I write to you now on almost the eve of Varlo’s trial. And because I never quite get over being dumbfounded by the fact that he’s actually going to trial, even now I almost don’t know what to say. I last mentioned I would write about the faculty hearing that reviewed the alleged incident of assault and Varlo’s termination. And as I’ve thought about it, I don’t know what more needs to be said than to repeat what’s been said again and again: THEY RECOMMENDED VARLO’S REINSTATEMENT. That’s it, Biff. They heard all of the available evidence. But now there was a critical difference: Varlo and other witnesses actually had a chance to provide the other side of the story. In other words, it was the fair hearing Varlo never received before you decided to fire him. It was fair enough, in fact, that even though Mark Houser was there pressing (for all he was worth) his case against Varlo, the jury of Varlo’s faculty peers could see the truth. And let me repeat: THEY RECOMMENDED HIS REINSTATEMENT.
Biff, it raises a tough question: what did you see that these people who also saw all the evidence didn’t see? Do you think they would have failed to understand if a student had been “assaulted”? Do you really believe that? Of course you don’t. So, prithee, do tell us the reason as to why you disregarded this faculty decision, which really should carry quite a bit of weight at a real university. Perhaps your studies in “Lifestyle Management” have made you preternaturally discerning? Or is it the online Ph.D. in “Curriculum and Instruction” that prepared you for such weighty considerations?
The truth, Biff, is clear to anyone who looks closely enough. And it’s ugly, Biff: you fired a tenured professor, on the basis of incomplete evidence (compiled by someone with a clear bias and agenda against him), to placate a single student and her family (who also had been manipulated by the man with the bias and agenda). And you upheld that decision even when a faculty jury unanimously rejected the student’s assertion that she had experienced anything other than a valid exercise in acting pedagogy. You did that because the student and her family demanded it, and because of Mark Houser’s incessant whispering that you should do so. You gave Varlo no consideration; you gave the student more than full consideration. The student received an “A” for the class (without ever having to complete it!); Varlo was fired, his pay and benefits terminated immediately. And anyone might have thought that would be enough, Biff. But no sir, not in the Biff Williams regime. It could be that the student's parents are so vindictive as to want to press charges -- precisely because the faculty jury rejected the claim that their daughter, who had not been attending class and also, by her own account, "wasn't having a very good week," had been assaulted. An alternative explanation is that you had to try to make yourself look competent, so you got together with Don Reid and cooked up a “criminal investigation,” and then finally got a friendly city attorney to file a “criminal” charge. Either thing, or some combination, could be true. In any case, if there's anything "criminal" in this whole affair, it sure as shootin isn’t on Varlo’s part.
You may get what you want out of this specious little case against Varlo, Biff. You and folks at the “The City” may have reached a shady agreement. Someone may already have, in so many words and hushed tones, guaranteed you a conviction of some sort. If so, good for you, Biff, good for you. I’m sure you and your buddies will continue to affirm to your Mormon leaders that you are “honest in your dealings.” “Yes, oh yes, of course.” And maybe you’ll continue to win the praise of Gail Smith the other good citizens of St. George. But in the only court that really matters, Biff, you don’t win. The trial there is always fair; and you don’t stand a chance.
Note to readers of the below: it has been brought to my attention that the reporter from the Spectrum, from whom Varlo learned he had been charged with assault by St. George City, contests the implication that he or the Spectrum were in any way in cahoots with DSU or St. George City in reporting on the charge. He has an explanation for how he came to discover that charges had been filed. I accept that explanation. What remains strikingly suspicious, is just how quickly the paper moved to print it's front-page story, the overall tenor of which was to paint DSU and Biff Williams in the best possible light while painting Varlo in the worst. -- I recommend the Spectrum do a story on academic freedom and the meaning of the word "university". If a tenured professor can be fired for trying to do his job well, because one student, who is "having a bad week", doesn't like what happens in class, there is no academic freedom, and you do not have a university.
