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Interim President Jeff Ettinger inside Morrill Hall on Sept. 20, 2023. Ettinger gets deep with the Daily: “It’s bittersweet.”
Ettinger reflects on his presidency
Published April 22, 2024

My experience with homophobia in a heartland university

A professor details the destruction of a music program and the bureaucratic fuses behind it.

From the outset of my work as director of choral studies at the University of North Dakota in 2003, I was popular with students and had superior student evaluations and annual performance reviews from my colleagues. I was very productive in my teaching, conducting, publishing and professional presentations. I also am gay. In June 2005, my partner and I adopted a young gay UND student who had been cast out of his home and disowned by his birth parents after they learned gayness was not something that could be beaten or prayed out of him.

A week after the adoption petition was filed, I learned UND had launched an affirmative action investigation based mostly on allegations related to a European choir tour I led in May 2005. Most of the complaints were trivial, untrue and completely unrelated to affirmative action matters. UND maintained that neither my being gay nor the adoption were factors in the matter, although under questioning at my subsequent appeal hearing, university officials refused to answer questions from my attorney regarding the basis for their charges of an improper relationship.

I became concerned in July when I had not received a contract for 2005-2006 because I received notice of reappointment the previous January, I wrote to my department chair and to the dean inquiring about my status and whether I would still teach. They responded that a contract was ready for me and that I needed to sign and return it, which I did.

When the “investigation report” was completed in August, I was not notified via any official channel. Instead, the chairman of the music department convened a secret meeting of the tenured music faculty members (some of whom were appearing by telephone), read the 19-page report aloud and then pushed for an immediate vote on whether to recommend my termination ” all despite the fact that such a meeting and vote, held without advance notice, were completely outside university protocol.

Some of those present were unhappy about being asked for an immediate vote and refused to join in such a recommendation. Several others, feeling blindsided by the projected urgency, advised the chairman that they were changing their votes. The music chairman admitted during the hearing that he did not apprise the dean of the final vote, which, after all vote changes, would have been in my favor.

When a colleague informed me of the report’s completion and the secret meeting, I acquired a copy of the report and found it to be full of hearsay, innuendo, bias and untruth. (At my appeal hearing, we learned that the original notes of the investigator were unavailable and supposedly had been destroyed. Many of those who were interviewed testified at the hearing that the statements reported for them were not what they had said.) After reading the “report,” I again inquired of my department chair about my status. Although he had recommended my dismissal in a memo to the dean on Aug. 19, he sent me e-mails as late as Aug. 22, the day before classes were to begin, informing me I should be in place to teach the next day. When I arrived at my office on Aug. 23, however, I was given a letter from the dean informing me that she was recommending I be dismissed and that I was being immediately suspended from teaching. A retired high school music teacher was hired to fill in as the choral director ” to the dismay and consternation of returning students in the choral program who faced the loss of the hard work in which we had all invested so heavily, as well as several new and transfer students who testified that the reason they had come to UND was to work with me. I filed an appeal and retained Henry Howe to represent me.

Inexplicably and incomprehensibly, on Sept. 8, the UND General Counsel’s office ” in what appeared to be a complete disregard of Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act requirements ” sent a complete copy of the so-called investigative report, with none of the more than a dozen UND students’ names or identifying information blacked out, to the private attorney representing our adoptive son’s birth parents in an adversarial proceeding. Counsel did not even attempt to limit the use or distribution of the unredacted document. The report was introduced into evidence at the adoption hearing Sept. 9, and the judge disallowed the adoption. The intentional, willful action in sending the unredacted report seemed to underscore the connection between UND’s attempt to dismiss me and the adoption. Students reacted to the university’s actions with dismay, anger and sorrow. They established two new choirs unrelated to UND and asked me to be their conductor. The support, dedication and perseverance of my students have been one positive of this ordeal. The appeal hearing can best be characterized as a remake of Kafka’s “The Trial.” The hearing panel comprised five faculty members, none of them attorneys and all of whom report to the same dean who recommended my termination. UND presented its entire case without appointing a hearing officer, an appointment that is a clear requirement of UND and North Dakota State Board of Higher Education policies. In fact, UND appointed a hearing officer only after extensive, repeated objections from my attorney and, finally, a court filing on my behalf. The hearing officer came in just before we began our defense. On the day we were scheduled to begin our defense, I received a certified letter from UND informing me that, whatever the outcome of the hearing, my contract at UND would not be renewed for 2006-2007, a move that clearly telegraphed the administration’s desires to the hearing panel. The panel severely limited the time available for me to present my case and the subject matter about which my witnesses could testify, in effect denying me the opportunity to call many of the more than 30 eyewitnesses on our witness list to testify. During its presentation, UND had been allowed unlimited time and scope to present its case, but the hearing panel even took additional time away from us at the end of the hearing to allow UND to present more testimony. The hearing officer, a local municipal judge, said ” in response to a motion by my attorney to “start over” with the hearing because of a virtually complete absence of procedural due process and wide ranging errors by the panel ” “It is broken and cannot be fixed, so all that we can do is go on.” Go on we did: Over objection, various hearing panel members were absent for portions of the testimony, catching up by looking at the notes taken by other members. Rules on what would be permitted in the way of testimony were changed on an almost daily basis. The panel elected to proceed with deliberations without waiting for preparation of the required verbatim transcript of the proceedings, which were recorded by a court reporter. During the deliberations in December, the panel decided that many of the allegations against me were completely unfounded but did find me responsible for some, citing such reasons as, “We didn’t hear anything from Reeves on this.” They didn’t hear much from us because they cut off our time and wouldn’t hear some of our witnesses. On several presented issues, the panel simply disregarded all the evidence presented, without comment, in reaching their decision. The panel relied on materials that were never offered into evidence. After some 80 hours of hearings and the deliberations, the panel submitted their recommendation to UND’s president: 1. That I be dismissed, but 2. That I not be dismissed until the end of my contract in May 2006.

Charles Kupchella, president of UND, called me in January to discuss the matter. He was, and had always been, gracious and personable to me. Certainly he was in a difficult position since, without the transcript being available, he could not even hope to undertake any meaningful review of the proceedings. He voiced concern that I be able to “go on after all this.” Finally, in an effort to bring some closure to the matter for my students and me, I tendered my resignation to Kupchella on Jan. 17, to be effective at the end of my contract in May 2006 ” the date recommended by the committee. On Jan. 25, Kupchella accepted the resignation, thereby terminating the dismissal proceeding and declining to find me guilty of any of the charges.

The question remains then, what happened? I am very happy Kupchella did not find against me. On the other hand, those who wanted me gone, at any cost, those who did not understand and were frightened by the gay adoption case brought by my partner and myself, and my personal commitment to excellence in music education got what they wanted. As was noted by one member of the panel during deliberations, it is clear that everyone lost: myself, the university and, most of all, the students, who were failed by the system. It is very sad indeed that fear fueled by provincial ideas of propriety has won another victory. Avoiding a dismissal constituted a victory only with the recognition that it was, in truth, a Pyrrhic victory. On Wednesday I will discuss the implications of my case on faculty job security, homophobia and the state of higher education.

Anthony Rogers-Reeves recently resigned as assistant professor of music at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

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