Webster University Thailand professor Donald Johnson claims the university terminated his contract after he spoke to the press about the death of a colleague. James Hughes, a fellow Thailand professor, died last year.
Johnson, a psychology professor, spoke to the Bangkok Post for an article about Hughes’ death published Nov. 27, 2016. In the article, Johnson stated the university had pressured him to sign a non-disclosure agreement preventing him from distributing photos taken during Hughes’ autopsy.
“I am 100 percent certain [my termination is] retaliation for the interview that I gave,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, shortly after Hughes’ death, Johnson’s wife obtained the autopsy photos from a friend who worked in the morgue where the autopsy was conducted. Johnson said it looked to him like the photos showed extensive injuries and indicated to him that Hughes’ death had been a homicide, an angle allegedly not pursued by the Thai police.
“When I looked at him, I said, ‘oh Jesus. This isn’t what I expected at all,’” Johnson said.
Webster said in a statement they received complaints from employees about the photos of Hughes being shared.
“The complaintants said the behavior was disturbing and was not related to the curriculum being taught by the specific employee. Additionally, it was revealed that the photos may have been obtained illegally,” the statement said. “The university investigated, as it was disrupting the safe learning environment on the Thailand campus. Only one employee was identified as showing the photos. A meeting was held and the employee was asked to sign a document to indicate an understanding of the concerns. The document was purely an internal matter, was focused solely on the employee’s behavior and was intended to make the employee understand that the behavior in question was disturbing colleagues.”
Johnson said he shared the photos privately with only a few colleagues.
Johnson was reluctant to sign the document, but eventually agreed, something he said he now regrets.
“I never conceded that I had done anything wrong,” Johnson said.
In the same Webster statement, interim director of the Thailand campus Keith Welsh said he felt the decision was the correct one.
“We understand that some have concerns about the police investigation, and that is their right, but to openly share photos that may have been illegally taken from a morgue and then show them to multiple colleagues, who then complained about the photos to administration is enough to warrant steps be taken to stop the unusual behavior,” Welsh said. “At the same time we were dealing with this abhorrent behavior, Webster University Thailand also was in close contact with Professor Hughes’ family and did everything it could to fulfill all the requirements of Thai law and treat Professor Hughes with dignity and respect.”
According to Johnson, the meeting at which he was let go was attended by Welsh, as well as the campus’ Academic Affairs director, the head of the College of Arts and Sciences, Kenneth Houston, and a Human Resources representative.
Johnson was called into a meeting with Houston, who informed Johnson that his contract would be terminated and he would not be teaching at Webster during the spring semester. He will receive around $15,000 in compensation for the classes he would have taught during that semester and severance pay.
Johnson said he was not told why he was being let go, but believed it was because of the interview he had given to the Bangkok Times and that the termination decision was made as soon as the article was published.
The university declined to comment on when or why Johnson was let go, as it is a confidential personnel matter.
Johnson also said he found the timing of his termination suspicious. “They did it deliberately during finals week, to have the least amount of fuss and publicity,” Johnson alleges. “I think they made the decision right away.”
Webster Thailand psychology student Apolina Saikia said she also suspected the decision was deliberately announced during finals.
“Each of the students who had psychology as their major was shocked and deeply impacted, especially the senior students who will graduate this year,” Saikia said. “I remember one of my friends telling me about how she felt so bad to the point that she didn’t know how to face him during the class knowing what was going on.”
Johnson initially suspected his contract would be terminated in the weeks leading up to final exams, when staff members were notified about performance evaluations which would take place in their classes. No one showed up to observe Johnson’s teaching.
Norris Smith, a former administrator at Webster Thailand who was involved in hiring both Hughes and Johnson, said he was also let go without explanation. Smith said he had several disagreements with other administrators about staffing and budget decisions before his contract was terminated.
“It says in the contract that either party can determine to terminate for any reason, and you don’t need a reason,” Smith said.
In his time at Webster Thailand, Smith said, it was the norm for faculty and staff to expect they would lose their jobs if they spoke to the press about the administration. He thinks Johnson did the right thing by distributing the autopsy photos.
“If it hadn’t been for those photos, nobody would have known about it,” Smith said. Since hearing the news, Johnson said, he heard from many students who are supportive and believe he should keep his job. Some are starting a petition, but they have not been able to contact the Thailand campus director.
“We, the students, didn’t have any power at all, even collectively,” Saikia said.
Three Webster Thailand students told The Journal they had positive experiences with Johnson as a professor and were surprised to hear he was being let go.
“He has one of the most buoyant personalities that I have ever seen. He is a great professor who knows how to make the classes interesting. Everybody in the class loves him for that,” Saikia said.
Saikia and other students attempted to speak to Houston about Johnson’s termination, but said Houston initially could not be reached and then promised to set a meeting for the beginning of the spring semester, which has not yet been scheduled.
When asked about his interactions with Johnson and concerned students, and whether the St. Louis campus had been involved in any of the decision-making process, Houston replied in a statement made through Webster’s public relations office that “any insinuation that I implemented this decision under pressure from elsewhere is wholly erroneous.”
Director of Public Relations Patrick Giblin said decisions about staffing international campuses are generally made by faculty and staff at that location.
“Each campus is familiar with the laws and regulations regarding employment in each of those countries, as well as their immediate on-site needs for staffing, so they are best suited to make employment decisions for their campuses,” Giblin said.
Johnson said he worried some of his students would not be able to complete their graduation requirements without another psychology professor at the campus. The university has since hired a replacement. Johnson is currently looking for other jobs in Thailand and applying for a marriage visa so he can stay in the country with his wife, who is Thai.
Despite his experience, Johnson said Webster Thailand is a good place for students to study abroad, and teaching students from around the world has been the best part of working there.
“If this thing sorts out, I think people should consider coming for a semester,” Johnson said.