Are Universities Sidestepping Faculty Due Process in Response to Social Media Crises?

Posted By Derek Johnson on May 17, 2016 at 10:15 am
Are Universities Sidestepping Faculty Due Process in Response to Social Media Crises?

In the social media age, one bad viral incident can outweigh an entire career. Across the country, a series of professor and faculty firings paint a troubling portrait of the way university administrators and trustees view the tradeoffs between employee due process and shielding their institution from the public relations hits that come with high-profile viral incidents.

Linda Katehi, chancellor of the University of California at Davis was removed from her position last month following allegations that she hired an Internet consulting firm to help scrub and minimize web postings about an infamous pepper spray incident at the university. In March, Sujit Choudhry, dean of UC Berkeley’s law school, was placed on indefinite leave and eventually resigned after details of a sexual harassment lawsuit became public. Melissa Click, former associate professor at the University of Missouri, was fired after being captured on video calling for “muscle” to forcibly remove student journalists from filming protestors. John McAdams, a political science professor at Marquette University, was suspended without pay in 2014 for writing a post on his personal blog criticizing a fellow Marquette teaching assistant caught on tape telling a student that opposition to same-sex marriage was not permitted in her classroom. McAdams contends he has been fired, but the university has stated he remains under suspension throughout the 2016 fall semester.

While each case has its own wrinkles, these incidents all follow a common trend: the faculty members in question were all fired or suspended after their alleged transgressions “went viral” and captured the attention of the outside world. Another commonality is that many of the fired are accusing university administrators of ignoring or sidestepping established faculty due process procedures in order to speed up the termination process or avoid further negative public relations. Choudhry and McAdams are suing their former employers for denying them due process, while Click has stated her intention to do the same. Choudhry filed an official grievance in April with the UC Privilege and Tenure Committee over his dismissal.

“President [Janet] Napolitano’s conduct in my case should serve as a warning to all University of California faculty and staff whose careers and livelihoods are considered secondary to the leadership’s need to deflect public criticism and respond to public controversy,” wrote Choudhry.

The increased pressures of social media

As social media use has become widely prevalent, so too has the professional peril of viral incidents. Often, there is a political element to the discussion. McAdams regularly critiques the concept of “political correctness” on his (unaffiliated) Marquette Warrior blog. After his suspension, the story was picked up by Fox News. Shortly thereafter, the story went viral. The teaching assistant McAdams wrote about, Cheryl Abbate, began receiving “strongly negative emails” from irate conservatives, according to a report by the University Academic Senate. She eventually transferred to another university. McAdams, who said he believes students have a right to express opposition to same-sex marriage in an academic setting, responded in a letter to Marquette President Michael Lovell that several aspects of his due process had been violated and that he was not responsible for the social media phenomenon that followed his blog post.

“I know that when things go viral on the Internet, some people will behave abominably. But that can’t possibly make someone who writes on a subject – even a heated and controversial subject – responsible for whatever irresponsible people might do,” wrote Adams.

Click faced a similar predicament from the opposite end of the political spectrum. In a Chronicle of Higher Education profile published in April, she acknowledges that her passion for social justice issues led her to join student protests and take part in several actions – such as joining in a blockade of University President Tim Wolfe’s motorcade and calling for protestors to forcibly remove another student recording on university grounds – that potentially put her in conflict with her role and responsibilities as a member of university faculty.

Click has apologized for her recorded actions but believes her firing was unjustified. While she has yet to file suit, she claims that conservative state legislators pressured the Missouri Board of Curators to fire her because they disagreed with her political views. “This is all about racial politics. I’m a white lady. I’m an easy target,” said Click.

Later in the piece, University of Missouri’s faculty council chair Ben Tractenberg alleged that the board of curators failed to follow several due process procedures and took an “uncharacteristically” personal interest in the matter.

“It’s pretty clear our rules weren’t followed, and that’s bad for faculty morale,” said Tractenberg.

It’s important to keep in mind that these incidents don’t happen in a vacuum. In some cases, the viral incident that precipitates a firing or administrative action is the straw in a pattern of tension and dissatisfaction between a faculty member and their employer. In Katehi’s case, hiring a firm to minimize the web presence of an embarrassing pepper spray incident was just one of a handful of highly contentious revelations about her tenure and business associations that caused her to become a public embarrassment to the university.

