Professor appeals dismissal decision

Professor appeals dismissal decision

Kimberly Wethal, Editor-in-Chief

A tenured University of Wisconsin-Whitewater art history associate professor is appealing the UW Board of Regents’ decision to dismiss him earlier this week.

Chris Henige – who was hired by the university in 2001, received tenure in 2007 and served as the Chair of the Art and Design department from 2008-11 – was dismissed after then-interim Dean of the College of Arts and Communication Robert Mertens filed a complaint with the UW System on Feb. 21, 2017 as a result of Henige’s “harassing and bullying behaviors,” according to the UW Regents’ decision order addressed to Henige from Feb. 12, 2018.

Following an investigation, a faculty hearing panel held on Sept. 8, 2017 and an Oct. 27, 2017 faculty panel decision to recommend Henige’s dismissal, Chancellor Beverly Kopper sent a letter recommendation echoing the decision to UW Board of Regents President Ray Cross on Nov. 28. 2017.

Kopper’s recommendation was forwarded to the Personnel Matters Review Committee, headed by Regent President John Behling. On Jan. 30, after reviewing the case and offering Henige the opportunity to give an oral argument – which he declined – the Committee decided there was just cause for Henige’s dismissal.

The decision to dismiss Henige takes root in his concerns back in 2012 that students with an Art History major were not graduating within the standard 8-semester time frame, but were instead attending UW-Whitewater longer as a result of then-Chair Susan Messer “[failing] to schedule the appropriate range of courses that were necessary to meet the needs of students,” according to summary document published on Henige’s website.

In his summary document, he wrote that he had at one point suggested eliminating the art history major because students’ needs were not being met.

“On average, it has taken these students 147 credits to graduate, 27 more than we say it will, largely because we haven’t offered the range of courses necessary for them to complete the major in a timely manner,” Henige wrote.

As a result, Henige sent a number of emails that were later conveyed as harassment.

Then-Dean of the College of Arts and Communication Mark McPhail filed a formal complaint to then-Chancellor Richard Telfer on May 8, 2013 stating that “Henige was causing serious tension in the Department of Art and Design through his angry and aggressive communications” and that his attempts to mediate Henige’s behavior hadn’t worked.

Kopper, at the time the provost at UW-W, assigned Associate Professor James Bronson and Human Resources Director Judi Trampf and Affirmative Action Officer Elizabeth Ogunsola to investigate different portions of McPhail’s complaint against Henige.

Other complaints against Henige surfaced as well, including one from Renée Melton, the Chair of the Department of Art and Design in 2015, whose Jan. 26, 2015 complaint stated that Henige had “repeatedly called into question her leadership, integrity and competence,” according to the decision order.

Henige’s behavior was found not to violate state harassment laws, but it did violate UW-W’s zero-tolerance policy against intimidating behavior, with Richard Thal, Program and Planning Analyst for the UW System appointed by Telfer to investigate Henige’s interdepartment behavior, because his behavior toward Melton and other women in the department was “uncivil” and “impeded Melton’s ability to function as chair.”

Henige came to the Royal Purple during the spring 2016 semester to inform editors of his ongoing situation with the university. At the time, the Royal Purple staff did not have the adequate staffing or time to fully investigate the matter. Instead, Henige submitted a number of Letters to the Editor speaking about the university’s negligence in reference to shared governance, tenure rules and meeting rules that he felt was an “abridgement” of freedom of speech and expression by the university.

During that time, he wrote in his letters that he had been placed on unpaid suspension starting in December 2015 and was not set to be back on payroll until the end of the contract year, according to a letter published on April 12, 2016. At one point, he also noted that because of a loss of pay, he had to sell his home in Wisconsin and move to Fredonia, New York, where the decision order was sent earlier this month.

For two semesters leading up to this suspension I was exiled from my department without any due process, and I have been prohibited from having any contact with my colleagues and friends,” Henige wrote in the April 12, 2016 letter. “My classrooms were relocated as far from their original location as was possible, to rooms that were never vetted for the teaching of art history.”

Under Wisconsin state law, Henige has 30 days to seek judicial review of the UW Board of Regents’ decision. The review of the decision will occur in Walworth County court.