Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Administration and Critique

Last week, IHE featured a story about a prominent professor at Texas Tech whose bid for a deanship was denied on the basis of his stated opposition to the tenure system.  This week, a court upheld the termination of an HR director for stating her opposition to gay marriage.  Although one case is much more sympathetic than the other, they really address the same issue.  Should administrators be allowed to raise policy objections in public?

Note here that I’m referring to policy objections, as opposed to, say, confidential personnel information, or personal attacks on co-workers.  And I’m not referring to refusal to carry out a job duty.  This is about policy objections.

I’ve thought a lot about this, for obvious reasons.  And I have to concede that I have a dog in this fight.  I like my job, and I see value in sharing my thoughts about some of what I see.  

That said, though, this isn’t just about me.   Shared governance can’t work without administrators being able to tell the truth as we see it.  Real improvements won’t happen when the very people who are the most informed about the consequences of various policies are under effective gag orders.  

Policy disagreements can be awkward, and nobody likes awkwardness.  If the big questions were broadly settled, I guess one could argue that the awkwardness isn’t worth it.  But we’re in a period of massive transition.  The 1960’s model of public higher education is becoming unsustainable, but it isn’t yet clear what will come next.  At this point, informed, vigorous, thoughtful public discussion is more important than it has ever been.  We need to hear from the people in a position to know about what happens when, say, the rules for Pell or Perkins money change.  We need to be able to discuss the virtues and, yes, the failings of both new and old ways of delivering education.  

That’s difficult in an industry on which so much is based on reputation.  In the absence of good, public information with which to compare one college to another, colleges do what they can to protect and enhance their reputations.  In some ways, they have to; a college that chooses not to will be brutalized by those that do.  There’s a market-based incentive to prevent anything resembling dirty laundry from getting out there.

But that’s a fallback position, based on an absence.  As an industry, we’d be much better off basing arguments on facts available to the public.  Which first involves getting them out there.

If we insist on muzzling policy disagreements among administrators, we’ll be left with either true believers -- those who are least capable of dealing with change, by definition -- or people working below their cognitive capacity.  Neither seems appealing.

Healthy debate can be clarifying.  I’ve had times myself when I initially disagreed with a policy, but was persuaded by arguments I hadn’t thought of.  That’s only possible when those arguments are stated and spelled out.  And the whole point of shared governance, or any decisionmaking process with a multiplicity of veto groups, is quality control.   That only works when people can actually say what they think.  If faculty have freedom to disagree and administrators don’t, then the debate will be one-sided, and therefore consigned to irrelevance.  If we want the discussions to matter, they have to be open.

Obviously, the issue would be different if a disagreement over policy became a refusal to carry it out.  That would be actionable, and rightly so.  But if someone is doing the job and doing it well, then the fact that if he had his druthers he’d do things differently strikes me as immaterial.  Given the speed with which things are changing, I see much more risk in the status quo than I do in people who are capable of seeing beyond what’s right in front of them.

The problem with any free speech argument is that it has to apply to speech that’s hurtful, asinine, and wrong.  I’d describe the homophobic HR director as falling in that category.  Her case is particularly difficult in that one could easily imagine a “hostile environment” claim relying on her comments; the same could not be said of the prospective dean who doesn’t like the tenure system.  But free speech applies not only to the wise and likable, but also to the stupid and hurtful.  It has to.  That’s how freedom works.

The etiquette issue here is real, but solvable.  My own line involves a distinction between a policy critique and a personal attack.  The former strikes me as well within bounds, and as part of a healthy public sphere; the latter strikes me as an abuse of power.  In any given case, the line can be blurry, but the basic distinction makes sense.  The rule of thumb should be that the more general the issue, the more public it can be.  If I have a problem with Ottmar, I should take it up with Ottmar; if I have a problem with a federal policy, I should be able to take it public.

Enforced groupthink is comfortable in the short term, but deadly over time.  At this point, unthinking perpetuation of the status quo is an existential threat to public higher ed in a way that some intemperate comment couldn’t be.  We need the people who know what’s actually happening to be able to say so.  Otherwise, those who don’t know will be free to spout at will, and those who know will be under gag orders.  Under those rules, what do you think will happen?

As I recall the story, the Texas Tech professor was not only personally opposed to tenure, but had declined the institution's offer to go through the tenure process and was not, in fact, tenured. I think it's a good idea not to allow a chair, dean, or provost to decide on a tenure case, in an institution that has tenure, if he or she has not gone through the process him- or herself.
Nit Pick:
"The 1960’s model of public higher education is becoming unsustainable...."

I believe you are assuming something not in evidence concerning (say) state R1 universities. Are faculty salaries the same, corrected for inflation? New construction costs, particularly when in support of research rather than teaching? What about teaching loads, measured by the integral of student contact hours? What is the inflation-corrected cost of fringe benefits? How were adjunct instructors used back then? What are the inflation-corrected contributions from the state and from tuition?

