ATHENS — Instead of making the holidays merry and bright, one piece of the Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce’s annual Christmas Parade reportedly struck a sour chord and allegedly left a Concord University professor without a job mid-semester.
Many CU students struggled with news that tenured arts professor and the chair of arts department Jack Sheffler was terminated suddenly Feb. 6 and escorted off of The Campus Beautiful, with a limited amount of time to remove his belongings from his office.
In the aftermath of the firing, confused whispers grew into online protests, and students and staffers alike guessed at reasons behind the professor’s mid-semester termination. As anger grew, social media postings addressed the school administration’s unusual decision, and various reports circulated as time passed in Sheffler’s absence.
While CU administration couldn’t comment on Sheffler’s termination due to the confidentiality laws inherent in any personnel matter, reports — both official and unofficial — indicated that Sheffler was fired over a controversy involving Concord and the parade float he built for Princeton Community Hospital (PCH) for the PMCCC Christmas parade.
The Princeton Times gained access to a copy of the termination letter presented from CU to Sheffler after a disciplinary hearing on Feb. 6. Among other reasons stated in the termination letter, signed by CU Vice President of Human Resources, Policy and Planning Dan Fitzpatrick, the college administration alleged Sheffler committed a number of flagrant violations against the University, including “theft of or malicious damage to University property,” “gross insubordination, including willful and flagrant disregard of a legitimate orders,” “demonstrated incompetence or dishonesty in the performance of professional duties, including but not limited to academic misconduct,” and “insubordination by the refusal to abide by legitimate reasonable directions of administration.”
Sheffler denies the accusations and is now in the process of pursuing legal grievances.
Two years ago, PCH, which formerly rented a professional float for the organization’s participation in the local parade from Maryland, decided to help the local community by assigning building of their Christmas float to local artists and schools, said PCH Marketing Director Richard “Rick” Hypes.
For the 2016 PMCCC Christmas Parade, PCH contracted the project to Gary Bowling’s House of Art. In 2017, the organization offered Concord the opportunity, when Gary Bowling declined the job, since his business had moved from Princeton to Bluefield, according to Bowling.
Sheffler’s termination letter stated that Concord President Dr. Kendra Boggess had an oral contract with PCH to construct a float for the annual Christmas Parade in Princeton.
According to the letter, Sheffler was assigned in September the task by the provost. Sheffler said he understood that it was a favor, rather than an assignment, and he agreed to it because he was told it was important to the president.
The school couldn’t assign him an out-of-job project at all, Sheffler believed – and he didn’t think his contract included any task such as float building for a business off-campus.
After meeting with PCH’s Hypes and settling on the theme for the float – emojis — Sheffler received a check carrying his name for the amount of $4,250.
Hypes said that he believed Sheffler was working on behalf of CU, but he didn’t seek to confirm it.
Sheffler said he was asked only, “How do you want the check made? I said ‘Jack Sheffler.”
The float was finished on time for the Nov. 27 event.
On Dec. 1, the letter said, PCH contacted Boggess to report “dissatisfaction with the float.” At the same time, Concord learned that PCH had made a check payable to Sheffler.
“PCH advised President Boggess of their intent to have the balance of money over expenses to be donated to Concord University,” the letter said. Sheffler “cashed the check, but did not provide the remaining to the University.”
On several occasions, Concord requested Sheffler to provide the receipts for the money spent on the float. He couldn’t produce them because he wasn’t told in advance to keep them, Sheffler said.
Eventually, the school requested Sheffler to write a check to the President’s Office for $3,000 to return it to PCH, so PCH could donate the money to CU.
From Sheffler’s perspective, he said writing a check to the school became a matter of principle. He said he wasn’t instructed to keep the receipts, and he didn’t believe the school had the authority to assign him to complete the project.
“It would all go away for this lousy $3,000,” said Sheffler.
According to Sheffler, the float was “very expensive,” and he had to buy materials to build it, in addition to the time he spent on it and paying people he needed to help him build it.
“I asked them, ‘What about my time?’” said Sheffler. “They said I volunteered it…after the fact.”
Sheffler said he never heard from PCH directly about their dissatisfaction with the float. He pointed out that the hospital even asked to keep some of the emojis for possible future use.
Sheffler reported later that he was still taxed on the money he received from the hospital as his income. He recently received a 1099 form in his name for the income received for building the float.
Chris Clark, who was one of the artists working on the float for PCH in 2016, with Gary Bowling’s House of Art, said the hospital didn’t request money back left from building the float the previous year, even though there were just a few hundred dollars left after the materials used for the float were paid for.
Clark said he did send PCH the receipts for everything his artists bought, but not because he was asked to; it was the way to show that the work on the float was in progress.
Hypes couldn’t recall seeing the receipts from Clark, but said he received sketches and photos of the progress. Sheffler didn’t show him any.
Concord’s termination letter stated that Sheffler’s conduct was considered “insubordination in addition to fraudulently obtaining and misappropriating University funds.”
On March 2, Workforce West Virginia Unemployment Committee ruled that Sheffler deserves his unemployment compensation paid to him.
According to West Virginia Unemployment Compensation Law, benefits can be denied only when there is misconduct in connection with the discharge.
“The burden of proof of misconduct rests with the employer. This employer has failed to present evidence that the claimant committed an act of misconduct. No disqualification can be imposed,” the decision letter says.
A grievance hearing at the West Virginia Public Employees Grievance Board, which might have the power to put Sheffler back in his classroom and get his job back, according to the frustrated professor, is not scheduled yet, but they are looking at June.
As a result of Sheffler’s termination, he still must vacate the school’s housing he has lived in for more than a decade. Although he hopes he will ultimately gain a reprieve and be allowed to stay where he is personally and professionally, Sheffler said he has spent much time talking to his lawyer and packing “just in case.”
Sheffler joked that his three old dogs and lack of employment makes him “every landlord’s dream.”
CU banned Sheffler from campus except for his once-a-week yoga class he enrolled and paid for as a student. He cannot visit the library or fitness center usually available to community members or attend concerts or plays on penalty of being arrested for trespassing. Sheffler believes this rule violates his rights as a student.
Meanwhile, CU students and alumni have continued emailing the President’s Office their concerns over Sheffler’s termination.
“Jack is an inspiration to future teachers. Be like Jack. Encouraging, devoted, caring and fun,” wrote Anona Moench, CU alumnus, on a Facebook group with more than 240 members supporting Sheffler.
In response to their emails, students and alumni got somewhat of a standardized email from President Boggess, thanking them for choosing Concord.
“I agree with you on teaching talent in our art department and we are quite disappointed that the situation was not resolved earlier,” wrote Boggess.
“I would like you to also know that not appreciating the value of faculty is something I don’t believe is possible…as a teaching faculty member for more than 25 years, I know what they do, what they give, and how much they care.”
Story from the Princeton Times