard, Jensen “did not interrupt the summit or prevent it from proceeding.”
Ultimately, FIRE said, “Jensen’s distribution of flyers at the board meeting was protected by his First Amendment right to comment as a citizen on matters of public concern, and TMCC cannot use it as grounds for termination.”
Kate Kirkpatrick, a spokesperson for the college, said Truckee Meadows can’t comment on any specific personnel matter. But she said “academic tenure is highly valued and recognized as an integral part of the academic process at TMCC, and in the last five years, 42 teaching faculty were awarded tenure.”
Termination of a tenured faculty member “is taken extremely seriously following a comprehensive multistage review conducted by a group of individuals from various areas of the college, including peers appointed by the Faculty Senate,” she said.