Officials propose guidelines for suspending profs
Published: Monday, March 5, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 03:03
University Faculty Senate committees outlined a proposed policy that defines procedures to suspend professors who display unsafe or disruptive behavior with pay during an open hearing on Feb. 27.
The policy, which provides guidelines for placing faculty on involuntary leave while still receiving their salary and benefits, comes after the university suspended two faculty members last year for non-disciplinary reasons, according to Faculty Senate President Jeff Jordan.
The policy is a response to the shootings at University of Alabama-Huntsville in February, where a biology professor shot six people, killing three professors and wounding three school employees.
Political science Professor Sheldon Pollack said the shooting caused university officials to realize they did not have written guidelines on how to dismiss faculty for non-disciplinary issues or unsafe behavior while protecting due process.
"The key issues [are] involuntary leave," Pollack said. "These are cases where the faculty member chooses for whatever reason not to take the leave with pay and that's the policy where we had a vacuum where there was no policy."
University general counsel Lawrence White said faculty colleagues designed the policy to allow supervisors to respond quickly. He said these situations usually happen when a department chair does not know how to handle a faculty member who is displaying dangerous or disruptive behavior. White said the policy will provide a framework on how to deal with those cases.
"This is a way that university administrators and academic professionals can address concerns that always emanate from a faculty peer or a faculty chair dealing with a difficult situation in the department," White said.
Under the proposed guidelines, emergency cases are defined as situations that pose a substantial threat to the health, safety or welfare that substantially disrupt the working environment and activities of the campus community. If that criteria is met, the vice president for finance and administration can make the decision to put someone on leave.
The policy creates a consultative panel comprised of the Faculty Senate's president and vice president, a designated representative from the American Association of University Professors, which protects professors' rights, and the deputy provost. In emergency cases, the vice president must convene with the suspended employee's dean and the panel within 24 hours to discuss the suspension.
In non-emergency situations, a dean can put a faculty member on involuntary leave after an investigation concludes that a faculty member is unable to effectively perform his or her job.
The dean will then have 15 days to meet with the panel to determine the length of the suspension, before informing the faculty member of their decision. The faculty member is allowed to appeal the decision to the senate's committee on faculty welfare and privileges.
During involuntary leave, faculty members will have restrictions on when they can visit campus and must be evaluated by an independent medical or health care professional who will report to the suspended employee's dean. If a faculty member refuses an evaluation, the leave may be extended.
The record of the suspension will not go on the faculty member's personnel file and will not negatively affect their formal employment record.
Education professor Jan Blits, who was formerly chair of Committee of Welfare and Privileges, said he is concerned about the meeting process because it denies employees due process and that in the two cases last year, the faculty members were denied due process. He also said in the meetings that the faculty would not be able to defend themselves. He said an AAUP officer is there to monitor the proceedings for compliance with the policy and is not an advocate.
He said because there is no policy to get a second opinion from other witnesses or a medical opinion before the administrator suspends a faculty member based on evidence that could be derived from hearsay. The faculty member in question would not be able to refute evidence or talk to witnesses.
"Under the most adverse circumstances—alone, unprepared, outnumbered and intimidated—the faculty member would have to make the decision rather quickly that could well adversely affect the rest of his or her career," Blits said.
He said the administration would have too much power and there wouldn't be an effective system of checks and balances. He is concerned that the policy does not require a written record of meetings, which can make an appeal difficult.
J.J. Davis, vice president for finance and administration, said university officials do not intend to infringe on anyone's rights, but in challenging situations it is important to act quickly.
"But to the extent that the extreme were to happen, catastrophe of life of oneself or others, we do feel in emergency situations the failure to act is also a problem and we've seen that play out at other institutions," Davis said. "We want balance of the safeguard for the individual and the protections and their rights and also to safeguard the community whether it be other students or members of the faculty."
History Professor John Bernstein said being removed from the lab or classroom damages a professor's career or reputation. He said the policy does not clearly state on what grounds faculty can be removed, and it can be blown out of proportion. He said the word "sole discretion" worried him.
"It seems to be lots of potential for creating harm and havoc here," Bernstein said. "There's a difference between change and progress. So this may be change but it may not be progress."
He said it would be hard for a faculty member to return after a suspension.
White said future revisions of the policy may have a tighter definition of non-emergency situations, but prefers broader criteria for identifying incidents because each case is fact-specific and may be addressed improperly under more specific guidelines.