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By Chuck Haga, Published September 07 2013

Tension over tenure: UND French professor challenges accusations

GRAND FORKS – The witness, a University of North Dakota professor of marketing who had mentored a new, young professor of French for three years, listened as an attorney read through a series of accusations that had been made against the younger woman, his client.

She had slammed doors. She had argued with colleagues and shown a lack of collegiality by promoting her classes and “competing” for advisees. She had “rolled her eyes” at faculty meetings when she disagreed with what was being said.

And Sarah Mosher had spoken French to another faculty member in a hallway in Merrifield Hall.

“Do you think it inappropriate,” attorney Leo Wilking asked Mary Askim-Lovseth, professor and chair of marketing, “for a French professor to speak French to another professor at the University of North Dakota?”

“No,” she said.

Mosher came to UND as an assistant professor in 2008. Earlier this year, colleagues in the Languages Department had split on whether she should receive tenure, with a majority voting to recommend denial.

That recommendation went through the department chairman, a dean and other top UND academic officers, and last spring Mosher was offered a terminal contract for this academic year, effectively ending her teaching career at the university.

She appealed, and she sat now before five tenured faculty members from a variety of academic disciplines, the University Senate’s Standing Committee on Faculty Rights.

Through five hours Wednesday night and five more Thursday night, with as many hours scheduled for sworn testimony and deliberations Friday and Saturday, the lawyer-led proceedings gave a sometimes disturbing glimpse into an academic department torn by differing philosophies of education and collegiality, allegations of harassment and unprofessional conduct, and the strain of office politics and personality clashes.

At the conclusion of the Mosher hearing, the committee may make a recommendation to uphold or reverse the university’s decision. Jon Jensen, a Grand Forks attorney appointed to administer the proceedings, said the final decision would rest with UND President Robert Kelley.

Good credentials

Mosher, who lived and studied in France and Switzerland for nearly four years, including a year of study at the Sorbonne, holds a Ph.D. degree in French and Francophone studies from the University of Arizona.

Her research interests, according to her biographical page on UND’s website, include modern autobiographical texts and films “within the framework of colonial and post-colonial theory and criticism in order to illuminate critical issues associated with female-authored autobiographical expression.”

She has led courses in modern French literature, film and culture, autobiographical narratives from the French-speaking Arab world, Caribbean women’s writing, immigration in France and global human rights. She is adviser to the student Club Francophone, co-director of the Languages Department’s film series and a board member of the International Studies Program.

Her critics have not challenged her academic credentials or her achievements in the three core requirements of a university professor – teaching, research and service.

Students have tended to give her high marks on internal and outside teacher evaluations.

Wilking, a Fargo attorney hired by Mosher to handle her appeal, asked in an opening statement whether the university wanted to shift its process for evaluating candidates for tenure from the “pillars” of teaching, research and service to “new, subjective, vague measurements involving behaviors, involving likes and dislikes.”

“Is someone too assertive? Not North Dakota nice?” he asked.

“This is an outstanding young faculty member, beloved by students. This is the type of individual this university should embrace and not push away.”

But Julie Evans, UND’s general counsel, told the committee in her opening statement that Mosher “was simply not a good fit for the department,” as evidenced by her departmental colleagues voting twice to terminate her.

“Her peers acknowledge that she has a good record” in teaching, research and service, Evans said, but her “unprofessional dealings caused disruption … and became so problematic that some members (of the department faculty) won’t meet with her without another present.”

‘A lot of stress’

Wilking called about a dozen witnesses, including some of Mosher’s chief critics within the Languages Department.

Claudia Routon, an assistant professor of Spanish, said she voted “no” on Mosher’s reappointment because of reports “from colleagues I trust” about Mosher’s treatment of students, faculty and staff and “creation of a hostile environment.”

Jane Berne, also an assistant professor of Spanish, testified that she had concerns about Mosher’s ability “to maintain a professional demeanor,” including her alleged yelling at colleagues and other displays of anger that “adversely impacted the French section” of the department.

Virgil Benoit, a longtime professor of French, said Mosher had displayed a lack of courtesy and collegiality by “promoting” her sections of multisection courses and by actively “competing” for advisees. In a recent semester, Mosher was advising 23 students while Benoit had four.

Some of the specific complaints about Mosher “may seem trivial,” he said, but they fit into “a larger issue of trust, communication and balance. … This can’t go on.”

Personal vs. ‘legitimate’ issues

Earlier, Dan Rice, a former UND department chairman and college dean, testified that he had been involved in many formal tenure considerations. Personal differences ought to be set aside and not “take precedence over legitimate issues,” he said.

“If we excluded everybody who somebody didn’t like, or who rolled their eyes or slammed a door, we’d have a pretty thin

faculty.”

Rice, who met with Mosher and reviewed documents in her case at her request, said a sexual harassment claim Mosher made against a former colleague apparently had “tainted” her reviews, noting that one faculty member had said she voted against Mosher because she didn’t want to be called as a witness in a possible legal action.

That former colleague, no longer at the university, appeared to give undue weight to some criticisms of Mosher’s behavior toward students “in retaliation for his spurned romantic advances,” Askim-Lovseth, the former mentor, testified.

“I see her as a model junior faculty member,” she said. “By some, she probably could be perceived as an aggressive individual, and too aggressive for their personalities. But she has enthusiasm for her students … and I applaud her … for still doing her job” despite the personal and professional turmoil of the past two years.