In Memory of Our Colleague, Friend, and Family Member Mike Shively And in Protest of the Investigation that Cost Him His Life

Memorial Remarks by Scott Abbott

Mike Shively Memorial 19 August 2020

Remarks by Scott Abbott

My brother, John Abbott, died of AIDS-related causes in late July 1991. The day we drove to Boise to identify him as our brother and son and to clean out his apartment, I began to write what I called “fraternal meditations.” I needed to mourn. I wanted to remember. I hoped to become a better person through the meditations. That work of mourning was finally published as the book Immortal For Quite Some Time twenty-five years later. I’m grateful to have mourned, thankful to have the memories—and on June 3 of every one of the twenty-nine years since John’s death, I have woken on the morning of his birthday and sworn to be a better person—in his memory.

This memorial service in honor of Mike Shively brings us together to mourn and to remember and to commit to live better lives.

It also gives us the opportunity to draw lessons from the past for a better future.

I’ve been thinking about two kinds of responsibility in regard to Utah Valley University’s suspension of Mike and the resulting tragedy.

The first is legal. As the dismissed lawsuit by the Shively family proved, the university felt no legal responsibility for Mike’s death. The judge who dismissed the suit agreed that they had no such responsibility. Our friend and former colleague Alan Clarke, who saw many similar cases practicing law in Virginia and Michigan, reminded me recently how difficult it is to prove a death like Mike’s was a direct result of actions by our administrators. The problem in a legal setting is reasonable doubt.

Fifteen years ago I was a member of a jury in a district court case in which a man was accused by his wife and daughter of having abused the daughter when she was younger. It soon seemed clear that the man was guilty. But as we wrestled with our decision, jurors spoke of several reasonable doubts: the wife had brought suit against her husband only five years later and in the midst of an ugly divorce, for instance. When we announced our decision of “not guilty,” I lamented the fact that we couldn’t announce a decision of “not guilty because of a couple of reasonable doubts but let us say here that we are almost certain this man is guilty and should spend the next decade in prison.”

UVU is certainly guilty. But how to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt?

That brings me to a second kind of responsibility, this one moral.

UVU claims that one of its core values is “exceptional care.” That is a high and admirable standard.

Institutions like universities have the resources and power to take good care of the students and faculty who are the only reason for the university to exist. During my first year as a graduate student at Princeton University my family was involved in a horrible car accident on an icy road north of Denver, Colorado. My father was killed, my mother badly injured, and three of my siblings horribly traumatized. I flew immediately to Denver and spent the next two weeks with my family. When I returned, the Dean of the Graduate School asked me to come see her. She expressed her condolences and said she was concerned how I would recover financially from the expensive flights and motel stays. She was right to be concerned; I had less than no money. We’ll pay for all your costs, she said. I was dumbfounded. That is exceptional care.

UVU’s treatment of Mike Shively stands in stark contrast. He was forced to leave campus on the basis of complaints he had no way to counter. He was accused of “intimidation and threat to faculty and students,” of being a “risk to public harm,” and was suspended on that basis on March 25. The accuser was not interviewed by the investigators until May 2, when she admitted that she had misunderstood comments made by others and that there was no threat of violence. On that day, May 2, the suspension should have been lifted. Instead, the investigation continued. Not until fifteen weeks after the suspension was Mike given the names of the accusers and details of their accusations.

He responded and waited, increasingly troubled, while the investigation continued. What were they still investigating?

The investigators spent the months after May 2 deciding whether Mike Shively had called student performance “pathetic,” whether he used Canvas as a pedagogical tool, whether the rigor of his anatomy course was causing undue stress, and what a consultant thought of Mike’s textbook.

The investigators took their time with these trivialities and/or pedagogical affairs that are the purview of faculty rather than administrators. They took their time while Mike suffered exceptional distress, cut off from the teaching that gave his life meaning, and isolated from his colleagues and students.

This suspension and the resulting investigation were the antithesis of “exceptional care.”

Where, then, has the other core value of UVU, “exceptional accountability,” been demonstrated? UVU administrators should be held accountable for their actions. They are morally responsible for Mike Shively’s death.

What does it matter what they do now?

Consider the fact that several of us in the UVU Chapter of the AAUP, professors committed to academic freedom, due process, and shared governance, felt that our actions in planning and speaking at this memorial and protest might have consequences should UVU administrators learn of our actions.

Why did we feel this fear? Because of the treatment of our colleague Mike Shively and administrators’ subsequent refusal to take responsibility. We have good reason to expect that we will not receive due process in similar conflicts with the administration.

If the current administration wishes to make “exceptional care and exceptional accountability” more than empty slogans, it must:

(1) provide an acceptable settlement with the Shively family,

(2) publicly state that the suspension and subsequent investigation (like similar investigations over the last years of the Holland/Olsen administration) were flawed, and

(3) commit itself to accountability and to future interactions with faculty and staff that manifest exceptional care.

Mike Shively, we mourn your passing, we work to hold memories of you dear, we seek to be better persons, and we seek accountability for actions that lead to your death.