Directors of Dixie Technical College were left perplexed over the abrupt firing last week of school president Kelle Stephens by a panel supervising Utah’s network of technical colleges.
Meeting a day after Stephens was terminated Wednesday by trustees for the Utah System of Technical Colleges (USTC), board members for the St. George school grappled with how to respond to her ouster, records of their meeting indicate.
At one point, board member Larene Cox suggested that a neutral public relations statement be drafted about Stephens’ firing, which prompted Stephen Wade — the school’s representative on the USTC board of trustees — to state that he didn’t want to “participate in a lie.”
“I think what happened yesterday was a travesty,” Wade told colleagues, referring to Stephens’ dismissal.
Stephens, president of Dixie Technical College since 2012, was fired last Wednesday in a 6-5 vote of USTC trustees, with no public reason given. A prepared statement by trustee chairman Jim Evans also offered no explanation for her removal, but thanked Stephens for her years of service.
In an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune last week, Stephens claimed to have been the target of a “blackmail” attempt by a former employee, which, she said, had put pressure on the trustees to terminate her employment — in spite of objections by directors of Dixie Technical College.
The campus board had, in fact, signed a resolution in support of Stephens in October, crediting her leadership with growth in enrollment and program offerings. “The Board applauds her actions in pursuit of the interests of Dixie Tech and the community,” the resolution stated.
But Wade, speaking to the Dixie board of directors on Thursday, said the state board of trustees had ignored their input and sentiments when it removed Stephens. The school will likely face litigation, he said, a development that could have been avoided through collaboration.
“They chose to stick it in your face,” Wade said. “We had a chance to soften it and try to come together as a group.”
Of his colleagues on the USTC board of trustees, Wade added in the meeting: “Shame on them.”
Wade could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Thursday’s discussion also included comments from board members who expressed frustration over the lack of training for campus leaders from the Utah System of Technical Colleges and confusion over who campus presidents answer to within the system.
Dixie board member Gil Almquist questioned the motivations of trustees who voted to remove the Dixie campus president.
“If we’re looking for what’s good for the student,” Almquist said, “then Kelle [Stephens] would be the president.”
Mark Fahrenkamp, chairman of the Dixie Technical College board of directors, declined Monday to comment on Stephens’ firing, beyond restating the board’s support for the former president.
“Our board was in opposition with the state board on this issue,” Fahrenkamp said, “and we didn’t prevail.”
Asked about Stephens’ blackmail claims, Fahrenkamp confirmed that anonymous letters had been sent to campus directors, state trustees and area lawmakers over the past year.
“Personally I don’t know that I would use the word ‘blackmail,’” he said. “But there certainly was an attempt to discredit her.”
Fahrenkamp declined to describe the contents of the anonymous letters, but Stephens previously told The Tribune that they included allegations of discriminatory behavior and audio recordings of closed meetings that she claims were edited to sound incriminating.
Stephens said she believes that lawmakers who received copies of the letters and tapes threatened to withhold funding from the state’s technical colleges if she remained president of the St. George school.
The materials were reviewed by the Utah System of Technical Colleges, Fahrenkamp said.
“The state board of trustees did deal with it in a couple of different ways,” he said. “Where we all might have failed was by not going back and making sure that everybody who was copied on all of that really knew everything was OK.”
After Stephens’ dismissal, technical education commissioner David Woolstenhulme was named acting president of Dixie Technical College.
And on Monday, the school’s vice president for student services, Derek Hadlock, was named interim president by the USTC board of trustees, according to spokesman Joseph Demma.
Hadlock is expected to serve until a new president is selected, a process Demma anticipated would take between six and eight months.
Correction: Mark Fahrenkamp is chairman of the Dixie Technical College board of directors. A prior version of this story misstated his title.