I’m sure you would like this whole thing to go away. But it’s not going to go away, even after the specious criminal trial that will take place in ten days or so. And what do you expect? You’ve overseen and participated in ruining a man’s academic career, and you’ve done so without a hint of remorse for the loss to him, his family and DSU. Instead, all we’ve see are smug and stupid assertions like, “firing Davenport was the right thing to do” and “Davenport received full due process.” Moreover, it is easy to suspect that you are the one who really pushed for the criminal charge to be filed, because of the unexpected heat you took after firing Varlo (I mean, really, why was there no hint of charges being filed before that time?). It looks very much like when you started getting some bad press, you and some people you know shopped this little “crime” to the county, and then when that didn’t work, to the city, so that you when questioned you could say, “There’s a criminal investigation being conducted by local law enforcement,” and otherwise try to make it look like you did the right thing. You’ve got some folks working on your behalf, Biff, there’s no doubt. I still find it interesting, for example, that Varlo found out he was being charged by the city from a reporter at the Spectrum. How does the Spectrum find out the accused is being charged before the accused himself hears of it? I believe we all know the answer, and that answer is underscored by the front page story that ran the very next morning: “Davenport Charged.” I guess that’s the just the old “Dixie spirit,” friends helping friends. It’s just another aspect of the story, Biff, one that also deserves attention. I bring it up just to let you know that you’ve only fooled people who haven’t looked too closely. I intend to shed some light on your words and deeds here, Biff, because I and others know Varlo Davenport; and because we know the real Varlo, as opposed to the Mark Houser version that’s been sold to you, we know what you’ve done is absolutely disgraceful. I’m trying to bring it to light, Biff. I won’t let up until I’ve done as much of that as I can. I think this is something you should worry about; I think you should care. Consider, Biff: so what if you’ve got friends with a little power in the community, or among the Trustees, or even among the Regents? What does that matter if the truth is that you have presided over, participated in, and continue to support something that has been dishonest from the outset? That’s a question that should matter to someone who talks the “values” talk like you evidently do. Integrity calls, Biff, and even now, patiently hopes for you to answer.
Next up, I'll be taking a look at that little faculty hearing, you know, the one that resulted in a recommendation for Varlo's reinstatement.
I’ve got to return to the matter of Mark Houser’s role in your decision to fire Varlo. As I mentioned in the last installment, whatever his protestations to the contrary, there are very good reasons to doubt the purity of Mr. Houser’s motives. Obviously the fact that he didn’t talk to Varlo about what was going on, even though he knew it could cost Varlo his job and perhaps even his career, is quite telling. And it goes beyond that, because it’s clear that he pushed for the most extreme conclusions to be drawn (i.e., that this was a criminal act) and for the most extreme action to be taken (i.e., firing Varlo immediately). We know he did this, because when the alleged victim’s family met with Don Reid they told him “when we met with Mark earlier today he said there had been a lot of other complaints about this professor.” Further, they say, “Mark made it clear that this was not an isolated incident,” and that Varlo is a “bully.” What’s more, Don Reid’s comments to the alleged victim’s family suggest that Mark Houser referred the case to him. He says he (Reid) even told “Mark” that if he (Mark) thought the situation was being handled administratively he didn’t need to refer it to Reid. But Houser obviously was adamant about referring it to Reid and did so. And again, all of this without pausing to mention to Varlo that a student was accusing him of “assault” (one is tempted to say without even pausing for breath). One sort of begins to wonder just how the alleged victim became convinced that she was “assaulted” in the first place. At any rate, I don’t know what you think, Biff, but I think this doesn’t look very good vis-à-vis how this was handled. It looks very, very much like Houser was pursuing a rather malicious agenda.
If you think I’m wrong to suggest this conclusion, let’s revisit one more time what this classroom incident involved. This was an acting class exercise. Varlo is trained in acting pedagogy. In his view, he was doing his job, trying to help the student with a scene from a play. No one, I repeat, NO ONE, asserts that Varlo somehow deliberately and blatantly “assaulted” the student. Anything perceived or felt by the student as harmful would have been accidental to the exercise. You know that, Biff, which is why you said, on the record, that you don’t think Varlo intended to hurt anyone. And consider this: when Officer Reid talked with the alleged victim’s parents, both he (Reid) and the alleged victim’s mother seemed to agree that, in their judgment, what Varlo was doing would be appropriate in an upper division acting class but not in an introductory class like the one he was teaching. Now, Biff, I say that’s a pretty blurry line. And it’s a pretty thin pretext for prosecuting someone as a criminal. In fact, I think anyone could rightly wonder the following: what the hell is going on at this so-called “university”? A university professor has lost his job, had his career ruined, and is now facing criminal charges for doing something in an introductory class that even his accusers agree would be okay in an upper division class, i.e., for doing something that even his accusers regard as a legitimate form of acting pedagogy. Is it any wonder, Biff, that the faculty committee who reviewed all of the available evidence related to this whole sad affair recommended Varlo’s reinstatement? I’ll answer for you: No, no it’s not, because the whole thing is ridiculous. It’s beyond ridiculous. But back to the role of Mr. Houser.
