Rice University: When smart places do dumb things

In one of the less wonderful employee termination decisions to go public recently, Rice University in Texas has fired a campus police officer for going to the aid of two Houston police officers who were shot in the line of duty, a couple of blocks off campus. Zachary Roth reports for Yahoo! News (link here):

It was a Saturday on campus when David Sedmak, a Rice University police officer, heard “Officer down, officer down!” on his scanner: Two members of the Houston Police Department had been shot downtown. Sedmak rushed to the scene to help his fellow officers.

But Rice didn’t see Sedmak as a hero. Instead, the university fired him, citing “dereliction of duty.”

The university said in a statement that its officers often assist other law enforcement agencies when the need arises. But Sedmak erred, it said, by not informing the university police dispatcher about where he was.

Houston police officers and their union are supporting Sedmak and calling for him to be reinstated. The article quotes a representative of a Texas association for police officers as saying that unless an officer is a chronic disciplinary problem, this kind of situation should be addressed with corrective counseling if necessary, but certainly not termination.

Private vs. public employment

Rice University is a private institution, and Sedmak is not a member of the police officers’ union. That in itself may explain why persuasion and publicity are being used in an attempt to have him reinstated, rather than resorting to arbitration and grievance processes that can be invoked in collective bargaining situations.

In any event, this strikes me as being among the reasons why employees need protections against unfair or unjust discharge. Most American workers are at-will employees who can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all. Especially in view of the exigent circumstances present in this situation, termination seems to be a harsh, even mean-spirited result.

Fringe benefits at stake too

At stake is more than “just” one job. As reported in television news coverage of the situation (link here), Sedmak left the Galveston police department to take the job at Rice so his children would qualify for tuition benefits at the university. Now their educational plans may be seriously disrupted as well.

It galls me when defenders of the legal status quo remark that if someone doesn’t like or loses his job, he can simply pull himself up by his bootstraps and find another one. For most people, even a voluntary job change has repercussions and stress points. With an involuntary job loss or forced resignation, however, the consequences can be personally seismic, sending shock waves throughout an immediate family.

5 responses

  1. Assuming this story is accurate and a clear description of what happened…

    Rice University should be ashamed of themselves. When a fellow human is in trouble, it is morally imperative, and indeed, probably an instinctual reaction, to run to their aid. What would Rice have preferred, that this officer stop and say, “Oh dam, that’s too bad. I wish I could help, but I had better stay put because the university will not like that I helped out”……

    I hope, for the sake of our humanity, that we all continue to act on our honorable impulses to help out our fellow human beings in need rather than become imprisoned sheep to “accommodate” the rules of our employers.

    Reinstate Sedmark. He should be honored, not fired.

    • Terry, it appears to be an accurate account. I searched around the Web and could not find anything that countered the basic story. More importantly, it’s been a few days since the story went viral (he was fired in late May, and the national coverage broke earlier this week), and the University has not issued a denial of how the event has been characterized, only sticking to its guns on the decision to terminate.

  2. Well…….living in the Houston area as I do, this story is not surprising to me at all. I have not encountered any institution anywhere (and I’ve lived a few places) that is more arrogant than Rice University. And really – with no reason.

  3. I applaud Mr. Sedmark for his bravery and willingness to assist another person in need. Here is another example of an employer oblivious to what humane and quality services are all about.
    Unjust termnations such as this (and mine) have a rippling effect on so many. Employers have lost touch with reality and it is a tragedy.

  4. To change their decision would be admitting a mistake. Part of what I see happening today is the ideology that it is more important not to admit making a mistake than it is to allow a mistake to ruin the lives of countless innocent victims. This is why most hiring mistakes are not dealt with. No one is willing to say, “I made a mistake.”

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