My analysis of the latter for one university (linked here) indicates that tuition rose MUCH faster than required by the cost per student circa 1970. The total cost is (in real dollars) 50% higher than it was back then.

You appear to be talking about the 1990s version of the 1960s.
On your main point, I agree on the importance of open discussion within the college. It is essential that the arguments be presented rather than simply assumed to be valid just because of who proposed it.

The fine line is between having that discussion within the college and having it in the local media (new or otherwise). Do reporters attend every meeting between you and your Deans and/or the other VPs? With the faculty and/or their union? I think it is great that we can have totally open meetings and no one in the press knows what was said.

Your examples (particularly about the need to stay up to date with rapidly changing finances and program needs) are good ones. I'm less certain about your conclusion that public pronouncements on tenure by someone who makes tenure decisions are not in the same risky territory as pronouncements about gay marriage (as distinct from gay employment). Could someone sue, arguing that tenure was denied because he didn't like tenure rather than for objective reasons consistent with "equal protection"?
Does a college or university administrator have the same academic freedom rights that the teachers and instructors at their school do? This is an interesting question, which I don’t think has an easy answer.

It would certainly be true that a professor should be perfectly free to express his or her views about tenure, either inside or outside the university. They should be completely free to say that the whole tenure system is a really bad idea, that it locks faculty into their positions virtually forever, that it makes it impossible to get rid of a bad teacher or a lousy researcher, etc. They should even be free to say that they will refuse to submit themselves to the tenure process, and will not even apply for it.

But does an administrator have the same right to express their opinion about the tenure system, whether inside or outside the university? Brian Ogilvie has mentioned that if the school has a tenure system and if the administrator has some say in the granting or refusal of tenure, if they have expressed a negative view about tenure in general, this may indicate some amount of bias and might indicate that they will not be able to make an objective decision about the tenure cases that are brought before them in the future.

Another factor is that people might assume that an administrator speaking in public is not merely stating their own opinion, but is somehow speaking for the school and is expressing the school’s official opinion about the matter being discussed. Few people will imagine that some ditzy college professor expressing some sort of wacky or offbeat opinion is actually speaking for their employer, but the same might not be true for an administrator, especially a high-level one. If a dean or an assistant vice-president says in public that they oppose gay marriage, some may assume that this is the actual policy of the school and a lot of people might presume that the school is actually hostile to its gay or lesbian students or faculty. So in practice an administrator has to be very careful about what they say in public, since they really don’t have the same academic freedom rights as their faculty members.

Another issue entirely is the “hostile workplace environment” aspect of the law. Lawsuits can be brought if the institution runs or tolerates activities that make their students or employees uncomfortable, so much so that it becomes impossible for them to do their jobs or complete their studies. This is a very subjective matter, and what is neutral or even humorous to one may be deeply offensive to another. Can a professor or an administrator say in the classroom or in public, for example, that they think that lesbian or gay behavior is immoral and offensive? Does this come under the protection of academic freedom, or is there a danger of a lawsuit if someone finds this deeply offensive? There are legal definitions of what constitutes a hostile workplace (the behavior must be discriminatory, it must be pervasive, and it must be severe enough so that it seriously disrupts work or study). Provided that it is not discriminatory or pervasive, I suppose that a simple one-time expression of an opinion about homosexuality in the classroom probably will not cause a hostile workplace lawsuit to be issued. But you never know, and it is best to avoid such topics in the classroom if at all possible, lest you have a student who is overly sensitive and starts to complain. In general, it is probably not a good idea to discuss touchy issues surrounding sexuality, religion, or politics in the classroom, unless they are actually relevant to the course being taught.

The HR dean is a tricky case. Her stated opposition to gay rights strikes me as fully defensible free speech. At the same time, I couldn't ask gay employees of the university (or prospective employees) to have full faith in her ability to see their cases impartially. So she has to be entitled to express her opinion, but the fact she did so in this case made her less effective at her job because it relies on the trust of people at the university. Ultimately, administrators can, and should, at least attempt to clarify how they are speaking as: a professional employed by the university and representing it (as her letter implied in the paragraph where she discusses the facts on the ground of the benefit situation which appeared to prompt the article she was responding to) OR as a private citizen who is discussing their own view (as the religious stuff should have been framed). To muddle them like this is unwise.

I'd be interested in her ideas for how she can repair the breech of trust she created, and what she thinks her obligations to the gay community at the university are.

As an aside, the point of shared governance isn't only quality control. It's fairness, and a system that leads everyone to invest in the outcome for collective benefits.
ArtMathProf's comment reminds me- always keep in mind, not all states protect against sexual orientation in employment discrimination. It's not a federal statute. (This should change)
In Ohio, wikipedia says it's illegal to discriminate against gays and lesbians (but not transgendered individuals) in public employment only. I doubt there was a case on the books to give a university lawyer more than a glimmer of a hint of guidance in 2008.