Given the nature of the alleged “assault,” it’s certainly possible to imagine it having been handled quite differently than Mr. Houser handled it. I think anyone can see that, Biff, even, and, one would think, especially an experienced administrator like you. And if this were all, it would be bad enough. But, as they say, wait, there’s more.
Over the weekend, you were served with a motion to be found in contempt of court, because you had not turned over alleged evidence regarding Varlo that the court had ordered to you turn over. I don’t know what was going on there, Biff. It seems like another reason to question your competence. And there’s that old integrity thing again. But let’s not keep kicking that dead horse, right? So, sure, we’ll let it go. It seems to pretty much speak for itself anyway. Regarding this contempt motion, it anticipates that the information that you, Biff, have failed to turn over contains “exculpatory evidence that has been purposely withheld from Davenport by the city and the college.” Further, it anticipates that this exculpatory evidence includes “documentation that Dixie State professor Mark Hauser [sic] falsified documents and entered into an agreement wherein the alleged victim was promised an “A” grade in an acting class she was failing and employment with Dixie State in exchange for her testimony against Davenport.” It also notes that Houser, just a few weeks prior, had been denied tenure by a 14 – 0 vote of his university colleagues.
Biff, I’m not in a position to say what’s true and what’s not in every respect. But, as I think you would have to agree, if it turns out to be true that the alleged victim, although she never completed it or did the work required of the other students, did receive an “A” grade for the class in question, that would seem very unusual, and, indeed, unethical. Regarding the job, it does turn out to be true that the alleged victim went from working a job at a local restaurant to having a nice job on campus, evidently in or near the administration building. And what should we call this, Biff? Interesting? I suppose it’s at least that. As for Mark Houser, apparently his colleagues did not find him especially competent and were not eager to have him continue on at DSU. You have to hand it to Houser, though, because he somehow managed—by, as I understand, carefully singing his own praises to Jeff Jarvis—to hold on to his position (he’s still there!) and to exact a little revenge on at least one person who voted against him. Pretty crafty, really. And in that regard, perhaps it is worth noting that a well-known figure in the arts in Utah, someone who knows Mr. Houser, made the following comment to Varlo: “it sounds like you have a bull-headed new president who has had an Iago* whispering in his ear.”
*Biff, everything I know about you leads me to believe that you probably do not know much, if anything, about Shakespeare’s character Iago. Fortunately, it’s easy to find online. I encourage you to google it.
I’m sorry to keep coming back to this matter of integrity. It’s very difficult to have integrity all of the time, as I think you would have to agree. I mean, probably very few, or maybe none of us can claim to always have acted with full integrity. On the other hand, not all of us try to use our moral bona fides, e.g., our commitment to “family values,” for self-advancement. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that I think in doing so you set the standard by which you should be judged. And it has occurred to me that we can review your actions in relation to firing Varlo Davenport and probably draw up a set of general rules of conduct. These rules might even be worthy of a little handbook, you know, something like, “Values and Leadership the Biff Williams Way.” But we can decide on the title later.
