Bowers Firing Reverberates

The story of UVa’s firing of Dena Bowers continues, with UVa saying Bowers wasn’t fired for what she said, but how she said it, dozens of people holding a rally for Bowers on Friday, and the Associated Press picking up on the story today. The document that she sent from her UVa account was an NAACP document reviewing some effects of the charter plan, but it was not labeled as being a non-university correspondence. When the e-mail was widely circulated by a recipient, some of the additional recipients apparently thought that the document reflected the views of the university.

The trouble with Bowers’ firing is that, in the minds of some charter critics, it confirms (rightly or wrongly) their fear that legitimate concerns about the landmark change in university autonomy were being swept under the rug or squelched. Worse still, some university staff have worried that their employment will be more tenuous than ever under the charter plan, with Bowers’ dismissal for a seemingly-minor violation being seen as a sign that that might just be so.

24 Responses to “Bowers Firing Reverberates”


  • I was once told that if your going taut the bulldog don’t so him your hindquarters.

    If they can get away with this firing there will be quite a chilling effect to be sure. Even if she can sue to get here job back it will have an effect.

  • Sorry, thought I fixed that.
    If your going to taut the bulldog don’t show him your hindquarters.

  • How about “taunt”? ;-)

    I was thinking more along the lines of, “don’t bite the hand that feeds”. I do think UVa raises a legitimate issue WRT the “official nature” of the communication.

    It’s one thing for those of us who are employed in other functions to be making broad political/public statements, critical of our employer, about something like the HR aspects of the transition; it’s a different thing for an official from within HR. The burden is on her to distinguish “hats” – which hat was she wearing at the time?

    I think there is a fair bit of jurisprudence to back up the notion that her employer can reasonably expect her public statements, when acting in her capacity as that employer’s representative, to follow official policy.

    I guess the facts are out still, but Ms. Bowers has only herself to blame if she blurred the lines. I expect UVa’s case to be quite solid – I would be very surprised if they took this step without reviewing the “evidence” with counsel at length. If they didn’t review it carefully, then it will raise quite a stink. My impression of these matters has generally been that UVa offers and respects quite a bit of latitude in these matters. We’ll see the evidence soon enough.

    I do not believe we will be seeing any “chilling effects” from this. I know there has been an open and frank discussion of this change in my department, electronically and otherwise.

  • Bowers didn’t disseminate the e-mail. She sent it to one friend, who knew she was sending it as a friend. Unfortunately this recipient forwarded it to another friend, who forwarded it to everyone. UVa then jumped down the second friend’s throat, threatening him with who knows what if he didn’t explain it wasn’t official correspondence. Then UVa went after Bowers who, according to them, didn’t jump high enough. Personally I can’t blame her if she dragged her feet. UVa is almost as imperious as the Bush administration when it comes to dissent, and I wouldn’t want to cave to them either.

  • Like all uva faculty staff and students, Bowers agreed to an acceptable computer use policy that forbids doing what she did. Sure, there was a chance they wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care, but there was a chance she would be punished too. Either her politics are more important to her than her job so she did it knowingly, or she was just being ignorant. Either way, it was her choice to take the chance. Does anyone really think that an employer should sit by while its employee uses the email system you gave her to get her work done to instead spread negative infomation about her employer? I can’t think of any instance where that would be acceptable. Hack wants to glorify Bowers for dragging her feet and fighting the man, but if the man you hate is your employer, how can they thrust you to work in their best interest at your daily tasks, and why would you continue to accept their pay and benefits? It sounds to me like Bowers was fired justifiably.

  • Moral: be very careful about what emails you send out, whether to one person or to many, using your official email and with your e-signature on it. It was risky of Bowers to send personal emails on a .virginia.edu address and with her official HR signature attached–UVa technically owns that email address, it’s not like it’s hers to do with as she pleases. (That’s why I have a 2nd, non-UVA email for my personal email.) I

    it may be true that Bowers sent her email only to one person, who then multi-forwarded it, but she should have known that the email could possibly have then been forwarded out to multitudes. I read in one of the stories that the friend asked, before multi-forwarding, “do you want me to take your sig off?” and that Bowers said no, leave it on. That seems to me to mitigate her innocence of the multi-forwarding offense–if she had only said “oh, yeah, that’s not official HR communication, so take it off before you forward it.”

