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Bad Connection at U. of Michigan

May 15, 2006

For a hotline that has yet to be connected, the University of Michigan’s “U-Talk” is already generating a lot of chatter.

University employees received an e-mail on May 1 vaguely describing the 24-hour hotline and Web-based reporting form that are being discussed by university officials. The message -- signed by Mary Sue Coleman, the university's president; Robert Kelch, executive vice president for medical affairs; and Timothy Slottow, executive vice president and chief financial officer -- reminded employees of their obligation to “speak up” about “unsafe, illegal and unethical behavior” in the workplace and announced the new technologies as a way to report information confidentially and, if employees want, anonymously.

Faculty and staff members began to complain immediately -- some asserting that the hotline amounted to a resource for academic spies, and others adding that administrators had done little consulting with employees before issuing the message. The next day, the university retracted the e-mail, informing recipients that the message had been sent accidentally, before content was finalized. That e-mail also expanded on the reasons for a new hotline, which aims to streamline the reporting process for employees wishing to identify issues such as “theft, accounting fraud, HIPAA infractions, research compliance issues and other violations of state and federal laws," the second e-mail message says.

The proposed Michigan hotline, which would be operated by a private company, is a way to “create an environment in which individuals can identify instances of fraud and other serious violations without fear of retaliation,” that message says. The university has several reporting mechanisms in order to comply with various state and federal regulations.

Fred Askari, associate professor in the division of gastroenterology and chair of the university committee on the economic status of faculty, said he is disappointed that a new hotline would need to be used. He said he has found the university to have approachable administrators. “If someone thinks [a colleague] is doing something unethical, [the person] should feel comfortable talking to a superior about it,” Askari said. “At a large university, there are so many committees and supervisors that it’s hard to believe there isn’t someone to talk to.” 

Askari said given the university’s existing hotlines for reporting questionable activity, there is little need for another system. Richard Friedman, a law professor, said in an e-mail that the hotline is a “terrible idea.” Anonymous accusations are dangerous because they require no responsibility on the part of the accuser, he said. Friedman also expressed concerned with what he called the “outsourcing” of the hotline.  Added Askari: “I can’t imagine who on the other end of the phone has expertise to address these issues.”

Bruno Giordani, vice chair of the faculty senate advisory committee on university affairs, said university employees need more information before making an informed decision on the hotline, which is still being discussed by a university committee. Giordani said he is willing to give it a chance.

“There is a benefit to having things centralized and having no fear of reporting to your unit. I can also see the other argument: Nobody wants this to be “Big Brother-ized,” he said.

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said the organization received copies of the university e-mails from Michigan’s AAUP chapter. He said the organization had not received any previous complaints from chapters about hotlines at universities. “This may be an example of the corporatization of the academy,” Bowen said.

 

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