Staying firm: Bowers' backers won't give up

More than two weeks after her abrupt termination as a UVA Human Resources employee, Dena Bowers' struggle is known to most of Charlottesville.

A classified staff member at the University, Bowers was fired after 17 years of reportedly stellar work because of an October 11 email she sent to a colleague. Bowers attached an NAACP report about the detrimental effects that charter "restructuring" would have on UVA. The email, including Bowers' automatic HR signature, was forwarded by one recipient to other classified employees.

One of those employees, mistaking the email for official UVA business, forwarded it to 275 more classified staff members in the College of Arts and Sciences. That prompted University administration and Bowers' supervisors to open an investigation– nearly a month after the original mailing.

After a spate of meetings, foggy demands, and general confusion, Bowers was sent home on November 17 on paid leave. Five days later, the University fired her.

Local media reports have included sound bites from supporting faculty, union members, and students. In a letter to the editor of the Daily Progress December 5, Carol Wood, assistant vice president for university relations, pointed out "omissions" in news reports and claimed the newspaper was presenting only "half-truths" by alleging Bowers' termination was the result of a personal email.

"In the case in question," Wood wrote, "the personnel action was taken in response to the employee's conduct, not her views."

But Jan Cornell, president of the staff union at UVA, isn't satisfied with Wood's response.

"What they've done now is move away from the email thing and into her being insubordinate," says Cornell. "So which is it? They keep changing their mind."

As UVA administrators are forced to discuss personnel matters once kept from the press, the staff union is answering with an increasingly audible voice. A "rally for the freedom of speech at the University of Virginia" took place Friday, December 2, in front of Madison Hall, where many top UVA administrators' offices are located.

Over 75 professors, staffers, students, and community supporters stood in a cold wind to hear more than 10 speakers– including Bowers' husband, Kirk, daughter Nicole, and Cornell– chanting "SU-UVA!" Many held "Leonard McCarthy" signs and posters demanding "Reinstate Dena!" Speakers with megaphones rallied protesters to shout over the street noise and wind gusts.

"It is here and now that we need to raise our voices, and we must say to those who persecute us, 'We will not be still!'" yelled Kirk Bowers. Such rallying cries met with applause and cheers. English professor Susan Fraiman handed out informational flyers including a November 29 Cavalier Daily article by Zack Fields questioning the University's "anti-labor purge" and asking students to support classified staff.

In addition to a letter-writing campaign, Bowers' supporters are filing a grievance against the University. Like any other termination grievance, the case will automatically be heard by state officials in Richmond.

For many people, the question isn't about legislative process, but about why Bowers didn't remove her electronic signature from the email. Bowers– who on her lawyer's advice is no longer talking to the press– reportedly declined the opportunity to remove her signature. Amid supporters' claims that she's been a target for years, and administration assertions that the firing wasn't about the email, it's doubtful if the decision to remove her signature would have mattered. The case will become less vague as grievances are filed and Bowers herself speaks out.

Richard Verlander, the regional staff representative for the larger union, Communication Workers of America, who advises Cornell, asked: "Do you really think that if Dena had sent out a recipe for a cake, we'd be standing here today?"

With winter break looming and administrators voicing their commitment to freedom of speech on Grounds, l'affaire Bowers may fade. But Cornell isn't deterred.

"We're just going to keep the pressure on. We know it can't stay a hot story forever."

Over 75 professors, staffers, students, and community supporters stood in a cold wind to protest Bower's firing.
Photo by Billy Hunt?