  • I have reviewed the documents in this case. Dena sent an email that was clearly personal in nature to a colleague who asked to see an NAACP report on the possible effects of charter. The attached report was clearly labeled on the first page: “Prepared by the Charlottesville/Albemarle NAACP.” Dena’s email was one sentence long, contained two grammatical errors, and there was a quote from Margaret Mead beneath her electronic signature. The email bore no resemblance whatsoever to an official university communication, and anyone who is familiar with official university communications would agree. Moreover, the person to whom the email was addressed understood that the email was personal in nature and that the report was an unofficial document.

    The person to whom Dena sent the email forwarded it to several individuals without Dena’s permission. One of those individuals forwarded it to another individual, who then forwarded it to 275 classified employees.

    The university has already said that Dena did not abuse her email account: there is nothing wrong with sending a personal email to a colleague using the university’s email system. The university claims instead that Dena endeavored to misrepresent her email as an official university communication. The only problem with this argument is that a review of the evidence demonstrates that she did nothing to misprepresent her email. As I’ve noted above, everything about the email and the attached report conveyed that these were personal and unofficial in nature. The fact that her electronic signature was attached to the “incriminating” email does not change that, since it takes more than an electronic signature to make an email “official.”

    The sad fact is that the university has fired Dena based on trumped-up charges. They did this for three reasons: to rid itself of an outspoken critic among the classified staff; to send a message that it will brook no dissent as the management agreement is being pushed through the General Assembly; and to slow the rise of the Staff Union, which under Jan Cornell has become an effective advocate for UVa employee rights (Dena has been one of the union’s most active members). Based on my conversations with classified staff, the firing of Dena Bowers has already had the intended intimidating effect.

    UVa is a state agency and, more important, a major research university. Freedom of speech is the essence of the institution. The firing of Dena Bowers strikes at the core of this institution’s values and its employees’ rights.

  • From more closely reading the news of this mole-hill turned political stunt I found:

    Bowers was given an opportunity to clarify that the e-mail was not sent in her official capacity at UVa, but she “expressly declined” to do so.

    UVa then fired her based on her “uncooperative, disrespectful and insubordinate” conduct.

    If these two facts are true (both come from official UVa statements), then she had every chance to not get fired over her misuse of her university email account (and it was a misuse according to university policy). Instead, Bowers chose to put her politics above her career and refuse her employer’s request to clean up the mess she had made either willfully or absent-mindedly. Apparently this is what got her into the real trouble, not her email, but her subsequent insubordination. I don’t think anyone would argue that an employer (state institution or otherwise) doesn’t have a right to fire an insubordinant worker.

    This case is really far from the anti-proletariat strike so many are now portraying it as. It seems a lot of people have just been waiting for an excuse to politically savage UVa for whatever interest of their own.

  • urbanitas is just dead wrong when he claims, repeatedly, that Bowers misused her university email account. If urbanitas had closely followed this story from the beginning, he would notice that uva has changed its tune: initially, they accused her of abusing her email account, but when they realized that would not fly — because she did NOT abuse her university email account — they added the trumped-up charge of “inubordination.” If a person has done nothing wrong, why should they agree to “renounce” what they did? This is the crux of the matter. Apparently, urbanitas believes that the uva administration can do no wrong and that employees of the university should jump when their superiors say jump even if doing so amounts to a renunciation of their personal opinions and values. Bowers did not create a”mess.” She sent a personal email that others forwarded and that someone, somewhere, somehow may have misinterpreted. If that is grounds for firing, then the university would have few employees left.

    urbanitas should stop relying on uva’s press releases and study the (feeble) evidence in the case instead. To accuse Bowers’ defenders of merely looking “for an excuse to politically savage UVA” is to dismiss the serious issues involved in this case. Freedom of speech may not matter to urbanitas, but it matters deeply to the university community.

  • Missing from this conversation is the concept that a good employee is one who gives an honest opinion rather than a CYA response blithely agreeing with an employer’s dictates.

  • Also missing from this conversation is any thoughtful discussion about whether the punishment meted out to Ms. Bowers was in any way proportionate to the offense she is alleged to have committed. Let’s grant for a moment (which I do not) that she did violate UVa’s e-mail policy, and/or was insufficiently contrite when confronted by her superiors with this “violation.” Especially in the context of her long track record of exemplary service as a University employee (as reflected in 10+ years of positive employee evaluations), doesn’t it seem like a more appropriate punishment would have been a written reprimand in her employee record, or (at worst) a brief suspension? UVa’s decision to take the drastic step of terminating this long-time employee for such a relatively minor infraction is what is feeding the suspicion that Ms. Bowers was treated differently because of (1) her history of speaking out for workers’ rights and/or (2) the specific subject matter of the e-mail in question.

