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Promotion Decision Questioned

May 9, 2007

Less than two weeks after a prominent Massachusetts Institute of Technology admissions dean resigned amid allegations that she had claimed three degrees she'd never earned, the University of New Mexico is facing scrutiny for promoting an unidentified professor who has since been accused of misrepresenting his/her publication history -- and for letting that promotion decision stand after an elected faculty committee unearthed evidence to that effect.

“It is unjust if one can be promoted at UNM with misrepresented, non-verifiable, and double-counted research,” Donald Coes, a professor of economics, wrote in a letter resigning from the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee (AF&T) in protest of the promotion decision in question. The contents of the April 19 letter, addressed to two faculty leaders and copied to the committee, the Faculty Senate and a number of administrators, were first reported by the Daily Lobo, UNM’s student paper, Monday.

“An accurate statement of one’s accomplishments may result in denial of promotion, while significant distortions of one’s record may succeed,” wrote Coes, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment Tuesday. “Even worse, the outcome of this case suggests that when serious misstatements are discovered, nothing can be done about it, at least by the AF&T acting alone.”

Yet, the chair of the AF&T committee, Timothy Lowrey, a professor of biology, said that while both he and the university disagreed with some of the assertions made in the three-page letter, due to the confidentiality of the committee's procedures, he could not offer details about the specific areas of disagreement. "I am extremely distressed about this letter," said Lowrey. "This is a former committee member who is releasing confidential information that was gained as a result of being a member of the committee." Lowrey plans to call a special meeting of the committee to discuss this issue and talk about the breach in confidentiality.

In his letter, Coes outlined his take on the details of the case: Essentially, in 2005, a subcommittee he headed was asked to investigate a complaint from a faculty member who did not achieve full professor rank charging that a peer "with a research record no better than that of the complainant” had recently received the promotion to full professor. Upon investigation, the subcommittee found some potential problems with the information reported on the “successful candidate’s” curriculum vitae (because the committee’s internal discussion is confidential, Coes does not ever identify the professor by name). Among the concerns Coes raised:

  • The successful candidate’s C.V. describes a book as being published by a university press when, “In reality,” Coes wrote, it was "published by a firm whose earnings come from its charges to authors or others willing to pay it for limited production runs.” The Web site of the firm, he added, advertises they "specialize in never saying no."
  • Three publications listed on the successful candidate’s curriculum vitae could not be located on Interlibrary Loan searches of about 38,000 libraries, while other publications described as written solely by the professor were actually co-authored.
  • Two articles listed separately on the C.V. were actually the same article, published in different journals, “differing significantly only in title.”

Coes wrote that the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee brought "these documented facts" to the attention of the administration in April 2006, and members were informed that the case would be referred to the Ethics Committee. Five months later, they learned that the case had been dismissed, having never gone to the ethics committee, and a letter of apology had been sent to the "successful candidate."

Following that, the unsuccessful candidate who filed the complaint appealed to the Board of Regents, and the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee held a formal hearing. “Despite the hearing panel’s confirmation of improper consideration,” Coes wrote (referring to a Faculty Handbook definition in which a decision that’s not grounded in “impartial professional academic judgment” results in prejudice), “and the acceptance of this finding by the full AF& T, both promotion decisions stand.”

Coes described the outcome as undermining the Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee’s role as “an independent faculty voice” accountable for the integrity of the promotion process, and lamented the lack of a clear way for the committee to respond in the event that faculty misrepresent their backgrounds or credentials. “The most serious constraint arises from the implicit premise of the current Faculty Handbook that all faculty members submit accurate information in promotion and tenure processes,” he wrote. Furthermore, while he indicated a respect for the confidentiality of the committee's proceedings, he expressed concerns about "'the use of 'confidentiality' to shield this case from the scrutiny of the regents and the faculty at large."

Yet, Lowrey stressed that the AF&T proceedings are completely confidential to protect all involved parties, and pointed out, ironically, that since Coes publicly aired his concerns to administrators and faculty rather than issue a formal complaint to the committee, his concerns are not even actionable. "The AF&T committee cannot act, as per the handbook, for allegations upon which we have not received a formal complaint. And I personally communicated with Dr. Coes about this process and specifically told him that he could issue a complaint if he were not satisfied with the action that had been done to date," Lowrey said.

As for whether the committee might still revisit these particular promotion issues, Lowrey said he couldn't comment, citing confidentiality. A university spokeswoman did not respond to a request to provide information about the university's response on either a broad or individual level Tuesday, describing the case as a personnel issue on which its officials could not comment.

John Geissman, chair of the university’s Committee on Governance and one of two faculty members to whom the letter was directly addressed, expressed a sense of helplessness as to what can be done to remedy the situation, while confessing that he does not know the details of the case or even the identity of the individuals involved. “As much as I hate to say it, I’m kind of worried about just what we can actually do about it,” said Geissman, a professor in the department of earth and planetary sciences. “I’m concerned about what steps we can actually take. That’s a tough one: We always operate on the bottom line that honesty is going to prevail.”

“We just take things for granted.”

 

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