KHSU employee allegation dismissed as university girds for discrimination claim

CAB continues to meet despite lack of official support; visioning process delayed; CSU station audit due soon

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT STATE – Internal Humboldt State University correspondence submitted anonymously to the Mad River Union seem to indicate that one residual dispute at the campus radio station has been resolved – officially, anyway – while another one may be about to take on new life.

In short, the letters, both from David J. Montoya, associate vice president for Human Resources, dismiss allegations of a hostile work environment, but prepare the university for possible legal action by the employee who'd been accused of creating them.

The letters were confirmed as authentic by Frank Whitlach, associate vice president for Marketing & Communications.

KHSU 90.5 FM was ravaged by controversy and internal warfare last year following appointment of General Manager Peter Fretwell, who abruptly fired the station's popular Operations Manager Katie Whiteside in May, 2018 for reasons never publicly determined. What ensued was something of a rebellion by many station volunteers and openly critical comments by station staff.

Allegations dismissed

While volunteers and community members offered withering criticism of Fretwell and the university administration at meeting of the station's Community Advisory Board (CAB), in social media and newspaper letters to the editor, KHSU employees described intolerable working conditions at the station.

KHSU General Manager Peter Fretwell

Complaints aired at CAB meetings by some station employees included poor communication, unfair treatment and even concerns about their personal safety at the station. But other station employees say they haven't experienced any poor or otherwise inappropriate treatment.

Station personnel say they were interviewed extensively over the matter by outside investigators working for CSU.

A letter to more than a dozen station personnel and administrators from Montoya, dated Feb. 1, 2019 (see below), doesn't mention Fretwell, but does appear to officially clear him of making life hard on those under his supervision.

"This letter serves as notification that Humboldt State University has received the Final Investigation Report regarding hostile work environment at KHSU radio station," states Montoya's letter. "The investigation found that the preponderance of the evidence does not support the allegation of a hostile work environment."

The letter adds that the university takes such allegations seriously and thanks those who cooperated with the probe.

Whitlach said the final report isn't available to the public.

Fretwell pursuing discrimination claim

A second, much longer letter from Montoya, also dated Feb. 1 and sent to the same individuals plus some others, anticipates legal action and calls for employees to preserve all communications generated between May 16 and Dec. 17 of 2018. (Whiteside was fired on May 15, 2018.)

States the letter, "The California State University has reason to believe that legal action may result from the claim of Mr. Peter Fretwell that discrimination based on age and religion has occurred at the university," states the letter.

While recipients aren't necessarily implicated, Montoya cautions, the university has "a legal duty to preserve all the evidence, whether printed or electronic, that might become relevant in this matter." It further specifies that emails, letters, photos, voicemails, calendars, "and/or any other documentation" stored on computers and phones, even those used at the employees' homes could be relevant and should be preserved.

Failure to do so, states the letter, could have "very serious consequences for the University" and result in disciplinary action.

The letter states that a team of university officials has been assembled "to manage this situation." Team members include Montoya, University General Counsel Alison Kleaver and Information Technology Services Security Officer Joshua Callahan, who is specifically tasked with preserving records.

It's not immediately clear where or when the alleged discrimination against Fretwell occurred. Present and former employees suggest that the allegation started with a June 12 posting on the Spark News blog. The posting states that Fretwell "worked for a series of evangelical Christian and conservative talk stations." It further states that he cultivated conservative content for one of his employers, and went on to gain degree from "a small evangelical school" and worked for a religious radio station.

While the Spark News posting appears to be a straightforward recitation of Fretwell's work history, one not written on or associated with the Humboldt State campus, it fueled a critical narrative about the station manager. Fretwell, as well as various HSU administrators, were subsequently accused in multiple fora of being out-of-touch outsiders not attuned to local culture and incapable of properly addressing station and listener needs.

At the July CAB meeting, HSU Vice president of Advancement Craig Wruck objected to criticism for Fretwell over his presumed religious orientation and his clothing, but didn't specify where that had occurred.

“In my world, it is absolutely unacceptable to for someone to persecute someone else for their religious or political beliefs,” Wruck told the CAB and station supporters in attendance. But Wruck's objection was dismissed by CAB Boardmember Jana Kirk-Levine, who appeared to endorse the personal criticism.

“That is an example of this community that you live in,” Kirk-Levine told Wruck at the meeting. “That’s what happens here. This shows again how you do not understand this community that you live in.” She acknowledged that such criticism was commonplace.

Whitlach declined to specify in what venue the comments that form the basis of Fretwell's complaint were aired. "HSU does not comment about possible or pending litigation," he said.

Station employees contacted by the Union said Fretwell hasn't introduced any religious beliefs he may hold into discussions of station business.

CAB carries on

The CAB, which ignored Wruck's invitation to participate in the station visioning process, subsequently lost the support of the university administration. HSU no longer provides a room for the CAB to meet, nor does the station publicize the group's meeting agendas. The KHSU website still includes a generic description of the CAB, but it appears somewhat stale, with an inaccurate meeting location.

"HSU's cabinet is disappointed that the board chose not to assist in gathering input for the mission and visioning effort," Whitlach said. "The university sees no value in the board meeting until we have the program advisory review report from the CSU system." That review was requested by Rossbacher last July.

Whitlach said the CSU review is "imminent," and expected within weeks. He said that the visioning process, which was expected to be consummated in December of last year, was on hold pending receipt of the review since its findings could have bearing on the matter.

In September, Rossbacher advised the CAB not to meet until it clarified whether or not a statement of "no confidence" in Fretwellby community members that it forwarded to the administration reflected the CAB's collective opinion.

The CAB has continued to meet, however, even without official support. Newly named Chair Jana Kirk-Levine said CAB meetings will take place the last Wednesday of every month at 6:30 p.m. in Karshner Lounge in the University Center.

Kirk-Levine said last week's meeting didn't achieve a quorum, with just five members attending and about seven community members present. She said she's had no response from the administration.

Priorities for the CAB including holding an all-staff meeting to review the station's successes and accomplishments for the past year, and discuss the coming year.

Kirk-Levine said it's important for the CAB to continue to convene so that community members have an independent means of commenting on station issues.

The station's website lists official contacts by which the public may communicate with the station, including the Listener Comment line at (707) 826-6089 and a comment submission form.






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