Tensions Mount Over 'Vandal Alert,' Forced Leave of University of Idaho Professor 

"No one from the upper administration has expressed any amount of remorse, apologized in any degree, or even held themselves accountable for their questionable actions."

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When the University of Idaho began a new semester in mid-January, Denise Bennett was known on campus simply as a tenured journalism and mass media professor. But by Jan. 25, when university officials placed Bennett on administrative leave, she was the talk of the campus. Less than a week later, university officials insisted via a campus-wide text alert that Bennett might be a threat to public safety. In a matter of hours, Bennett was the subject of nationwide media attention.

A Jan. 30 "Vandal Alert"—the campus' highest level of emergency notification, traditionally reserved for immediate threats—read, "Denise Bennett has been barred from Moscow Campus. Recent admittance to police of meth use and access to firearms. If seen on campus, call 911."

Students who had organized a demonstration to protest Bennett's dismissal that same day said the Vandal Alert, sent just 70 minutes before the protest, was more than a simple coincidence—it was a deliberate attempt to quash free speech.

Sabrina Rice, who works at a coffee shop in the administrative building where the protest was scheduled, said, "They were really upset [the protest] was canceled because of the Vandal Alert. One of the students told me Denise would never do anything to hurt her students."

What triggered such a dire alert? University officials later said it was Bennett's "concerning behavior," pointing to a Moscow Police Department's investigation into an alleged domestic dispute back in November 2018. But what the university didn't include in its alert was that there were no charges filed regarding alleged drug use, access to firearms or anything else following the November incident. In fact, Moscow Police Captain Tyson Berrett told The Chronicle of Higher Education that Bennett "is not under criminal investigation by the department."

Bennett herself pushed back against the Vandal Alert, texting supporters that the university's assertions on Jan. 30 were "lies" and "defamation." According to Bennett, it was more likely that she was placed on administrative leave because of a Jan. 22 email that she sent to "every administrator I could think of" regarding what she said was U of I's mishandling of grant funds.

Right from the outset, the email didn't pull any punches, beginning, "To whom it may concern in this NEVER ENDING F***** UP BUREAUCRACY known as the University of Idaho." Bennett's email pointed to what she said was unspent grant money and underfunding of U of I's Radio-TV Center. The next day, citing what they said was Bennett's "unprofessional conduct," U of I administrators placed her on administrative leave. For the record, Bennett, who has worked at the university since 2006, is still officially a faculty member and continues to receive pay and benefits.

But that's not nearly enough for a growing number of students who want her back in the classroom.

"Our new 'brand' here at the University of Idaho says we are leaders—that we are not dismissive. It says that we help people be the best that we can be. Our current administration doesn't seem to employ these values when they defend their actions with no regard for dissenting voices," Ryan Benson, administrator of the Students for Denise Facebook page, told Boise Weekly. "No one from the upper administration has expressed any amount of remorse, apologized in any degree, or even held themselves accountable for their questionable actions."

click to enlarge COURTESY RYAN BENSON
  • Courtesy Ryan Benson

Meanwhile, on-campus demonstrations continue, and fliers reading "Reinstate Denise" have surfaced across campus. When campus officials tear down the fliers from the doors and walls, students return hours later to replace them. Some fliers have even appeared in downtown Moscow.

"We are far from done in expressing our disappointment in the administration's lack of transparency, accountability and communication," said Benson. "We will continue to press administrators and speak out until this situation, which was escalated by the administration of the University of Idaho, is addressed, explained, and a significant resolution is made."

On Feb. 11, a full week and a half after the Vandal Alert regarding Bennett, a group of university officials met with students and doubled down on their Jan. 30 campus-wide alert.

"[It] wouldn't have been issued if there wasn't concern about something happening," Provost and Executive Vice President John Wiencek told the students.

Quite coincidentally, that same day, U of I officials warned of a very different type of threat to safety: a winter storm that would trigger the cancellation of classes and activities. But that particular message was sent as a "Vandal Notice," something officials said was "used to convey non-urgent information."

George Prentice contributed reporting from Boise.

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