Standing before a crowd of people and facing public humiliation, Staff Sergeant Tovar was being interrogated. Hardly able to get a word in edgewise, she had no choice but to deal with a highly personal barrage of questioning.
Tovar wasn’t standing in a basic training formation. She was in a UAA business class, Principles of Marketing.
Despite eight years in the Army Reserves, nothing could have prepared her for this.
What started out as a courtesy email to resolve a scheduling conflict between school attendance and mandatory duty quickly dissolved into what some have described as a public face-off.
The contenders? In one corner, the assistant professor of Business and Public Policy, Na Xiao, openly enforcing her classroom policy. In the other corner, military student Nichole Tovar, struggling to receive what she believed to be her student rights.
As a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves, Tovar has always juggled her course work with military requirements. Cramming for tests and dealing with large amounts of make-up work are the norm for her. Appearing consistently on the Dean’s List and always maintaining high grades, she has handled the pressure.
But this semester things suddenly went south. When comparing her business class schedule to her drill schedule, Tovar noticed the day of her final overlapped with one of her mandatory drill days. Tovar sent out a courtesy email to her professor, explaining the conflict and asking if it was possible to reschedule the exam.
Tovar was not prepared for the reply she got back from the professor.
“as i mentioned in the very first class, there will be no make-up exams. if you are absent from this, your final grade will probably be fail, which I do not want to give. pls try to change your army duty. that’s the only solution. thanks,” read the email.
“Her response was a shocker to me,” Tovar said. “I explained to her, I’ll probably go to the Dean or somebody higher about this, because this doesn’t seem right at all. It’s not a matter of rescheduling my duty; I have to be there. If I don’t show up for it, I can be punished by the military.”
Tovar’s options were either to withdraw from the class or take it during another term. She was also told that talking with the Dean would change nothing.
In response, Tovar approached the Assistant Dean of Business and Public Policy, Claudia Clark along with a group of other students who had complaints about Xiao.
“I put my problem out there to her,” said Tovar, “and she said, ‘Oh, well that’s definitely something we can work on.’ They must have approached [Xiao] about it, because next thing I know, things started getting worse.”
According to Tovar, Xiao began singling her out in class, repeatedly questioning her on assignments and projects. When giving a group presentation for the class, Tovar said she was the only one of her group to be critiqued, multiple times, on the project.
“It was very blatant,” Tovar said. “It almost felt spiteful, as if she was trying to show me who was running the show. I was pretty alarmed.”
Things escalated in a matter of days. Along with another military student, Tovar was called to the front of the class and forced to endure a public questioning from Xiao, who began explaining the entire situation to the rest of the class. Xiao pulled up the entire set of personal emails between Xiao and Tovar on the overhead screen and began reading them aloud.
Unless given permission by the student, publicizing a student’s email is a violation of Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) rights, among others. Tovar had not given such consent.
“I couldn’t believe she would cross such a line. The whole class was blown away. I was simply shocked,” Tovar said.
Xiao also asked Tovar if English was her first language, suggesting Tovar hadn’t understood the options the professor laid out for her. Tovar said her reserved personality was the sole reason she didn’t retort at that point.
After the event, several of Tovar’s classmates sent her emails, expressing their sympathies and giving their full support toward seeking reprimanding action against Xiao.
“It is difficult to begin putting my frustrations with (Xiao), her lack of professionalism and her conduct with students in writing,” one classmate said in an email.
“I would love to participate in any actions necessary to reprimand her and provide some sort of justification for the section 1 and 2 students,” added another student.
After video surfaced showing Xiao questioning Tovar in class, the students once again approached the Assistant Dean.
UAA’s response was swift; Xiao was stripped of her teaching post and ended up resigning. The class switched to an online course, with students required to finish the remaining assignments and exams before the end of the semester.
Beyond this particular incident, military students are also worried about UAA’s military policy in general.
The University of Alaska Anchorage has no protection for military students who are called away on duty, or any other military service. There are excused absence rights for students involved with athletics or student government, but nothing military related. In addition, there are no military advisors on campus; the post is reportedly vacant.
“I searched through the UAA handbook, believing I would find some policy showing I had the right to leave and reschedule my final,” said Tovar. “I saw athletics, student government—but there was absolutely nothing that would help me out of my predicament.”
This isn’t the first time such lack of leave rights has impacted a UAA military student. A poignant example can be found in one ex-UAA student, who wished to remain anonymous for this article. According to the former UAA student, she received four failing grades after all four of her professors refused to work with her when she was called away for basic training the week of her finals. She eventually dropped out of UAA, and has no desire to return.
“The way I was treated, it felt like they regarded me as nothing,” she said. “I was an inconvenience. An annoyance.”
Claudia Clark, Assistant Dean of Business and Public Policy, provided insight on behalf of the College of Business and Public Policy.
“UAA is fully committed to assisting military students in any way possible, including working with them concerning their military duties. As for this specific issue, we are not allowed to discuss such personal matters,” Clark said.
Pam Cravez spoke for Chancellor Tom Case.
“We strongly encourage faculty to be flexible and respect the military and other commitments of our students,” Cravez said.
As Chairman of the Alaska Veterans Foundation, Inc., a Board Director of Alaska Veterans Business Alliance and a father of a UAA veteran student, Ric Davidge offered firm opinions on the subject.
“The University system-wide needs to make a more purposeful effort to welcome, support, and encourage our veterans and active service members as students,” said “They have earned it through service and sacrifice,” Davidge said.
See KTUU’s follow-up story Here