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Cochise College teacher fired amid community protest

Photo: Video by kgun9.com

Cochise College teacher fired amid community protest

CREATED Apr. 3, 2012

Reporter:  Claire Doan
Web producer:  Forrest Carr

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) – If you attend college or work at one, it’s a cinch that there’s at least one teacher you don’t like. Maybe she gave you a bad grade. Or maybe she’s a colleague or a subordinate who stepped on your toes.
 
How would you like to get even?
 
Good news.  It can be done, thanks to Arizona law and the hiring practices at some colleges.  In fact, at one college in particular, getting a teacher canned is not that difficult.
 
Institutions of higher education are supposed to promote openness, free inquiry and the quest for truth. But according to 48-year-old ceramics instructor Clara Lanyi, that doesn’t apply to Cochise College.
 
“When you have a situation where someone is being let go from their job and no one really knows why, it creates an atmosphere of fear and no one wants to stick their neck out in that kind of environment,” Lanyi told KGUN9 News.
 
Lanyi’s abrupt dismissal was a shock not just to her, but also to her students.
 
“I’m really stupefied by what’s going on with her. I believe Clara’s exactly the kind of teacher we would want in our community,” said Jennifer Vasconcellos, one of Lanyi’s former students.
 
“I was shocked. This is one of the best classes I’ve ever had. She’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. I don’t know why they would even consider firing someone like her,” said Rachel Slawson, another student of Lanyi’s.
 
What got this popular instructor sacked? Lanyi provided a stack of documents to 9 On Your Side, which include two student complaints that accuse her of being a poor teacher, along with three dozen student evaluations that praise her.
 
There is also a student petition that appears to be slamming Lanyi, but that appearance may be deceiving. Cochise College provided a summary of Provost Verlyn Fick’s later investigation of the petition. According to his February 15 memo, out of seven signatures Fick found that one was illegible; four belonged to students who never took Lanyi’s class; and two belonged to students who said they thought the petition was for something else.
 
KGUN9 News tracked down Leo Cox, one of the students.  He confirmed that the petition he was asked to sign was not, at the time he signed it, directed at Lanyi.  “It was just an informal piece of paper that people were signing to get clay and extra stuff in the classroom,” Cox said.
 
So -- two complaints and what may be a fraudulent petition.  Is that all it took to get Lanyi fired?

KGUN9 News dug deeper, and found an email that Lanyi wrote the Liberal Arts administrative assistant about getting some classroom materials.
 
That email drew a rebuke from Dean Chuck Hoyack: “Actually the job of administering to the art department falls to the dean of liberal arts … me … I don’t mean to be rude, but your initial communication should perhaps have been directed toward me.”
 
Lanyi apologized profusely for that misstep, twice, and in writing both times. But then in October, Lanyi ruffled more feathers. In an email to administrator Chris Overlock that Lanyi also copied to Hoyack and others, Lanyi describes a surprise budget cut as “pretty much a disaster for my program.”
 
Lanyi said she did not get a reply.
 
On January 11, Hoyack sent a letter to Provost Fick, recommending non-renewal for Lanyi. Fick agreed.  About a week later, Hoyack delivered the bad news to Lanyi in person.
   
“I was completely blindsided. I had no idea that anything like that was coming. I never had a negative performance evaluation. And then he told me there were several students who complained and I had more bad in my file than good,” Lanyi recalled.
 
More bad than good? Emails sent a few days later tell a different story. Lanyi gave KGUN9 News a copy of an exchange between Hoyack and Fine Arts Chair Tanya Biami.
 
Biami wrote: “Hi Chuck. Just curious. Do you have access to Clara’s evals?”
 
Hoyack responded: “Yes I do but they are not terribly damning.”
 
He went on to note that Lanyi was beginning to squawk about her non-renewal and said, “I need to put together as much documentation as possible.”
 
However, if Hoyack did put together any such documentation, it’s not in the 63-page human resources file that the college provided to KGUN9 News in response to a public records request. The file contains no evaluations, no records of classroom observations, no disciplinary action, and no hint of any kind that Lanyi was not doing her job.

When word got out that Lanyi was about to be canned, more than two dozen students wrote letters of protest. Then on March 13, the night of the board meeting, a dozen spoke in her defense.  According to Lanyi and other sources, those speeches elicited no response from the board whatsoever.  The board voted unanimously to fire her.

Under Arizona law, because Lanyi was still in a two-year probationary period, the board did not have to give an explanation, and it didn’t.

“I feel a little scared to teach after this experience. I will have a black mark on my record and frankly I’m a little old to go on the job market,” Lanyi said.
 
She now wonders how a college that should promote free thinking and free speech can be silent on firing her.
 
At Fick's request, Dean of Students James "Bo" Hall took a second look at the questionable petition in February. According to his redacted report, the student behind it claimed she didn’t know some of those signing were not Lanyi’s students, denied the petition was misleading and claimed it wasn’t the only petition in circulation at the time.
 
In his summary Hall noted that he did not speak with the other petition signers because Fick had already done so.  If he took any other steps to check out the claims of the student who circulated the petition, his report doesn’t say so.  But he concluded that he found no evidence of wrongdoing.
 
As for Hoyack, his January 11 recommendation of non-renewal cited student complaints, informal complaints from colleagues and classroom observations by Hoyack and Biami. The files KGUN9 News obtained contained no complaints from colleagues, two from students, overwhelmingly positive student evaluations, and no classroom reports from Biami or Hoyack.
 
Lanyi insists Hoyack never set foot in her class.

She is now serving out the remainder of her contract. Her last day at work will be in early May.

Supporting documenation for this story is available in the "related documents" section on the left side of the page, beneath the photos.

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