Choudhry contends that he had already accepted and declined to contest a series of punitive measures, including a pay cut, mandatory counseling and a written apology to the administrative assistant alleging the harassment. When the details of the assistant’s harassment lawsuit became public, he claims the university backtracked and opened up a second disciplinary process designed to strip him of tenure.

“To be sure, I fully understand the University’s need to address the concerns [about sexual harassment] that have emerged on campus as a result of recent events. But those concerns do not justify pretending that fiction is fact and denying me the rights guaranteed to every tenured member of the faculty,” wrote Choudhry in his grievance letter.

While Click’s behavior was just one part of a much larger story about the protests and racial tensions that enveloped the University of Missouri last year, the negative publicity from the episode has undeniably damaged the school’s reputation and bottom line. The Columbia Daily Tribune reported in March that the school’s enrollment figures for Fall 2016 have dropped 23 percent, resulting in a five percent budget cut to general fund spending.

The nature of social media viral incidents and the speed with which they spread can directly conflict with the measured, drawn-out faculty due process procedures that most universities have in place. The danger for university leaders and administrators in letting the process play out is that it can create the perception that “nothing is being done” about the issue to the outside world. This can potentially lead to lasting damage to the university’s reputation if not kept in check.

Many organizations that offer guidelines on how to respond to a social media crisis emphasize a speedy and decisive response as the best way to mitigate long-term damage to an organization’s brand. The Social Media Marketing Society recommends putting out an official response “within minutes” of a viral incident, remarking that “the speed of a reply is everything.”

Due process and the debated meaning of shared governance

Virtually all universities have established, written procedures for suspending or terminating an employee. While each institution has its own guidelines, most operate under the principle of “shared governance,” a somewhat amorphous term for a process that respects the rights and input of all relevant institutional stakeholders.

When it comes to terminating a faculty member, there are almost always multiple layers of hearings, reviews and appeals that precede a final decision. This is especially true if the offender is a tenured professor. Additionally, by virtue of their connection to and funding from state governments, public universities are subject to the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution citing due process, according to Law and Higher Education. Private universities have lesser obligations, but in general, most tend to align their policies on tenure, academic freedom and dismissal with those of their public counterparts.

The American Association of University Professors, The American Council on Education and The Association of Governing Boards of Universities issued a joint statement on procedural standards in faculty dismissal proceedings. The statement has become a widely accepted (if unofficial) standard for higher education and calls for a process where “both institutional integrity and individual human rights may be preserved.” The AAUP has come to the defense of Click, McAdams and many other higher education officials who contend their due process was violated. The organization routinely investigates and (in some cases) censures universities they believe violate academic freedom and tenure norms. While these censures are not binding, they can be a black mark on a university’s reputation and potentially make it more difficult to recruit and hire quality professors in the future.

Not surprisingly, there tends to be disagreement between higher education faculty and leadership about how far the “shared governance” principle extends to hot button issues like firings. Specifically, these groups have different views on the extent to which shared governance gives lower level faculty veto power over the decisions of higher level administrators. Gary Olson, now president of Daemen College, discussed this dynamic in a 2009 piece on shared governance:

“The truth is that all legal authority in any university originates from one place and one place only: its governing board. Whether it is a private college created by a charter, or a public institution established by law or constitution, the legal right and obligation to exercise authority over an institution is vested in and flows from its board,” writes Olson.

Olson goes on to write that while there is plenty of room for lower level faculty to provide real and meaningful input on university actions or policies, certain decisions like hiring or firing require one person to be ultimately accountable for the university to properly function. As an example, he posits that if a provost signs off on the hiring of a professor who turns out to have embezzled money from his previous university, it is the provost, not the committee who approved his hiring, who should and would be held accountable for the oversight.

“’Shared’ means that everyone has a role…[it] doesn’t mean that every constituency gets to participate at every stage. Nor does it mean that any constituency exercises complete control over the process. A [hiring] cannot be a simple matter of a popular vote because someone must remain accountable for the final decision, and committees cannot be held accountable,” writes Olson.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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