University faculty letter calls for investigation into Bobo-Jones firing

Faculty Association will request an independent arbitrator

Iván Beck and Emma Trone

More than 80 members of the University of Chicago faculty and staff are calling into question a decision by Laboratory Schools administration to terminate a science teacher on the second day of winter quarter, and are requesting an investigation into the firing and how its aftermath affected the high school.

A letter that expresses “an erosion of confidence in the leadership” of the Laboratory Schools was presented to University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, Provost Daniel Diermeier and Executive Vice President David Fithian at a meeting of the Council of the University Senate on Jan. 29.

The Council of the University Senate is composed of elected academic representatives and has jurisdiction over matters which substantially affect the general interest of the university, including the Laboratory Schools. Dr. Fithian is the liaison between the university and the Laboratory Schools.

The letter was circulated among faculty and staff of the university, as well as some parents of the Lab community, prior to its presentation. It was signed by 84 professors and other members of the university professional staff.

Daniel Bobo-Jones was terminated Jan. 8.

The petition states that the Lab Schools administration has not yet presented the University’s academic community with a satisfactory reason for “its decision to impose this most extreme form of sanction on Mr. Bobo-Jones.” It also recognized that Lab Schools Director Charlie Abelmann acknowledged in a parent meeting Jan. 22 that “safety concerns played absolutely no role in the administration’s decision to terminate Mr. Bobo-Jones.”

The letter states that these actions and others in the weeks after Mr. Bobo-Jones’ termination have “exacerbated the sense of confusion, betrayal, and alarm occasioned by the original action.”  

On Jan. 26, nearly three weeks after Mr. Bobo-Jones was terminated, Dr. Abelmann sent an email to the Lab Community explaining that Mr. Bobo-Jones had not treated student work with integrity and that the decision for his termination would not be overturned.

Sharon Housinger, a U-High science teacher who is vice president of the Laboratory Schools Faculty Association, wrote in an email to the Midway that the FA will request that the union’s contract grievance be settled by an outside arbitrator.

The university faculty letter concludes by asking the University to begin an investigation in the termination of Mr. Bobo-Jones and the way the administration handled its aftermath. This, they explain, will be “part of a substantive assessment of the leadership’s commitment to the ideals of the schools.” Without this assessment, the letter states, the confidence and trust the Lab community has in the administration will “continue to erode.” 

Christine Mehring, a parent of a U-High ninth grade student, was one of three university faculty members who initially organized the letter. Dr. Mehring, a professor and chair of the art history department who serves on the Council of the University Senate, said that the termination and its aftermath is having detrimental effects on stress and Lab’s foundation of excellence.

“The Lab Schools distinguish themselves from so many other excellent schools in the country by being part of one of the greatest research and teaching universities in the world,” Dr. Mehring said in an interview with the Midway. “Especially given that relationship, communication last fall around the troubling results of the health and wellness survey, and now around the sudden termination of a high school teacher, leaving all details aside, could and should have followed the standards of excellence of our University, by being coherent, and respectful of the profound impact it would have on Lab’s students, their parents, and their teachers.”

In a Midway interview with Dr. Abelmann via phone Jan. 29 prior to the letter being submitted to the Council of the University Senate, he asked for respect for the process that led to the termination of Mr. Bobo-Jones as a teacher.

“I hope people can respect the outcomes of the investigation and the due process that’s allowed to Mr. Jones for the case to be able to be heard an by independent arbitrator. I also hope that good-intentioned people can agree to disagree and have productive, respectful conversations,” Dr. Abelmann said when asked about recent criticism of Lab administration’s handling of this situation.

The letter submitted to the Council of the University Senate, as well as Dr. Abelmann’s email, are attached.

Jacob Posner contributed additional reporting.