The letter Dixon wrote referenced the fact that the benefit plans of the former Medical University of Ohio and the University of Toledo were being merged (one system offered coverage for domestic partners, the other didn't). When the MUO was founded, University of Toledo was a municipal university and Medical College of Ohio (as it was then known) was founded as a state university. Then they were merged in 2006, and I suspect the administrative backlog of merging them was not yet managed until 2008 when the letter to the editor was written.

So, if I had to guess a summary- Ohio doesn't have much protection for GLBT rights (protection being defined as laws on the book and legal precedent at actually getting them enforced). MUO and UT interpreted the laws differently, and MUO picked a healthcare plan that didn't cover domestic partners whereas UT did. Dixon may have had input into the process of what healthcare plan gets picked for everyone, and if domestic partner benefits will be included in that. In which case her belief that she had a divine mandate to write a letter informing gays and lesbians there were consequences to their "personal choices" is... downright ominous. Not "merely" hurtful, asinine, and wrong.

(NB: like the medical school at which I got my grad degree, the former MUO had both a public college and a possibly- private hospital, which employ different batches of people. Quite likely, the MUO lawyer thought the health care plan they offered left them in the clear from Ohio law for the hospital folks, and the college folks were assumed to be ok. Also interesting- apparently the MUO UT merger was initiated in part to go after NIH dollars)

Lessons learned:
1) make sure you clarify when you speak only for yourself
2) don't go through ridiculous institutional contortions for NIH money, it's going to be gone by the time you get there and you're only creating administrative heartache
3)we need national GLBT protections
4)we need national healthcare
It's clear to me that *most* administrators do not enjoy the same freedoms of speech as faculty, even those faculty not yet tenured. At most higher education institutions, staff (and I would include adjuncts and other non-tenured instructors) serve at the pleasure of the president (or their supervisor) and can be let go without notice if someone does not care for their comments. Does that happen a lot? I would say that it doesn't, but that's not necessarily because it's always a benevolent system. In my opinion, there is absolutely a chilling effect on campuses for administrators who are afraid to raise issues or to appear critical (as defined by their supervisor) of the institution or its policies. That leads to groupspeak for administrators who don't value constructive input from their staff, as well as the unwillingness/inability of administrators to be critical of or even comment on faculty-generated policies, etc. In my experience (25 years in higher education administration), many tenured faculty are naive about the real ability of administration folks to voice their opinion.
I am siding with the free speech aspect of this, even in the preceding cases. While I understand the hurt and offence both these cases cause (the gay marriage moreso than the tenure), both of these are objections to a framework, not a person within that framework. While the complaint of hurt and offence is very legitimate, the people who feel hurt offer no alternate solution. Allow me to present one:

- Texas Tech hires a pro-tenure hiring director so that even the good candidates will get tenure. The flipside to this argument is that with a pro-tenure director, even the bad candidates will get tenure.

Which situation is worse, the real Texas Tech or the alternate Texas Tech described above? I argue that they are in fact equal. In both cases, the true deciding factor of the tenure bid is not the hiring director's opinion on the requirements and existence of tenure, but instead, it is the competency of the hiring director to match up the candidate to the requirements of tenure and see if the candidate passes that really matters. The opinions on the requirements don't enter in here. If they do enter, then it becomes a headache for all involved, whether the hiring director is pro- or anti-tenure.

I think DeanDad made a good point that the important distinction (and the argument above) is based on this being a policy objection, not a personal attack or something of the like.
Crystal's defense was -- seriously -- don't worry! I've hired two gay people based on my homosniffing, even after I saw one of them acting all faggy in the parking lot!
"it is commonly believed/perceived that there are one, possibly two practicing homosexuals in the Human Resources Department. I hired both of them (one last year and one earlier this year)! I hired both of them with the perception that while they may be homosexual, more importantly they were competent, motivated and simply the best candidates for the jobs. One individual, I actually hired this year after observing a questionable exchange
between he and his male roommate in the parking lot one day. . . ."

This is the person the university and its employees are supposed to trust to enforce protections for gay people and adjudicate disputes. Opposing counsel could just have her read that on the stand after a gay employee inevitably has to sue.

"Does a college or university administrator have the same academic freedom rights that the teachers and instructors at their school do? "

which is why any sane person recruited for an exalted administrative position insists on a right of retreat to the faculty
So does this ever work? Lower-level administrators speaking freely in front of their supervisors in meetings with faculty present? How do you get these admins to genuinely contribute without trying to channel the departmental group-think? I'm tired of attending meetings where the front-line admins don't contribute for fear of offending the boss, but I recognize that they have zero job security if they take a misstep.
It's easy to say that this is about "policy", but it's really about keeping people who don't share the goals of the organization from running the organization.

If a professor was denied deanship because he said that all higher education was entirely valueless, and that every penny that would be spent on said higher education should instead be shunted toward invading Canada, and that his college should lead this process by recruiting and training a militia with the money that was otherwise granted to them by the legislature, that's a "policy dispute" right?

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