Kimberly Dearman. (UW-La Crosse file photo)
A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse police dispatcher is accusing the public university of firing her because she praised President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
The UW disputes that Kimberly Dearman was fired because of political speech but is now offering the dispatcher her job back after the controversy hit local media.
Dearman’s comments about Trump came after the university’s chancellor, Joe Gow, penned a campus email denouncing Trump’s travel ban. According to WIZM, the chancellor says of the controversy: “You hear this phrase thrown around, ‘fake news.’ I feel I’m really at the center of that right now.”
Dearman’s side sees it differently.
“Will the taxpayer funded University of Wisconsin protect average employee’s right to comment on the political emails sent out by the leadership of the University of Wisconsin?” a letter from Dearman’s lawyer to the UW System Board of Regents asks.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. The University Chancellor Wrote That He was ‘Shocked’ & ‘Saddened’ by Trump’s Travel Ban
Lee Fehr, Dearman’s lawyer, told Heavy in a written interview that the chancellor “sent out a campus wide email complaining about Trump” in January. On February 1, the chancellor “retracted it in campus wide email in part,” said Fehr. The email was shared on Twitter above.
According to The La Crosse Tribune “Gow’s email said he was shocked and saddened by the” Trump travel ban.
Gow’s original email opened with this paragraph: “Like so many of you, the UWL leadership team and I are shocked and saddened by President Donald Trump’s order prohibiting refugees and people from certain predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Here at UWL we do not discriminate based on a person’s religion or country of origin, and it is very troubling to see the leader of our country doing exactly that.”
Among other things, the email stressed “we want to reaffirm our commitment to ensuring a safe and inclusive campus environment for all individuals, regardless of their national origin, citizenship/immigration status, ethnicity, race, religion, sexual orientation, ability and other significant aspects of individual and cultural identity.”
And it said, “We also want to let you know that our university will maintain the privacy of information about the citizenship/immigration status of all individuals, except where required by law or authorized by the individual. Please know that, except where required by law, UWL Police do not assist in immigration enforcement or deportation of any individual, and do not inquire about or report immigration status when performing their duties.”
The La Crosse Tribune reports that Gow then sent out a second email.
“After concerns were raised about Gow’s email about the travel ban, the chancellor sent a second, apologizing for his comments and to make sure they didn’t stifle discussion on campus, which he said is of utmost importance at a university,” the newspaper reported.
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is a public university with more than 10,000 students located in western Wisconsin.
2. Dearman’s Lawyer Says She Was Fired After Expressing Support for the Ban & Saying it Would Stop Terrorists From Getting Into the Country
(Photo by Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
Fehr says that Dearman spoke about Trump and his travel ban in the context of Gow’s email. Here is the letter with supporting documentation that Fehr sent the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. The letter alleges in part that Dearman “was terminated for comments she made in casual conversation to a co-worker in response to the University of Wisconsin La Crosse Chancellor Joe Gow’s emails.”
“My client was working with a student employee, an American of Asian background. They discussed Gow’s email,” Fehr told Heavy. “She says she supported Trump. She thought he was doing the right (sic) by keeping terrorists out. And those immigrants should go back to where they came from.”
Fehr continued, “Apparently that offended the coworker. My client was fired as you can see from the termination letter for…abusive language conduct…and conduct unbecoming of a university employee. Ms. Dearman was involved in hiring the co worker.”
In the letter, Fehr contended, “In response to UWL’s political emails, Ms. Dearman told a co-worker that she supported President Trump’s position on immigration. In summary, Ms. Dearman stated to a co-worker that she felt Trump was put in bad situation. She felt Trump was doing the correct thing by keeping terrorists out of the United States. She felt that those immigrants should go back where they came from. She was terminated because of her political speech in support of President Trump.”
Dearman’s attorney included a copy of what he said was the original complaint in a March 18 letter to the Board of Regents.
