October 15, 2021
-The College Fix
A Nevada community college is taking steps to remove a tenured math professor after he objected to the softening of math standards at the school.
Lars Jensen, a professor at Truckee Meadows Community College for 22 years, said school officials have mounted a coordinated campaign against him after he protested their attempts to lower school math standards.
He has taken a stand against the state’s new curriculum structure that essentially allows remedial math classes to count for college credit.
On October 1, the school began a formal hearing process to remove Jensen on the grounds that he had received two years’ worth of negative performance reviews, in 2019-20 and 2020-21. According to Jensen, the hearing process is scheduled to end on October 22.
But Jensen claims the negative performance reviews are a ploy by the school to get rid of him, noting that tenured employees are “never” terminated.
“The reason I received the unsatisfactory evaluations, I believe, is in retaliation for having spoken up against President Hilgersom and other administrators’ management style,” Jensen told The College Fix in an email.
“In particular, I have spoken openly about how the college has lowered the standards of a college math course, as the college has transitioned its curriculum in the course to the co-requisite remediation model now sweeping the country.”
“When I spoke up against the lowering of standards in the course, I was silenced, given a letter of recommendation, and subsequently an unsatisfactory annual performance evaluation for 2019-20,” he said.
“The following year, the college again targeted me and falsely claimed my syllabi to be incomplete and that I missed a training, and for that they gave me another unsatisfactory evaluation for 2020-21.”
Jensen noted the two unsatisfactory evaluations allowed President Karin Hilgersom to order a termination hearing.
“TMCC cannot comment on Mr. Jensen or any personnel matter,” said Director of Marketing & Communications Kate Kirkpatrick in an email to The College Fix.
Kirkpatrick, in a statement that mirrors one previously given to Insider Higher Ed, said academic tenure “is highly valued and recognized as an integral part of the academic process at TMCC, and in the last five years, 42 teaching faculty were awarded tenure.”
“Most recently, 10 faculty were awarded tenure in March 2021. TMCC faculty and administration celebrate academic tenure and hold it in high regard,” she said. “Termination of a tenured faculty is taken extremely seriously following a comprehensive multi-stage review process conducted by a group of individuals from various areas of the College, including peers appointed by the Faculty Senate.”
College leaders claim they want him gone because he is being “insubordinate.”
At issue is the decision by the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents to eliminate remedial math and English courses in favor of a new structure known as “corequisite support.”
“By redesigning first-year math and English classes, adding additional instruction time to these college-level courses, and requiring mandatory tutoring for students who need the support, we have seen very promising data across the nation that students are more successful,” Chancellor Thom Reilly said after the vote.
“This approach allows students to ‘kill two birds with one stone,’ by completing the college-level work while also receiving needed remedial support designed to ensure greater success.”
Jensen said that in adopting the corequisite program, his college “aggressively pressured the math department to remove content from its required courses, specifically the core algebra content that had always been included in the college’s math requirement for liberal arts-oriented students,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
In both years he received a review of “excellent” from his department chair, Jensen nevertheless received unsatisfactory reviews from Dean Julie Ellsworth.
In one poor performance review, Ellsworth specifically mentions a flyer Jensen had passed out at a math summit criticizing the school’s eroding math standards, charging him with “insubordination” for continuing to hand out the flyer after he was asked not to.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has submitted a letter to the community college that argues “Jensen’s distribution of flyers at the board meeting was protected by his First Amendment right to comment as a citizen on matters of public concern, and TMCC cannot use it as grounds for termination,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
In a second incident, Jensen refused to change a class syllabus in which he explained to students they were prevented from taking the final exam if it would make no difference in their passing the class.
Eventually, Jensen allowed students to take the exam, but according to Ellsworth, he changed the rules to be even “more punitive” because he wouldn’t allow them to “benefit from any potential points this might generate.”
In Jensen’s 2017-18 performance review, Ellsworth had written that he is “recognized for his disciplinary knowledge, his passion for math, for being nice, and for caring about students.”
Yet on his 2020-21 evaluation, his new dean, Anne Flesher, said he “demonstrated a consistent pattern of defiance and disrespect by his refusal to apply repeated directives and not responding to the dean’s requests in a timely manner.”
Eventually, Jensen filed a federal Title IX complaint against the school, alleging he was “subject to unlawful retaliation and harassment from the administration” and that he was discriminated against because of his age and his national origin.
Jensen was born in Denmark and lived there for 25 years before moving to Philadelphia in 1979 to attend the University of Pennsylvania for a doctorate in physics, which he received in 1984.
“The hard handed methods of President Hilgersom’s administration has caused four members of my department to retire early, last June,” Jensen told The Fix. “These were all faculty who originally had no plans to retire. Many faculty from other departments have retired too. The atmosphere at the college is poisonous — one of fear.”
“Faculty free speech and academic freedom is in grave danger at TMCC,” he said.