Administrators, faculty members and some students in the University of Utah department of economics recently received letters from the Utah attorney general's office cautioning them against libel and slander in their discussions of the department's problems.
The letter is indicative of continuing unrest in the department, although university officials have declared closed an investigation of possible irregularities.In late February, the university made public the results of a six-month investigation into allegations of grade-changing, nepotism and possible misuse of funds. Although university officials acknowledged that the improprieties had occurred, they said they could not attribute them to any particular individual in the department. The administration took steps to correct evident problems.
"As discussions of these allegations have increased, I have become deeply concerned and have received complaints and threats of possible libel, slander and breach of privacy actions against individuals involved in these discussions," wrote William T. Evans, assistant attorney general, in the letter to department personnel.
He warned that "improper disclosure of any confidential information received in connection with your employment may result in serious sanctions. This sensitive information includes personnel information such as salary, evaluations, discipline and the like and student information protected by federal law and university regulations."
University personnel are subject to the Public Officers and Employees Ethics Act, he said, although the students who received the letter are not. He said he could not disclose who provided the names of students to whom the letter was directed, because of "lawyer-client confidentiality."
"I do not wish to suggest any inappropriate limitation on academic freedom or First Amendment rights of free speech. I only advise restraint that arises out of an individual's own personal sense of decorum, fairness and good judgment, as well as that imposed by law," Evans wrote. He told the Deseret News such a letter was well within the scope of his duties, since the attorney general is official legal counsel for the university and other state entities.
In his letter, Evans pointed out that truth is a defense in libel and slander cases, "but being proven not guilty of libel or slander may be a hollow victory after several years of litigation."
Evans said the letter was requested by the "administration." Its intent, he said, was to try to diffuse the situation. "We don't want the situation to get out of hand."
U. Provost James L. Clayton, however, said the letter from the attorney general's office was requested by the attorney for an economics professor who has been at the center of some of the department discontent.
The assistant professor, Mark Glick, was given half-time leave for this academic year to attend law classes at Columbia University. Allegations suggested Glick was receiving half-time pay and that he had not fulfilled his part of the agreement, to teach extra classes to warrant the half-time pay.
However, Clayton said, the matter was fully investigated and university officials are satisfied that terms of the agreement between Glick and the institution are being met. Glick taught one extra class before going to Columbia, he said, and has committed to two extra classes when he returns to the U. this fall. The three classes represent half of the usual six taught by university faculty on his level, Clayton said.
"While it is not unusual for university personnel to go to other institutions for training, it is unusual to have someone get half-time pay while they are away. But this was agreed to in advance, and we have it all in writing," Clayton said.
Evans said in his letter that anyone with information regarding alleged wrongdoing in the department that was not already covered in the earlier investigation is welcome to present it under Utah's whistleblower protections.