I mentioned I was going to say something about Don Reid and his interview with the alleged victim of assault and her parents. And I did write something about it, but I decided to leave that longer discussion for later and in lieu of it just draw your attention to the part of it quoted in Sunday’s SU Independent piece by Dallas Hyland. He quotes Officer Reid as follows:
“Let’s say [Dixie State University goes to] the far end of the spectrum and let’s say [Davenport] loses his job and his career, would that make a difference to you as to whether or not you want to file criminal charges? Cause then you are looking at he’s fired, his career is done, and he is still also facing criminal charges. In your mind are you saying “that’s how far I want it to go” or are you saying it might make a difference? A lot to think about and you guys ought to go and think about it. So you need to tell us what justice would be for you and you know more of how you felt and you know more of what you think his intent was and all those kind of things and so if it was something like this guy lost his job, meaning his pension and everything else, if you felt like that was enough and justice was done for you and if that is not enough. Or it would, it wouldn’t be justice to you until this guy had a criminal history. Those are the kinds of things for you to talk about. …”
This part of Reid’s interview, like other parts of it, stands out for several reasons. Here’s just one: he says all of this before he or anyone else had spoken to Varlo or the majority of the students who were in the class who had witnessed the alleged “assault.” Don’t you think that’s a little peculiar, Biff? In other words, he seems to take it for granted that Varlo is guilty as charged. And yet neither he nor anyone else had even bothered to mention to Varlo that an accusation had been made. Now, this interview took place either on the same day or at least not later than the day on which it took you “less than ten seconds” to decide to fire Varlo. And, let me repeat this, NO ONE HAD BOTHERED TO TALK TO VARLO TO ASK FOR HIS ACCOUNT OF THE ALLEGED ASSAULT. No one, Biff. Conspicuously, this includes Mark Houser. More than anyone, one could have expected Houser to have at least spoken with Varlo about the incident. He was the temporary Chair of the Theater Dept., and yet even he did not seem to think it was important to ask Varlo about this classroom incident before such drastic action was taken. In fact, he seems to have been pushing hard for the “assault” complaint. For my part, I think this casts more than a wee bit of suspicion on Mr. Houser’s motives. One could almost think that he wanted Varlo to be fired. In fact, there may be plenty of reasons to think that was the case. But the point here is simply to ask why no one mentioned this alleged “assault” to Varlo. How can that possibly be the start of a valid process? Before Varlo is even fired, before Varlo even knows anything has happened, Don Reid has already accepted that he is guilty and is offering up his services to help stick Varlo with a criminal history—if the alleged victim and her family decide that’s what justice would be for them. Biff, I think anyone can see there’s something about this that’s not quite right. And for your part, you didn’t even stop to ask any important questions, like, for example, “Hey, has anyone spoken with Professor Davenport about this?” You didn’t ask that question; Jeff Jarvis didn’t ask that question; Bill Christensen (whose well-known demotion for not following university policy is relevant) didn’t ask that question; Mark Houser, it seems safe to assume, didn’t want anyone to ask that question. No-body asked that question. It actually seems like maybe it was a little too exciting for you to really stop and think about what was happening: “C’mon boys, we got us some firin’ to do!” I mean this somewhat seriously. Think about it and tell me whether you were not all behaving a little bit like a lynch mob: assuming guilt and dishing out the punishment, all without ever giving the accused a chance to speak, not even a heads up. This should put fear into every DSU faculty member, and perhaps it has: one student makes an accusation and, just like that, a tenured professor with 15 years of service and an amazing contribution to the university is tossed out on his ear before anyone even talks to him or all of the witnesses to the alleged incident. Something is wrong with that, Biff, and of course you know it.
If you didn’t know it, then I think you wouldn’t have tried to lie about it. That occurred and was documented on the day that Varlo’s daughter asked you, in front of a group of students, why you had never met with Varlo prior to firing him. You said that you had met with him. You lied, Biff, straight up, and in doing so, called Varlo’s daughter a liar. Now, it’s true that later you recanted and said that while you hadn’t actually met with him that other administrators had met with him “three times.” But that only shows that you were not sure you could maintain the fiction, or, alternatively, that you suffered a small twinge of conscience. At any rate, the second statement was no truer than the first. And both statements show you believed someone should have spoken to Varlo before the decision was made. I mean, if you’re willing to lie about something, it has to be fairly important, right? How are we to understand this, Biff? Should we just let you off the hook and forget about it? If so, why? How is this lie not somehow indicative of a fairly serious flaw? Right, I mean, you not only lied but also called someone else a liar in the process. And try as I might, I just can’t square this with your commitment to “family values.” It makes me think that you owe Gail Smith, and Zoe Davenport, and even the larger DSU community, an apology. That’s up to you, of course, Biff. But I can’t understand a university faculty, a board of trustees or a community that maintains confidence in this kind of “leadership.” It's a black mark on your record, Biff. There's no way around it. The best you could do would be to try to make it right. To quote Officer Reid, "it's a lot to think about and you ought to go and think about it."