    UVa would do well by its public reputation by agreeing to review the proportionality of the punishment accorded Ms. Bowers and, one hopes, ultimately re-instating her to her position.

  • Well put, Dave. If what UVa says happened is true — she sent out this e-mail and then refused to correct it — then I have little sympathy for her position, and can’t see that this kerfuffle is emblematic of anything. But, yeah, firing a 17-year UVa employee for something like this seems totally out of scale. Presumably, UVa could have sent out their own correcting e-mail, she could have been sent on a few weeks of unpaid leave, she could have been reprimanded, and she could have been denied future promotions, raises, etc., given her lack of cooperativeness.

    But firing? Based on what we know, it just seems like too much.

  • Good points, Dave and Waldo. I wanted to add that UVa DID send out an official email (from Yoke San Reynolds) repudiating Bowers’ forwarded email and the statistics contained in the (clearly labelled) NAACP report. There was nothing for Bowers to do once San Reynolds’ email went out to all classified employees. The charge of insubordination was merely a pretext for firing Bowers, since the charge of having inappropriately used her email account was unsupported by the evidence.

  • I’m arriving during the middle of the movie on this one. So I’ve only got one question.

    Can anyone provide links to online material with regards to the “Charter Reform” issue?

    What’s the difference between how things are done now, and how they’d be done under a “Charter Reform” situation?

    I’ve heard the term bandied about in the news and media, but they’ve never bothered to elaborate on the changes or issues. Equally it could be I’m not looking in the right places for the info, so any assistance would be appreciated.

  • The firing of Dena Bowers can be reduced to a question of selectivity: If the administration selectively enforced an ambiguous email policy, then they are probably acting out of retribution for Dena’s past activism or to preclude future criticism of administration attempts to undermine worker well-being.
    We should ask ourselves: Would Dena have been fired for sending out an email in precisely the same format if it had praised “charter”?

    There is also the empirical measure, and perhaps some fellow bloggers with UVa accounts can be of some assistance in this regard: Do many employees send out personal emails, perhaps with automtic signatures on them? Can anybody name a single person who has ever been fired for sending out email, much less a single email to a single colleague?

  • Uncle Johnny wrote:

    Can anybody name a single person who has ever been fired for sending out email, much less a single email to a single colleague?

    I’m assuming you mean at UVA? It’s a fair question. And other than Ms. Bowers, I cannot answer it for the UVA work environment.

    However, I worked at a company where 3 people were fired (One executive and 2 assistant’s) for forwarding an email outside of the company. It happens all the time, that’s why there’s the I.T. department with all the snoop software.

    Rule number 1, don’t send personal email at work or from work accounts.

  • So, cville_skeptic – you seem to have first hand access to all the evidence, but here’s a question: I’m classified, and I got nothing from Yoke San Reynolds about this; what’s the “real” story? I don’t think you know any more than the rest of us.

    I believe Urbanitas is right about the policy – that is very directly relevant to my professional capacity at UVa. I’m also familiar with the balancing act of proportionality that Dave is suggesting, particularly with regard to questions of use policy, in my professional capacity. You are flat out wrong about that – it’s not that she didn’t technically violate the policy at all – she did.

    I know that I was involved in a struggle against UVa a few years ago on a very specific issue, completely unrelated to my professional (and friendly) relationship with them as an employer, and very deliberately established a non-UVa infrastructure for those of us working against them (on this one issue) to use instead of our UVa work accounts – just to keep everything clean and by the book. All of us who were involved in that effort and also had a UVa affiliation were careful to change hats at every step. This is just common sense.

    My total guess – I have no personal knowlege of this case, nor am I in any way even indirectly involved – is that UVa backed away from that justification because of the uproar it would create – and the difficulty they would face trying to make it stick – most likely because of unequal enforcement. I know, again in my professional capacity, that there is no way UVa can (at this time) effectively police all electronic communications. It’s bascially handled on a complaint/reaction basis. The chilling effect on and rebellion from faculty who would immediately cite the need for academic freedom in their communications would raise a lot of very difficult questions. It’s exactly like the pornography question. I think they prefer to let that sleeping dog lie. What Bowers did is nonetheless a techinical violation of the policy – and from what’s been publicly revealed, including your version, it doesn’t seem Bowers can claim that these communications were even tangentially related to her job duties (as a member of the faculty might while viewing pornography).

