Fired Without Known Cause

Why Did Alan Davis lose his job?

by Han Sayles, photos provided by Alan Davis

 View of Hindu Kush mountains from Alan Davis’s tent.

View of Hindu Kush mountains from Alan Davis’s tent.

Colorado College freshman Brendan Davis has the same anxieties as most of his peers: homework, maintaining a social life and meatless Mondays at Rastall. On top of everything else, he must also manage a less common worry—his dad spending the year working on a military base in a war zone in Afghanistan.

Alan Davis, Brendan’s father, never was a soldier, an air force pilot or a trauma doctor, but actually a network engineer at CC from 1991 until 2011. It wasn’t until late May of this year that Davis learned—in a single-paragraph letter—of his termination from the school.

Davis’s history with the College began long before his career as a network engineer. In 1986, Davis graduated from the College with a Bachelor’s degree in biology and work-study experience with the Academic Computing department. While working the next year as a paraprof, Davis met his wife, Susan Price, who was a math computer science major and also a CC graduate. CC Chaplain Kenneth Burton married the couple in Shove Chapel, in June of 1988. In 1991, after a short period of working technical support for various corporations, the school asked him back to fill an IT position (now referred to IM for Information Management).

Victor Nelson-Cisneros, Associate Dean of the College, recalled that once Davis was a full-time employee at CC, then-President Kathryn Mohrman asked him to implement the college’s first generation wireless network, which Davis designed to reach every room on campus. When this system could no longer meet the growing needs of the campus, Mohrman’s successor, Dick Celeste, asked Alan and the team of IM to create the second-generation wireless network—the system we now know as “tigernet2.” Davis facilitated and supervised the wireless connection of every dorm room and every classroom on campus, making our lives vastly more convenient and streamlining our education.

Meanwhile, Davis had four children, all of whom attended the CC Children’s Center. The Davis family decided early on that Davis would continue working at the school in order to get all of his children through college with the help of the tuition remission program. Because of his innovative work at CC, Davis was offered many other jobs during this time period from the Science Applications International Corporations (SAIC), where he could have doubled his paycheck. Still, Davis chose to stay at CC because the College and the community meant so much to him and his family.

 Davis relaxes at a table near his tent, protected by concrete walls and sandbags.

Davis relaxes at a table near his tent, protected by concrete walls and sandbags.

Having worked on campus for so long, a large portion of the staff knew and was close with Davis. Anne Hyde, professor of history, was a close friend of the Davis family for 20 years. Their children attended the CC Children’s Center and played soccer together. In a recent interview, Hyde described Davis as an “unbelievably cheerful and upbeat person.” 

According to Steve Janke, a CC professor of mathematics who had Davis as a student years ago, “Alan was always easy to work with and very competent. He is a very nice guy and always had the interests of CC at the top of his list.” Even a query from 2007 on the CC website stated: “Davis is our networking engineer, and also probably the nicest, kindest person I know.  He is dedicated to CC in the extreme, and often toils away for hours in the evenings, weekends, and early mornings to make sure our network is running as best it can.  His job is thankless, since people only notice the network when it has problems or is down (less than one percent of the time), but damnit he deserves our thanks and appreciation!”

Andrew Watson, a systems administrator in IM and a close colleague of the Davis family, affirmed these sentiments: “I have never worked with anyone before that had such a great attitude and outlook on every aspect of CC and life in general. With over 20 years of experience at CC, he brought a level of institutional knowledge to the job that is practically irreplaceable. He always had a positive attitude, and I know that rubbed off on the entire division. I never knew or heard of anyone that did not really like Davis.” Even his supervisor maintained a friendly relationship with him. 

