The University of Idaho banned a tenured journalism professor from its Moscow campus and heightened security patrols Wednesday, implying she was a threat.
“Denise Bennett has been barred from Moscow Campus,” the university said Wednesday morning in a text message alert sent to students and employees. “Recent admittance to police of meth use and access to firearms. If seen on campus, call 911.”
UI spokeswoman Jodi Walker confirmed the contents of the text alert, which was first reported by the student newspaper, the Argonaut. She said the allegation of methamphetamine use came from a November police report that school officials recently discovered.
“The safety and security of our students is our primary concern, and so we’re doing this as a precaution,” Walker said.
Walker declined to provide a copy of the police report or explain why school officials had deemed Bennett a security threat.
“There are many factors that went into the university’s assessment of risk,” Walker said in an email. “The details are part of her personnel record and not public.”
Attempts to reach Bennett were unsuccessful Wednesday. She apparently lost access to her university email account, and two phone numbers listed under her name have been disconnected.
The Argonaut, citing the police report, reported Bennett admitted to having used meth when Moscow police officers responded to her home Nov. 4 following a report of a domestic dispute involving Bennett and her husband, Bradley Janssen.
Bennett told officers she had attempted to hide her husband’s firearms to “hurt his feelings,” the Argonaut reported. Bennett and Janssen denied the dispute had been physical.
“Both parties stated their marital issues revolved around Bennett’s recent methamphetamine usage,” the report states, according to the Argonaut. “Bennett looked and acted despondent, stating she was a professor at the U of I, and both her work and her home life were (expletive).”
Officers found no meth on Bennett’s person, and no charges were filed against her. The Argonaut reported she agreed to meet with a domestic violence specialist and was taken to the Moscow police station. She later left the station with an unnamed relative.
Janssen was outspoken during a student-led demonstration Wednesday evening, saying he had come to support his wife, the Argonaut reported.
Wednesday’s text alert came almost a week after the university placed Bennett on paid administrative leave for sending a profanity-laced email in which she lambasted school officials for perceived problems in the School of Journalism and Mass Media, including misuse of grant funding.
The Argonaut on Tuesday published what it said was a copy of Bennett’s email. It reads: “I am so unbelievably frustrated and fed up with ALL THE POWERS THAT BE HERE INCLUDING BUT NOT LIMITED TO ineffective and inefficient processes and systems, POLICIES AND PROCEDURES THAT ARE SOMETIMES ENFORCED, OTHER TIMES NOT, that I am officially announcing to you all now this is the way I am running my (expletive) (classes, grants, creative work) from here on out.”
Bennett also was accused of raising her voice at the interim dean of the journalism school, Sean Quinlan, and one other university employee.
In a video posted to YouTube on Tuesday, Bennett read from her suspension letter, reacting angrily after each paragraph. She defended how she had confronted other school officials, saying she would not adjust her tactics.
“I interact with students in a way more offensive manner, in a way more uncivil manner, on a daily basis,” Bennett said. “I yell at them, and the reason why is because it’s a performance, dude. Like, you get people’s attention when you raise your voice, right? An all-cap email is definitely an attention-getting device.”
Later in the video, after reading a paragraph that said she was not to communicate with UI students and employees, Bennett shouted “fascists” along with an expletive.
UI President Chuck Staben, who made the decision to issue Wednesday’s text alert, appeared to address Bennett’s suspension in a memo to university employees on Tuesday.
“We recently have seen concerning behavior within our university community – perhaps it mirrors the tone of communication in our national discourse,” the memo said. “This is not behavior we condone at the University of Idaho. Now is the time to reflect upon who we are as a community and remember the expectation for all of us is to treat one another with respect, dignity and civility.”
Bennett has worked at UI since 2006, teaching classes in broadcasting, digital media production and documentary filmmaking. Her LinkedIn.com page shows she previously taught for six years at Eastern Washington University.
Her suspension, which started last Thursday, prompted some students to campaign for her return. “Students for Denise” has circulated a petition on social media and created a website, ReinstateDenise.com.
Students had planned to protest Bennett’s suspension with a sit-in at noon Wednesday, but the demonstration was postponed until later in the day after UI issued the text alert and police officers showed up outside the journalism building.
In a statement posted to Facebook on Wednesday, UI student Ryan Benson contended the university had “grossly mishandled” Bennett’s suspension and took issue with the allegations in the text alert.
“The alert contains little context,” the statement said. “It explicitly mentions drugs and firearms, urging the recipient to call 911 on sight. The alert leaves out, however, that these drug allegations come from a November police report and that there are no direct threats to campus or students.”
Benson, a senior who took one of Bennett’s courses last semester, told The Spokesman-Review she strived to prepare students by running her classroom like a real newsroom, while working with scant funding and other resources.
“She treats you like a director treats their crew,” Benson said in a message. “You get the job done right or you do it again. You hit your mark on time or you do it again. And you frame the shot right or you don’t use it. She’s unorthodox, but it’s necessary to teach students and educate them to an industry-ready caliber.”
“Regarding her behavior,” Benson said, “there’s no doubt in my mind that Denise is frustrated. That’s what started all of this in the first place.”
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