    I’ll wait until the facts come out – everything else is pure speculation. If Bowers has anything close to a case here, it’ll go to court and we’ll get to learn all about it as the facts come out. I resubmit: I suspect that UVa would not have taken this action rashly – no matter how angry they were – without getting some assurances from legal counsel that they were on very solid footing. You don’t go after a high-profile target, my goodness: an HR critic from inside HR, without covering your bases.

    Bowers, meantime, is an idiot – whether or not her firing ultimately sticks. I don’t care a whit whether she “only sent it to one friend” or not – it takes all of 60 seconds to set up a private email account off the UVa system (say, hmmm, gmail?). If she’s been so involved in the union effort, she, of all people, should be aware of what are potentially fireable offenses and of handing her adversaries one of them to use against her. Of course, she could have decided she wants to test the strength or enforceabiltiy of the use policies, and that’s fine: then she’s taken a calculated gamble.

    To TrvlnMn and Uncle Johnny – I believe people have elected to leave UVa quietly due to various use policy violations although, again, I have no personal direct knowlege of such a person. You are absolutely right about rule #1 – do not mix your work accounts with your private ones – if for no other reason than for guarantees of privacy.

  • A follow-on to Uncle Johnny – in my experiece, UVa email accounts are used broadly by everyone for almost every type of communication on a regular basis. I think that’s likely why they backed away from that as cause. It would very likely be a case of extremely selective enforcement. Even attempting to enforce this would cause them no end of headaches. It remains, however, a technical violation of the use policy as written now. If Bowers’ objective (on advice of counsel) is to challenge this policy, then I’d bet she’d win. If her refusal to admit such a violation is the basis of the insubordination charge, as cville_skeptic suggests, then maybe that gets tossed out too. I’m not a lawyer, I wouldn’t know.

    TrvlnMn – the difficulty here at UVa (and anyplace large) is the volume/scale of the mail system – like taking a sip from a firehose. Even limiting pornographic spam is a challenge. So, what to do when someone who never views porn ever gets a spam mail containing porn and it opens up automatically on their computer, and someone walking by reports it? These are very tricky issues to be “fair” about. A small company could conceivably monitor this, but more likely they learned of the forwarded email by some other means, and then tracked the logs to see where it had originated.

    A general disclaimer: the information I provided above about the mail system is all publicly available via ITC’s website – what filtering they do and how it works – although some background knowlege may be required to understand the implications of what’s been posted. If someone had not forwarded the original to someone in the administration (either in the originial 275 or one of those people), in my opinion, it would never have come to anyone’s attention.

  • cville_libertarian: you would not have received San Reynolds’ email unless you are classified staff in the College of Arts and Sciences.

    Also, cville_libertarian: Can you identify the exact policy that you believe was violated? A lawyer from the Law School has gone looking for a policy that Bowers violated and can find nothing definitive on UVa’s web site. At this point, UVa is not claiming that Bowers violated email policy, so I don’t understand why you keep claiming she did.

    The issue to my mind is: Did Bower endeavor to misrepresent her personal email as an official university communication? The answer is: no, she did not,.

  • cville_skeptic:

    No, I’m not in CLAS – I was responding to your blanket statement as written. It didn’t have that caveat.

    From the online Appropriate Use Guideline:

    http://www.virginia.edu/registrar/records/ugradrec/chapter5/chapter5-2.htm#equipment

    “The intended use of all accounts, typically for university research, instruction and administrative purposes, must be respected.”

    Personal emails are not research, instruction or administrative.

    That’s why I said that. The intended purpose of the equipment is for any empoyee or student to carry forward their work at the University. There is a specific (explicit) prohibition against commercial uses, mainly because private parties complain bitterly, frequently and loudly about “free advertising”, and they’ve got a point. It’s my impression that this is where most of the practical enforcement effort has been made; people have complained to their delegate, and the complaint has come back to UVa by way of Richmond. In my limited experience, these, harrassment and pornography complaints have been the chief focus.

    I am not an employee of ITC though and I don’t purport to give the definitive answer on this – they may handle all sorts of things quietly.

    I said very clearly, this would be an almost impossible “cause” for them to enforce – it is so obviously selective – a subpoena for a sample of messages (if you could get it) would quickly reveal that a very high percentage are personal in nature. If she wants to challenge this policy, she’d either win, or we’d have a significant change in the system (or perhaps both).

