University of Idaho President Chuck Staben told the UI Faculty Senate on Tuesday that a recent campuswide alert regarding tenured journalism professor Denise Bennett had nothing to do with harming her reputation or stopping a student-organized sit-in.
During the Faculty Senate’s regular meeting, Staben and other UI leaders, including Provost John Wiencek, were pressed with questions surrounding Bennett’s administrative leave and a Vandal Alert issued Jan. 30 that said Bennett was barred from campus because of “recent admittance to police of meth use and access to firearms. If seen on campus, call 911.”
In an alert issued the following day, the university attempted to defend its initial alert and referenced a Nov. 4 police report detailing a domestic dispute involving Bennett in which she allegedly told police officers she had used meth the day before. The firearms mentioned in the report were being loaded into a car.
Bennett was placed on administrative leave effective Jan. 24, days after she sent a profane email to university administrators. On Jan. 29, Bennett live-streamed a video online in which she criticized the administration and read a letter sent to her by the UI detailing the reasons for her being placed on leave.
Some faculty members in attendance Tuesday said the wording of the alert appeared to be designed to discredit Bennett. Others wondered if the alert was timed to disrupt a student sit-in protesting Bennett’s suspension. The alert was issued at about one hour before the sit-in, which was subsequently postponed.
“I don’t know what meth had to do with any of this other than labeling my colleague in a very severe way,” said Leontina Hormel, an associate professor of sociology at UI. “ It would be very hard for her to be able to return to work and be treated with respect if that would have been an option.”
Staben denied the alert was sent for any other reason than to preserve safety on campus, noting the police report was a public record.
He said the wording of the message was decided on by a threat assessment team that recommended specific information be included to communicate the seriousness of the situation.
UI officials and police told the Daily News the day of the alert Bennett was not considered to be violent or dangerous.
Staben said meth was mentioned in the alert because the drug is associated with a lack of impulse control and violence.
“This was not done to negatively affect the person about whom the alert was sent, it was done to protect those who might be at risk . It wasn’t done lightly,” Staben said.
Hormel pressed, saying there was no indication by law enforcement that Bennett was a danger to campus.
“So, fundamentally, you wanted to wait until shots are being fired before we issued a Vandal Alert?” Wiencek asked.
Staben added the UI has made missteps handling the issuance of emergency alerts in the past.
Hormel responded that many of those receiving the alert – including parents and alumni not familiar with the conflict between Bennett and the UI – could be forgiven for thinking there was a clear and present threat to campus.
At the very least, she argued, it eroded the image of the UI during a time of enrollment difficulties.
“It seems as though it put us at risk in so many ways – including economic risk, because I know that there are parents that are worried now about what us faculty are like,” Hormel said. “It diminished a lot of different levels of trust.”
Michelle Wiest, an associate professor with the department of statistical science, said she worried other employees may have their history with the police unearthed to discredit them if they find themselves in conflict with administrators.
“Given all that’s happened since then, would you include that type of information in a future vandal alert?” Wiest asked. “Could other faculty members have records dug up that are not relevant to the current situation?”
Staben said the situation involving Bennett is unique and the decision to send the alerts were the result of a consensus of the threat assessment team.
“In this instance, for the reasons and knowledge that we had at the time that we made that alert, we decided to do it,” Staben said. “Frankly, in that situation, I believe it would be important to do it again – in that situation – and I cannot fully describe all of the parameters of that situation.”
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