OGDEN -- A Weber State University assistant professor says it appears he lost his job because he disagreed with the school's decision to name a new family center after senior Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer, who has stirred controversy over the years with comments critical of feminists, intellectuals and gays.
Jared Lisonbee, an assistant professor of child and family studies, said he got a letter "out of the blue" last week saying his employment would be terminated at the end of the 2013-14 academic year. He spoke against the decision at a faculty meeting in late 2012.
"I kind of see, at least at Weber, that only a certain type of speech is valued or valid," he said. "I don't think it's an issue for most of the faculty -- as long as you don't do anything that your department chair disagrees with."
After the new Boyd K. and Donna S. Packer Center was announced May 1, Lisonbee's wife, Shairylann, wrote a letter to the Standard-Examiner calling the name "a slap in the face for many in the community."
She wrote that Packer, who got an associate degree at Weber, has "spewed bigotry." She said, "Obviously his time (at Weber) didn't instill any love of education or tolerance toward diverse families.
"Naming a state university program that is supposed to represent and serve a variety of non-traditional families in the community after Packer sends the message that only certain types of families are valued by the state, and that is insensitive at the least," Shairylann Lisonbee wrote. "In Utah, where the separation of church and state is paper thin, this naming of a public program sends a loud, clear message to many that discrimination is both acceptable and embraced at Weber."
A Weber State spokesman said the school supports free speech and academic freedom but declined to comment on Jared Lisonbee's case.
Lisonbee has worked at Weber State for about two years and said his performance evaluations have not been negative. But his relationship with department Chairman Paul Schvaneveldt changed dramatically in late 2012, Lisonbee said, after Schvaneveldt announced at a faculty meeting that a new fundraising and support group for community programs would be named for Packer. The family center is not a building.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints apostle previously has spoken against interracial marriage, called same-sex attraction morally wrong and declared the greatest threats to the LDS faith came from feminists, gays and intellectuals. Packer earned an associate degree from Weber State before continuing his education at Utah State University and Brigham Young University.
Lisonbee spoke up at the meeting.
"I said, 'I really don't think this is a good idea. I don't think it represents the diversity of families the center will be serving,' " he said.
He also outlined his concerns in an email to Jack Rasmussen, dean of the College of Education, who acknowledged the issue to Lisonbee but kept the name.
Afterward, Lisonbee said, his department chairman seemed to watch him more closely. Schvaneveldt, he said, accused him of walking out of graduation halfway through the ceremony, although Lisonbee responded that he had only changed positions to greet students.
In another conversation, Schvaneveldt "basically said not everyone is a good fit for Weber," Lisonbee said.
Shairylann Lisonbee's letter to the editor sparked a change.org petition started by James Carroll, a native Utahn who now lives in New Mexico, advocating for a name change. It now has 2,500 signatures. The Utah Stonewall Democrats, a gay-rights group, later wrote a letter to Weber State protesting the name.
Rasmussen told The Salt Lake Tribune that officials hoped the name would connect with donors, and it appeared that it did, based on the funds raised.
Shortly before Lisonbee received his termination letter June 25, he said, he had a positive conversation with Schvaneveldt about his progress toward tenure. He would have been eligible for tenure after six years of employment. Lisonbee earned a bachelor's and master's degree from BYU and a doctorate from Auburn University.
"I was definitely making progress in the areas we identified," he said. The letter didn't outline a reason for his dismissal, and "because I'm pre-tenure ... I doubt I will ever really know."
Schvaneveldt couldn't be reached for comment. A university spokesman, though, denied that the school makes personnel decisions based on employees' beliefs.
"Employees are evaluated on neutral, job-related criteria," said Weber State's John Kowalewski, pointing out that the school has an employment appeals process. "Doctor Lisonbee underwent the normal tenure-review process during the '12-13 academic year."
Lisonbee said he plans to finish out next year and look for a new job. "It'll be an uncomfortable year," he said. "Next year, I'll be somewhere else."
The university has stood firm on the naming decision.
"Weber State does not make a decision like this lightly, and does not back away from the decision once it is made," Kowalewski said in May.
Asked how the naming decision was made, Kowalewski said he believed the suggestion came from the Jerry and Vickie Moyes College of Education. A call to the dean of the College of Education was met with the response that Kowalewski would be handling all inquiries.
"We respect that not all members of the greater community respect this decision," Kowalewski said.
WSU's decision to create a scholarship named for Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming college student who died as the result of a 1998 anti-gay hate crime, also met with some local opposition.
"Weber State stood by that decision because of our respect of a wide spectrum of viewpoints," Kowalewski said.
Standard-Examiner reporter Nancy Van Valkenburg contributed to this story.