CODY — A recruitment letter sent by Northwest College President Paul Prestwich to students who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has sparked controversy on campus. It also has led many to speak out about conflicts that students and teachers are having with the school’s top administrator.
Earlier this month, Prestwich, an LDS church member, sent about 1,000 letters to LDS high school students touting the school’s benefits and “remarkable opportunities for LDS students.”
First reported a week ago in the Northwest Trail campus newspaper, the letter was sent to a list of students provided by Fred Hopkin, president of the LDS Cody Stake, and was accompanied by a separate letter from Hopkin.
“It’s causing quite a big deal on campus,” said Laci Kennedy, a freshman and member of the Student Senate.
“It has raised a lot of concerns about the separation of church and state. Choosing just one religion was a bad idea. State and college funds were used to target just this one religion, and it was done in the name of our college,” she said.
Prestwich said he was “a little surprised” by the reaction of some students and faculty members to the letter.
“It received more attention than I anticipated,” Prestwich said after a Thursday meeting with faculty and staff members meant to address the issue.
“We’re not going to do this same exact letter again in the future,” Prestwich said, although he was unclear on what form similar recruitment efforts might take.
Prestwich said the school works to recruit minority students, and that Hopkin had worked with a previous president on a similar letter that was never sent due to timing issues.
The idea for the LDS letter came from the campus admissions office, but Prestwich said he wrote the letter, putting a personal spin on it by highlighting his LDS faith and the campus and community activities and amenities available for LDS students.
Northwest College does a wide range of targeted marketing, and had planned to send similar letters to students of other faiths, he said.
But no other letters had yet been drafted, no other mailing lists were compiled and no NWC president had previously sent such a letter making a personal religious appeal, he said.
That personal approach was part of what rankled Kennedy and other critics who called it “exclusionary” of other faiths.
She said that school recruitment efforts should not focus on students’ religious background, and that personal religious appeals should not be made under the authority of the school president, on college letterhead and at public expense.
Kennedy said the letter was sent without consulting students, faculty or trustees, and was only the latest in what she called a string of issues where the administration has not sought input or listened to feedback on hot-button issues.
Students were ignored after voting against the planned establishment of a soccer program during a tight budget season, she said.
Bob Becker, a speech professor who attended Thursday’s meeting, said afterward that Prestwich “doesn’t seem to understand that this was ethically questionable at best, and, at worst, illegal.”
Prestwich said he was confident the letter violated no laws.
Becker said Prestwich failed to understand the “frustration felt by faculty, staff and students regarding his lack of response to issues raised.”
“This administration has gone after very senior, tenured faculty members. It’s fear-based management and intimidation,” said Woody Wooden, a professor of photography.
Wooden said a series of personnel decisions appear to follow a pattern of retaliation against faculty and staff members who opposed the administration, and that the LDS recruitment letter has brought the issue to a boil.
“There’s no shared governance,” Wooden said.
Prestwich said he was puzzled by those who spoke during Thursday’s meeting about a climate of fear on campus among those not aligned with administration interests.
“I don’t know exactly where that is coming from. No one had really talked to me about that,” he said.
He denied targeting or threatening with termination any faculty or staff members who criticize administration policies or initiatives, including the recruitment letter or creating a soccer program.
Ron Feemster, who teaches print journalism at NWC, said he was hired in 2008 on a tenure track, but his teaching job has not been renewed for next year. That decision was made by Prestwich, contrary to a recommendation by Feemster’s supervisor, he said.
The Northwest Trail has often covered conflict among students and the administration, he said.
“The student reporters who are learning to cover the college have found out that many people on the classified staff, the professional staff and on faculty are reluctant to talk about issues at the college because they fear retribution,” Feemster said.
Duane Fish, a NWC speech professor for more than three decades, said there was an important lesson for students following the debate on campus.
“I hope they learn they need to speak up, no matter what the consequences. They need to be able to speak their mind, within the bounds of the law,” he said.
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