    But, I don’t think that’s the issue – I think you’ve got the issue exactly backwards – she had to endeavor to avoid the appearance of conflict. First, she creates, perhaps unintentionally (so just negligence, not malfeasance), the impression, by virtue of her name and job, that this is from an official channel/outlet of the university. The @virginia.edu is like letterhead. I think the obligation is on her to make that distinction clear – that she was not speaking for her employer, but as a member of the NAACP and Employee Union – she was obviously aware of this or she wouldn’t have asked the original recipient not to forward the email, or to at least remove her “sig line” from it. She could just have easily sent it from “@suuva.org” or “@naacp.org” – either would have made it very clear which hat she had on. I believe the onus is on her to be careful to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest – a labor lawyer can answer that.

    What happens to the University’s liability under the following scenario:
    – Bowers, in her capacity as a recruiter (according to the papers) sells an applicant on the new system as a positive attribute, a system under which they will have wonderful benefits and get ahead.
    – the applicant is hired but discovers that the new system is terrible for them, and they’re trapped with no real opportunity for advancement.
    – then the hire then comes across the negative report out on the web, with her UVa address on it, and gets angry.

    Is that person entitled to bring action against the University for a kind of false advertising (your own HR person knew this was lousy!)?

    Secondly, clearly she’s using UVa’s resources for potentially adversarial pursposes – whether or not that email went to a friend or not. Does the memo/report contain information not otherwise available to the public (ie, that would require her position for access)? I don’t hear that she’s going for whistleblower protection here. It seems to me that this is more akin to using the office copier to run off pamphlets calling for a strike against the boss. You can run off all the pamphlets you like, but you can’t use your employer’s copier and paper to do it (that these are ‘just electrons’ is meaningless – there is plenty of expensive hardware holding those electrons).

    Is the law professor in question a labor lawyer? I am not a lawyer, so I don’t know what the requirements to show cause are in VA are, but with respect to the legal issues with IT that I am aware of, she was leaving herself vulnerable – the account, systems and data do not belong to the individual (that’s pretty clear) – they belong to the employer. Using the account for a purpose deemed to be actively counter to the employer’s interest, especially where there is a potential conflict of interest, is skating on really thin ice. This wasn’t an email responding to a relative’s questions about Thanksgiving dinner plans – which you seem to be equating it to – the nature of the email itself changes this, a lot.

    Like I said, you seem to have seen the evidence and I haven’t, but based on what you and others have said, I’m betting she loses. Deborah Wyatt is a great attorney though, and we’ll get to hear how this plays out.

  • On the Policy, a bit more from the DEPARTMENT OF HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT
    POLICIES AND PROCEDURES MANUAL
    Page 1 of 5
    POLICY NO.: 1.75
    EFFT. DATE: 08/01/01
    USE OF INTERNET AND
    ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATION SYSTEMS
    (a really long title, no? What we get with a governor from telecom):

    The distribution of electronic communications is difficult to
    control and routing mistakes can easily occur. Copies of
    electronic communications can be forwarded without the
    sender’s knowledge or permission to unintended recipients.
    Therefore, electronic communications should be drafted and sent
    with at least the same level of care, professional judgment and
    discretion as paper memoranda or documents.

    See my point? Who has the burden of resolving ambiguity here? Now, as an IT person, I am somewhat aware of this; a Lecturer in the English Dept. in the College might not be – a professional from Human Resources should be (I mean, look at the title).

  • I guess if Dena had sent out a cake receipe under her electronic signature would she have been fired? Doubtful. What I want to know is why the OTHER two people involved who ALSO sent this email out under THEIR electronic signatures weren’t fired also? BECAUSE DENA WAS TARGETED AND THEY WANTED TO GET RID OF HER. They were furious that this very damaging NAACP report got out to the public. And that is the bottom line. And if I had been hassled the way Dena had been you’re damn straight I would have been far more “insubordinate” than Dena ever was. But in the end it will all play out in a courtroom. All of UVA’s dirty laundry will come out then. It will be fascinating I’m sure.

  • I guess if Dena had sent out a cake receipe under her electronic signature would she have been fired? Doubtful.

    That’s a really good point. It shows that UVa’s approach to this likely wasn’t content-neutral.

  • It’s called “selective enforcement”. And I am quite sure this was done to Dena. It doesn’t really matter if should she or shouldn’t she have sent the email it’s the fact that the U decided they couldn’t tolerate her criticism of their precious charter bill. There’s only about 15,000 other faculty and staff that use their UVA emails and their electronic signatures all day long for personal stuff. And of course the NAACP report had NAACP written all over the front page so the dummy that sent it out to 275 people couldn’t have NOT known it was NOT an official document from UVA. Guess he was trying to save his own butt from being fired so he made that part up.

Comments are currently closed.

Sideblog