April 16, 2007

When is suspending a faculty member appropriate?

This morning's IHE story about Michael D'Andrea's paid suspension from the University of Hawaii Manoa (UHM) and ban from contacting colleagues raises tricky questions about the definition of discipline at a university and the appropriate treatment of faculty under investigation. From the apparent context of the case, it's clear that UHM is in the middle of attempting to document just cause to fire D'Andrea and that the administration faced what they considered a hard choice during the investigation. But the existence of hard choices does not justify any decision, and I'll explain below why this smells strongly of lawyering HR defensiveness more than an academic decision.

Technically, the UHM administration did not suspend D'Andrea but reassigned him to work from home. On the other hand, he was removed from classes; not given a substitute assignment; prohibited from coming to campus except to the university laboratory school for his child; prohibited from using his e-mail; asked to return his parking pass, office keys, all student work; and told not to contact anyone in his college except his significant other. All of this was apparently done without a hearing, though the IHE article is silent on whether there was an investigation that would satisfy the tests of just cause (University of Iowa HR version or the University of Missouri Labor Education version), in particular whether it gave D'Andrea a chance to respond to allegations.

The first concern I would have is the implications of the prohibition on using e-mail or access to the library for a faculty member's professional life. Access to library facilities and e-mail is critical to many faculty members' research. It's how we conduct research and communicate with our colleagues. There is no evidence of whether UHM is forwarding D'Andrea's e-mail to a private address or whether alternative arrangements are being made for his access to support that faculty normally have. Since he's in counselor education, a logical question is whether this "reassignment" is preventing his access to research participants on campus. For other disciplines, other questions would be relevant. It is this step that clearly interrupts one's career activities that makes me suspect the letter was drafted and directed by a lawyer with no clue to academic life.

The second concern is the pretense that this "reassignment" is not discipline. Without more information, I have to place this in a gray area in terms of what I can see in the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly collective bargaining agreement language, which has elaborate procedures for suspensions and firings and has a vague catch-all section for other discipline actions. The common-sense interpretation of UHM's actions is that it is discipline, given the stigmatizing effect of barring someone from campus and removing her or him from teaching until some clearly-ongoing investigation is concluded. (At least theoretically, D'Andrea could have taught from home using distance-learning techniques, so there was a clear choice not to keep his teaching assignment intact instead of that interruption flowing automatically from his ban from campus.)

So what is an administration to do if there appears to be a bona fide disruption/safety issue with a faculty member? It depends on the circumstances, but there are option that UHM didn't choose:

  • If there is a documented expectation of some violence, UHM could and should go to court to get a restraining order. Period. That would require the presentation of evidence and contain due process procedures (if not under the control of the administration). I have occasionally heard administrators hold out the criminalization of bad faculty behavior as something no one should want. But if there is a well-founded basis for expecting criminal behavior, you don't handle it administratively; you go through the courts, which comprise the proper channel.
  • If the issue is a violation of collegiality so severe that it becomes a discipline issue, the administration always has the choice of bringing in a faculty member, explaining the allegations that have been raised, promising a fair investigation, and explaining very clearly the consequences if the faculty member takes any action that could be interpreted as retalitation or intimidation. Having a union on campus is a help to the administration in this regard, not a hindrance. If I were in this position, I'd make sure a union rep is sitting in the room, listening to the entire spiel, because it's the union rep who's in the best position later to explain to the faculty member why intimidation or retaliation would be stupid. If UHM was banning D'Andrea from campus from a concern that he would immediately start a manipulative campaign against whoever his accusers are, they're engaging in a type of prior restraint, a "we're not going to let you talk to peers in fears of what you might say" decision. (To be honest, if the expected behavior is a manipulative campaign, then couldn't UHM essentially invite him to seal his own fate in that way?)
  • If the concern is about a faculty member's mental state (e.g., a psychotic episode or hypomania), then the appropriate step would depend on the person and circumstances and requires some knowledge of mental illness, but apart from true safety emergencies, a leave of absence seems far more appropriate than UHM's actions. (See Mark Grimsley's column on working in academe with bipolar disorder for examples of sensitive, appropriate collegial responses to troubling behavior.)

There is a provision in our own collective bargaining agreement at USF which allows a paid suspension of a faculty member during an investigation. That provision is silent as to the faculty member's access to university facilities during the suspension or appropriate accommodation to satisfy the reasonable interests of all parties. What is not appropriate is to interrupt the professional life of a faculty member, fail to accommodate legitimate interests in the middle of an investigation, and then pretend that the constellation of choices was not disciplinary in effect.

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Posted in Academic freedom on April 16, 2007 9:10 AM |