Memorial for Mike Shively Sponsored by the UVU Chapter of the AAUP: Remarks by Scott Abbott and Jim Harris

In Memory of Our Colleague, Friend, and Family Member Mike Shively

And in Protest of the Investigation that Cost Him His Life


 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.


Mike Shively Memorial 19 August 2020

Remarks by Jim Harris

Mike Shively was a canoeist of the highest order. In Canada, where I attended graduate school, canoeing is perhaps second only to ice hockey as the national sport. The great Canadian canoeing guru, Bill Mason, once wrote, “the canoe is the most beautiful and functional object that humanity has ever created. In my opinion, this is not a statement that is open to debate. It’s a fact! It follows that if the canoe is the most beautiful work of human beings, then the art of paddling one must rank right up there along with painting, poetry, music, and ballet.”

I agree with Mason. And if paddling a canoe is an art, Mike was a virtuoso; he seems to have been born to canoe. Mike could move a canoe across the water like no one I’ve ever seen. In a canoe, he became some kind of mythical creature, a chimera, like a Centaur. Except that instead of being half man and half horse, Mike would become half man and half canoe. The canoe I usually saw Mike paddle was a 19-foot needle just wide enough for his hips to fit between the gunwales. Just staying upright in that skinny canoe took great skill. The second Mike would begin to paddle that dart of a canoe, the boat would become a part of him and responded to his paddle with grace, speed, and elegance. Much of what I know about paddling a canoe comes from watching Mike paddle.

If you think I am exaggerating Mike’s abilities in a canoe, let me quickly dispel that thought. The Texas Water Safari bills itself as “The World’s Toughest Canoe Race,” and I have no doubt that it is. It’s an annual race of 260 miles on the rivers of Texas, non-stop, for three days....in the middle of June! If the Texas Water Safari is the World’s Toughest Canoe Race, then surely those who compete in the race are the World’s Toughest Canoeists – if not the toughest people on the planet. But Mike didn’t simply participate in these races, as one might, say, in a 5K Fun Run; he dominated them – he was there to win. Mike completed 28 of these 260-mile races, paddling in them more than 7,280 miles. Mike finished first in his class in 20 of those 28 races.

My favorite photograph of Mike is one of him taken as a younger man at the end of a Texas Water Safari race. He is standing with a look of utter triumph on his face, his paddle thrust high into the air, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal a torso of chiseled muscle. If Mike had been holding a spear aloft in that photo rather than a canoe paddle, you might have wondered if you were looking at an image of Achilles at the moment he defeated Hector at the gates of Troy. In the current vernacular, the man was absolutely ripped!

But Mike was interested in canoeing not solely as a means of exercise and competition. It was also a medium to explore the natural world and to embed himself within it. Mike had an intense curiosity about everything around him, a trait that in my mind distinguishes interesting people from boring people. In the great children’s classic, “The Wind in the Willows,” one of the characters, Mole, says, “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” This line immediately makes me think of Mike. I probably paddled Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River with Mike about 20 times, including class and personal trips. He would often paddle ahead of the group, checking out the riverbanks and eddies for signs of deer, beaver, and other wildlife, and he often raised interesting questions about the history and geology of the canyon.

I am going to diverge for a moment or two now and speak directly to those of you who are UVU faculty and staff members, and I intend to speak frankly. I retired from UVU a few weeks ago and I now have the freedom to speak my mind. We are here tonight on the anniversary of Mike Shively’s tragic death due to a malicious investigation by the UVU administration into allegations of policy violations on Mike’s part. This immoral and incredibly cruel investigative process is the ultimate cause of Mike’s death. There is no other way to put it. Ironically, the administration’s investigation of Mike was itself a violation both of UVU policy and of academic freedom. Were it not for the disgusting investigation Mike was put through, there is no doubt he would be alive and well today and preparing for his courses.

But Mike’s death is only the most obvious and tragic outcome of an investigative process run amuck at UVU. Mike is simply the visible tip of a very large iceberg. I am aware of several other UVU faculty members who have been put through similar investigations, all of which follow the same general pattern. Out of the blue, faculty members are accosted by the UVU Office of Legal Counsel and interrogated. The accused are not allowed counsel, they are not informed of the specifics of the allegations against them or who made them, and they are threatened with their jobs if they reveal the very existence of the investigation to colleagues. This effectively isolates the accused for weeks or months of intense stress, taking a terrible toll on their emotional, mental, and physical health.

Even faculty who are eventually exonerated pay an awful price. Some have left UVU for other positions, some have been forced to take stress-related leave from the university, and others suffer long-term psychological damage wondering if and when this might happen to them again. In essence, UVU faculty members are being punished and are suffering great personal and professional harm before the allegations against them have even been adjudicated. These despicable investigations can only continue under the cover of secrecy, so let’s end that secrecy right now. If all UVU faculty members were fully aware of what is occurring, there would be open revolt in the hallways, or at least I would hope so. And if you are thinking that this couldn’t happen to you because you have done nothing wrong, please be aware that this is exactly what almost every investigated faculty member thought....right up to the point when people from the Office of Legal Counsel came knocking at their office door. What happened to Mike and to many other faculty members at UVU can happen to you too – to any of you. It is time to fight this abuse of the faculty.

Two Faculty Senate actions in the coming academic year could have a profound impact on this and other issues on campus. The first is Faculty Senate work on revisions to the policy on disciplinary actions. Some of the proposed changes, if adopted, will provide more just and humane guidelines for investigations of faculty. However, policies are only protective if they are followed and in Mike’s case, at least, they were not. What recourse then does the faculty have when the administration violates institutional policy? Currently, none. That’s where the second action by the Senate comes in.

A Senate Subcommittee is drafting a policy that would provide a mechanism for faculty members to anonymously evaluate administrators at UVU. It is my hope that this will be a process with teeth, one in which faculty evaluations of administrators are made available to the next-level supervisor and weighed as a primary indicator of job performance. After all, if students are considered capable of evaluating faculty teaching, surely faculty are capable of evaluating the work of administrators. Please let the tragedy of Mike’s death be an inspiration to all of us to work together for positive change at UVU; this must not be allowed to happen again.

Mike Shively was a brilliant and vibrant man who left us too soon. In the spring of 2019, at the time Mike was removed from the classroom and banned from campus without legitimate cause, he was healthy and strong both mentally and physically. He had even begun training for another Texas Water Safari race in June. His shocking loss is a terrible one for his wife and family, for the colleagues who knew him, for the students of UVU, and for UVU itself, whether it realizes that or not.

As well as a world-class canoeist and a superb teacher, Mike was also a talented musician. In Labyrinth Canyon is a pair of deep alcoves, hundreds of feet high, carved by erosion into the sandstone cliffs along the river. These paired alcoves are the most perfect natural echo chambers I’ve ever encountered. One of the highlights of a Labyrinth Canyon trip with Mike, for me, was having him pull out his trumpet and from the shoreline across from the alcoves, play “Summertime,” the Gershwin song most of us know best from Janis Joplin’s incredible rendition in the 60s. He played with finesse and emotion and beauty, his notes reverberating from the alcoves and surrounding cliffs, filling the canyon with music. Mike’s playing always added a completely new dimension to the trip, one so beautiful it caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end.

Mike was my friend for 27 years and I miss him very much. In two weeks, I will be in Labyrinth Canyon again with friends. As always, many stories about Mike will be shared between us. We will surely speak of Mike as we pass the great alcoves where he played his trumpet, alcoves which from this time forward, I will always refer to as Mike’s Alcoves. 

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