Because Davis is under a non-disclosure agreement that he signed on his departure, we must rely on the information conveyed by his wife, Susan. She recalls the sequence of events: after the administration presented a letter to Davis the last day of May, relaying, without explanation, that his position was suddenly “no longer needed at the school,” he was given only 21 days to decide if he wished to accept a “deal,” and sign a non-disclosure agreement. Davis was not the only one who was let go—the Director of the Network team as well as the Administrator for all IM were terminated the same day. According to Susan, Davis did not sign the agreement, and after the 21 days had passed, he was called into Human Resources (HR). “Alan and I both thought they were going to offer him his job back,” Susan recalls, but instead, on June 27, HR presented him with a revised termination letter that accused him of “fomenting discord” amongst the IM group and against his supervisor. His boss, Terri Akse, had already been terminated, and since she signed a non-disclosure agreement, she could not legally deny or affirm this accusation. Akse still cannot discuss the issue, but according to Susan, Davis had never been informed of any negative marks on his record before he saw this document.

Susan said that HR told Davis he could either sign the non-disclosure agreement or CC would state that he was fired with cause, which would severely hurt his chances of re-employment in the future—terms to which then-President Dick Celeste had agreed. In May 2010, only a year prior, Celeste had given Davis a rave review, stating in his annual report, that Davis’s efforts were “essential to achieving our mission to offer the finest liberal arts education in the country, and to create a learning environment that will prepare our students for learning and leadership.” Just a few days before his termination, Davis had prepared and presented a going-away speech for Celeste at an IM reception. Celeste thanked him afterwards, and commented on what a great job he had done on the network upgrade. 

Susan claims that Davis was never given an opportunity to refute or deny the statements made about him in his revised termination letter. There was a possibility that these accusations would hurt his chances for future employment. On the last day of June, Davis officially resigned from Colorado College. His letter of resignation read, “I never thought I would ever be leaving such a great institution as Colorado College. I cannot say enough wonderful things about CC, and about all the people I’ve encountered in my 19 years of service with the institution.”

Since the terminations occurred during summer, much of the faculty was already away from campus. Eight members of the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) requested a meeting with Celeste, demanding that he explain the sudden terminations. According to the FEC chair, professor of philosophy Jonathan Lee, the FEC brought two major questions to the table. First, “What are the college’s policies and practices with respect to disciplinary actions taken against staff?” And second, “If the IM department were falling apart, might this compromise our ability to do our job?” While Lee held that all the FEC’s questions were answered, members of the committee left the meeting still unsure about what the policies were. Overall, Lee noted that, “The faculty was not convinced that practices, in this case, were consistent with the college’s policies.” He further elaborated that, “We [the faculty] believe the College has reasonable policies, but I don’t think we know exactly what they are.” To explain, Lee noted that this particular termination procedure is not detailed in the staff/faculty handbook. In fact, the handbook explains that “employment with The Colorado College is at-will,”—the College has “the same right” as its employees “to end their work relationship with the college, with or without advance notice for any reason.”

“That’s the situation we’re all in,” Lee said. Hyde noted that, “What CC did was legal, just not the standard operating practice.” Lee also acknowledged that, in the end, “It’s a question of moral obligation between the college and its employees.”

While Celeste did not divulge any information about the reasoning behind Davis’s termination at this FEC meeting, Watson, an IM employee, states that before the FEC meeting took place on June 3rd, Celeste made disparaging comments about Davis to the IT department, stating that “There were behavioral issues with Davis.” According to Susan, this accusation was unsubstantiated. If it was documented, Davis was never given notice of “behavioral issues” previous to his revised termination letter.

“I was shocked and a little angry,” Professor Janke said. “I continue to believe he was treated in a shabby manner,” Watson added, “I was, and still am, shocked. I have never been on such an emotional rollercoaster in all of my life. One day you are working with the best people you could ever hope to work with, then the next they are gone. It was devastating to me, and I am sure for other folks on campus as well.” 

So then why did Davis get fired? As you might be able to guess, this is where the details become blurred. The first official statement—that his “position was no longer needed”—did not make sense, since Davis often worked hours into the night and on weekend days. Watson, who has had to deal with the repercussions of these terminations in IM, articulated that the department was “busy before these layoffs happened, but now we are just trying to keep our heads above water. We are having to spend more time focusing on just keeping everything we have up and running, and less on new projects.” In addition to this, the IM department has hired a temporary contractor in order to keep up. “We are stretched thin all across the division.”