Before I get on to the question I said I would next address, I want to touch on the subject of comments on this blog and anonymity. First, I’m not allowing comments on the blog, unless you want to comment and address some of my concerns. This is just a letter addressed to you, and thus so titled. Anyone is free to comment, of course, and I will read the comments, but I don’t have time to moderate the comments section nor to respond to comments. So I will not be posting any of them, favorable or unfavorable. I mean no offense to anyone. That said, I do want to say something on one topic raised by a couple of comments I’ve received, and that is anonymity. It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? Does my identity matter? I’m not trying to disguise the fact that I support Varlo. Does that make anything I say less valid? I’m not just offering up opinions without any basis in fact. The question should not be what “side” I’m on but rather whether I have any kind of argument, whether what I say here is at all compelling, whether it stands up to scrutiny. Obviously I think it is and does, and I suspect many others do and will think so as well. But the comments I’ve received suggest that what I say won’t be taken seriously unless I attach my name, and further, that in writing anonymously I lack courage. I don’t wholly agree with either of these points, but I think they are good and fair points. And they lead me to want to point out something that I’ll be addressing in more detail later but now find appropriate to mention here. Here it is: After the faculty review committee effectively exonerated Varlo of the “assault” charge last year and recommended his reinstatement, you decided to keep him fired anyway. You didn’t really give much of a reason, at least until sometime later, when you offered up something to the effect that the faculty committee’s decision was “not consistent with the evidence.” Now, this was interesting. I think I get it. There’s no way you could reinstate Varlo, right? You already had promised the student’s family that Varlo was fired and wouldn’t be back. The faculty hearing was pro forma and nothing but pro forma. Truth is, Varlo had no chance of being reinstated no matter what the faculty recommended. At any rate, this is when things got really interesting, because in the meantime you had some meetings with Varlo’s chief prosecutor (about whom, more later), and you and other administrators then launched a little smear campaign, one you’re still hiding behind, and one that is based entirely on evidence you say you have but still—still to this date—have not been willing to bring forward. To be more precise, you have said that although Varlo didn’t mean any harm in the classroom incident that got him fired in the first place, it was still a good thing to fire him because “it had been going on for a long time.” And, supposedly you have some evidence that proves this (whatever “it” is), but for nearly a year now, you haven’t produced it. Now, here’s something you should know but appear to maybe not know: Varlo only learned of the existence of this evidence you claim to have when you and others started talking about it. It appears that someone had been storing up secret and perhaps anonymous complaints about Varlo. They were not in his personnel file, he never knew about them, and he was never given a chance even to see, much less to have a hearing on any of them. Contrary to your assertion that “Davenport received full due process”, this proves he did not. And your statement makes you look either stupid or mendacious.
Biff, I have to appeal to your strong sense of integrity here. You know, the old “family values” pitch you ran by Gail Smith and presumably others. Do you really condone this? Do you really believe that DSU, a public university in the United States, should be able to operate like the KGB? If that sounds extreme, get a little reading group together, you and a few other administrators, and read some Solzhenitsyn. You’ll recognize how what you’ve done fits a pattern: arrest (fire) a man that you or someone else wants to get rid of, then smear his reputation and assure everyone, on the basis of information to which only you have access, that he was indeed deserving of his fate. If you do condone this, I suggest that you should not be the president of DSU or any other university. Perhaps you and Mike Carter, J.D. should sit down together and discuss due process (he could be in your reading group too!), since it appears that there’s something crucial about the concept you have not yet grasped. But here’s the point: anonymity. You have said, in essence, “We have the information that proves we did the right thing.” Now, first let me point out that even if you have this information, as I’ve already argued, you didn’t do the right thing. But if it’s the case that you have it, why not produce it? In short, you’re effectively hiding behind a cloak of anonymity. And so perhaps those readers who believe my anonymity is a problem can tell me why mine is any more problematic than yours. If you can fire Varlo and claim it’s all justified by anonymous information, then why can’t I write you an anonymous letter and have it be taken just as seriously as you want to be taken in your assertions? If I lack courage, then so do you. And I would suggest the more serious lack is on your part. However that may be, I’m not, as it turns out, unwilling to attach my name to this letter. And I’ll do it just as soon as you set a good “family values” type example for me in courage and let Varlo and his attorney see the information you’ve told everyone is so damning. This would be the right thing to do, Biff. You’ve taken Varlo’s job and his career from him. The least you could do is try to give him an adequate reason for having done so.