That statement says that both the student and Dearman had received the email from Gow. “Kim proceeded to laugh and say that he deserved the backlash he got from students,” the statement says The student allegedly said to Dearman, “Since you disagree with what he said originally, I assume you take the opposite stance in the political argument.”
Dearman allegedly responded “yes and then continued on to say how we should respect our president and trust that he knows best. She continued to say that people who ‘don’t belong here’ should leave and that Trump is trying to make the best of a bad situation and we as a country should support what he does.”
The student complaint says the student allegedly responded that “most people were upset with the policy passed because Trump was saying that it was to keep terrorists out when in reality the countries that were banned weren’t places that terrorists were known to come from and the places where terrorists did come from weren’t banned.”
Dearman then allegedly “went on for about 5 minutes about how immigrants don’t belong and then turned to look at me and said, ‘but no offense to you.’ She then went on to say how she believe (sic) she wasn’t a racist, but she believed that all immigrants deserved to go back to where they were from,” the student alleged in the complaint, according to Fehr’s letter.
3. UW Disputes That Dearman Was Fired for Political Speech
In an interview with The La Crosse Tribune, Gow denied that Dearman was fired for political speech.
“I want to be very clear,” Gow told the Wisconsin newspaper. “We would never let someone go based on their political beliefs. We always follow due process and policy if anyone is let go.”
Gow also said, according to The La Crosse Tribune: “I am proud of my emails. The issue is the racially charged statements and the fact she was not concerned by that at all.”
The Tribune reports that a letter to Dearman from the university Human Resources Director says “Dearman was investigated after a complaint from a coworker and found to have violated university employee policies against unbecoming conduct and threatening or abusive language.”
According to WIZM radio, “The firing decision, Gow said was about racist — not political — speech and consisted of violating employee policies with threatening or abusive language and behavior that was unbecoming of a university employee.”
The La Crosse Tribune put it this way: “According to Gow, officials received a complaint that Dearman had told a student of Asian descent that the student’s people should go back to where they came from.”
4. Dearman Has Now Been Offered Her Job Back
Initially, Dearman was asked by the university to quit or be terminated, reported Fox 6 Milwaukee.
According to Fehr, “the University admitted it failed to conduct proper due process and offered reinstatement” of Dearman’s job on March 15. The reinstatement revolved around whether the university’s due process requirements were followed.
The Associated Press reports that Gow told the wire service “UW System attorneys said Kimberly Dearman should be rehired because she didn’t get a hearing.”
Gow now wants all firing decisions to come to his office first for review.
Heavy has reached out to UW-La Crosse PR and Gow for comment and will update this story if it’s received.
Gow has been UW-La Crosse chancellor since 2007. According to a university biography, before coming to UWLC, Gow “served as both the Interim President (2006) and Provost (2004-2006) of Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. And earlier in his career Chancellor Gow was the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Minnesota’s Winona State University (2001-2004), as well as both the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts & Sciences (1996-2001) and the Director of the Communication Studies Program (1990-2001) at Alfred University in Upstate New York.”
He has a journalism degree, the bio says.
A conservative media site criticized Gow in 2013 for writing an email inviting people to view a September 11 memorial on campus and pointing out “the memorial’s cross shape, adding a reminder the state-funded public university doesn’t endorse a specific religion.”
5. A State Lawmaker Wants Further Review of the Situation
On March 14, Fehr said, he “sent the (UW System) Board of Regents a letter requesting answers regarding what the standards are regarding responding to political emails sent out by the Chancellor. If political speech, then when can we expect the resignation of Chancellor Gow?”
A Republican state lawmaker has expressed concern about the entire matter.
State Sen. Duey Stroebl wrote, in part: “In a time when campuses have become bastions for hypersensitivity, Chancellor Gow has perpetrated an environment where a mere complaint could cost a person her job. This does not foster discussion or debate – which many academics claim is the purpose of higher education.”
He added: “UW System should immediately review what happened in this case. There is no excuse for a taxpayer funded institution skipping due process procedures when terminating an employee over free speech.”