 Davis standing inside his tent, directly in front of his bunk.

Davis standing inside his tent, directly in front of his bunk.

Jill Teifenthaler, CC’s new president, reaffirmed that all of the with knowledge of the rational behind Davis’s termination is under legal obligation to remain silent. 

Tiefenthaler noted that the college tries to be as transparent as possible, but as Cisneros stated further, “the lack of information in this case is due to the private nature of personnel decisions.”

According to anonymous members of IM, before the terminations occurred a team of non-College personnel conducted an internal investigation of CC’s entire IM department. Despite the extensive inquiry, the results of this operation were never publicized, even to the members of the IM department who had been questioned at length. Chris Melcher, the school’s former legal counsel who observed the investigation, did not respond to calls for comment on these issues. 

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regulations for the United States, when a group of two or more employees is laid off, the employer is required to list the title and ages of all employees being terminated in order to determine if age played a factor in the process. In addition, the employer must give the terminated employees written notice of their layoff, and at least 45 days to consider the waiver before signing it. In this case, all three of the CC employees affected were over the age of 40, and given only 21 days to consider the deal. Susan investigated laws surrounding validity of termination waivers and, based on what she found, felt that CC was not in full compliance with the required protocol for older workers affected by a group termination. In the end, both Alan and Susan felt that their long-term relationship with CC was more important than some possible mistakes in the paperwork. It did, however, feel like the process was rushed for some agenda yet unknown.

Either way, Alan Davis was abruptly left unemployed with a family of six to support. Forced to begin searching for work immediately, Davis was contacted by ITT Systems on July 2 regarding a Federal contract position in Afghanistan. He interviewed for the position and was accepted immediately. After obtaining “secret clearance,” becoming familiar with the certification for security and qualifying as a Cisco Certified Network Administrator, he accepted the position.

Davis left home with a heavy heart, and the even heavier additional weight of $3,400 worth of Kevlar body armor. He was instructed that he had to wear this during life-threatening attacks on the base that was now his workplace According to Davis, on the eve of September 11, two days after he arrived in Afghanistan, the Taliban attacked the base three times. After mortars landed inside the base, alarms went off telling everyone to put on their bulletproof armor and take cover. “That was the point it felt real that I was in a war zone,” Davis said. The morning after, rockets launched over their tents, killing two men belonging to the Afghan security force.

Due to the nature of his work, Davis is unable to relay specific details, though he did state that with his commute time he works 14-hour days, five days a week. His job is a broad maintenance of Internet connections, since the country operates on a fiber optic network recently built by the coalition forces. Davis sleeps in a giant tent with a hundred other people, and has no place to set his belongings. Holes in the tent make it freezing at night and the close quarters, add to the unpleasant living conditions. “This makes Loomis look like a palace,” Davis said affectionately.

Still, Davis remains positive. “My day is wonderfully filled with hearing different languages,” he said. “The best part is that everyone here has a story, if you take the time to listen.” He has tried to understand the United States’ occupation in Afghanistan, and says his opinions of have changed drastically since seeing the Taliban in action. Overall, however, Davis “spends his days trying to find the beauty in the people and the place.” Davis has created his own “intellectual adventure,” even in the most horrible of circumstances. According to Davis, he will be returning to Colorado Springs in the fall of 2012, perhaps even looking for work once again at CC. Recently, when asked if there would be a “bias” against Davis should he choose to reapply, President Teifenthaler responded, “Absolutely not. He is welcome to reapply.”

The faculty and administration trust us as students to uphold the Honor Code every day. In our academic lives, we are asked not just to follow the rules of the college, but to understand and mold them to fit the spirit of the school. Davis was treated inconsistently with the standard policies and practices of the college, and there is a strong consensus that he, along with his 30 years of institutional experience, is missed. The question must be asked—why doesn’t CC “walk the walk,” and ask Davis to take his job back when he returns? 

June Sasshan saylesComment