Kelle Stephens will resume her duties as president of Dixie Technical College, five months after she was fired in a decision that led to claims of blackmail and collusion, and threats of litigation for wrongful termination.
The Board of Trustees for the Utah System of Technical Colleges, or UTech, voted 12-1 Thursday to reinstate Stephens, including granting a roughly $14,000 salary increase and a $100,000 payment in exchange for Stephens agreeing to drop her legal claims against the board and UTech commissioner.
“I would just like to say thank you,” Stephens told the board following their vote. “I love Dixie Technical College. I love the staff and the students and the faculty.”
In January, Stephens was fired in a 6-5 vote of the trustees, with no public explanations for the reasons behind her dismissal.
The move was poorly received by the board of directors of the St. George campus, which had signed a resolution in support of Stephens in the wake of allegations of discriminatory behavior by her administration.
Stephens previously told The Tribune that anonymous letters had been sent by a former employee to state lawmakers and UTech trustees, including what she described as deceptively-edited recordings intended to ”blackmail” her and prompt her firing.
Mark Fahrenkamp, chairman of Dixie Tech’s Board of Directors, confirmed the existence of the letters to The Tribune, but declined to comment on their contents.
“Personally I don’t know that I would use the word ‘blackmail,’” Fahrenkamp said at the time. “But there certainly was an attempt to discredit her.”
But Dixie Tech, under Stephens’ leadership, has also been accused of fudging its enrollment and funding reports to the state Legislature. A former employee filed a lawsuit against the school in January, shortly before Stephens’ firing, and other faculty members have approached The Tribune with allegations of harassment and retaliation related to pressure by administrators to exaggerate student-performance data.
Stephens did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Joe Demma, spokesman for the Utah System of Technical Colleges, said Thursday’s vote was the result of many months of collaboration between the UTech Board of Trustees and the Dixie Tech Board of Directors.
“A much deeper dialogue between the trustees and the board of directors has gone on,” he said. “I think this [vote] is the result of that dialogue and that discussion.”
Stephens’ reinstatement and payment is contingent on her agreeing to settlement terms and abandoning legal action against the UTech system. She had previously filed a notice of claim listing board of trustees members, UTech Commissioner David Woolstenhulme and several Utah lawmakers as potential defendants.
The vote to reinstate Stephens also included a provision that the trustees create a policy to include the head of a campus board of directors in future disciplinary hearings against a technical college president.
“They would not be a voting member,” said Trustee Steven Moore, “but we would like to have their input as we go forward.”
And Aaron Osmond, a former state senator and member of the board of trustees, asked that a future meeting include a full review of the circumstances that led to Stephens’ firing and reinstatement.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to thoroughly understand how we received the advice that we did,” he said.