Dear Biff Williams,
This is the opening installment of a serial letter I’ll be writing to you concerning your decision, last year, to fire Varlo Davenport, and your subsequent decision to pursue “criminal” charges against him. As you know, Varlo soon will be tried for “assault” by the City of St. George. You have asserted that “firing Davenport was the right thing to do.” Was it? Needless to say, some of us are not convinced. And what about the further attempt to permanently ruin Varlo’s academic career by tarnishing his reputation through slander and attempting to stick him with a criminal record? Is that also the “right thing to do”?
It seems maybe more than a little questionable, Biff. And that’s why I’m writing to you about it. As I proceed, and just by the way, I want you and everyone else to remember the commitment to “family values” for which you were praised by DSU Trustee Gail Smith when you were hired. Such a commitment should mean something, of course. At a minimum it could be thought to include a genuine concern with personal integrity. And for someone in your position it also would seem—again, at a minimum—to mean a genuine concern for the integrity of a process through which a man is deprived not only of his current livelihood but also of the career to which he has devoted his life.
Over the next few weeks, as the trial approaches, I am going to be taking as close a look as possible at just what happened and the role you and certain others have played in it. This is likely to raise a number of possibly troubling questions. I hope you won’t flinch from them, as indeed a man of any character would not. I hope, in fact, that you will answer them, that you will become accountable. I think it’s the least you could do.
So, without further ado, Biff, let’s get started. Let’s get on with the first part. And let’s begin, just briefly, with a little bit about Varlo and his contribution to DSU.
Part I: Devoted and well-respected acting teacher fired . . . for trying to teach acting?
I believe I’m more familiar with Varlo’s work probably than anyone in the school of Fine Arts, that the length of time that we worked side by side for most of those 12 years. And to give a little context, my history, and I’ve been working in musical theater continuously for 35 years, at various institutions, professional and academic in higher education with vast exposure and experience to a variety of directorial approaches. And I can say without hesitation that working with Varlo as director, he has been the most professional I’ve ever worked with. And his rapport and his respect for the students and colleagues is without comparison.
He is consummately organized, respectful of individuals, their feelings and particularly their time. He is efficient. And in those nine years, I’ve never heard a harsh word to anybody, faculty, colleagues or students. And from my perspective, the students that have been in shows that Varlo has directed, without hesitation say that they would happily jump at the chance to do a production with Varlo Davenport again. He is highly favored.
So in terms of the Theater program, I don’t think many people are aware of what was accomplished before we even had any bachelors degrees. This little theater program, with just very few faculty, had acquired, I think I counted, like, four national awards or recognitions, because of the quality of work that was done, and people were wanting to gravitate to this program, thinking that we had graduate degrees, because of the quality of the work that had been done. And in fact, you know, we just had this two year program. We didn’t have a degree. And I don’t think that’s been adequately recognized, that an unknown institution would garner national awards that would be coveted by major programs nationwide. That is largely due to his vision, to his genius and to his willingness to collaborate. . .
Biff, I include that comment in part to begin to counter the slanderous suggestions from you and others that Varlo is a bad guy who, regardless of the of the classroom incident for which he was ostensibly fired, deserved to be fired anyway. And we’ll get to a detailed discussion of that in due course. For now I just want to say that I think it’s important you weigh Varlo’s contribution to DSU against the classroom incident that set in motion your ‘less than ten second’ decision. And that’s almost the next order of business. But we’ll first take a look at a very troubling aspect of what happened: Officer Don Reid’s interview with the student who filed the complaint and her parents, his encouragement of their complaint and his suggestion that in considering criminal charges against Varlo they are "doing the right thing." Reid’s little exercise of “thinking out loud” (if we can call it that) with the alleged victim and her family is a very important moment in all this, because it shows that Varlo never, ever had a chance. As that interview shows, by the time he knew what hit him, it was all already a done deal. He was, as you later said, “done,” no matter what. Truth and justice be damned. I think it’s pretty interesting, Biff, and I believe others will think so too. I hope you’ll turn up that sturdy moral fiber of yours and stay tuned.