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Reaffirming the Right to Complain

February 11, 2008

The faculty at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale won an explicit statement from its administration last month guaranteeing a protected, confidential grievance process and expressly forbidding retaliation against those who make complaints.

The settlement came after two years of disputes following a complaint made by nine professors in the College of Mass Communications and Media Arts against their dean at the time, Manjunath Pendakur, who they saw as divisive and who had pushed a controversial agenda for the academic unit. The professors were surprised to find that people they had mentioned in their complaint had learned of allegations they had made that the dean had showed favoritism toward a particular faculty member, among other concerns. They said their allegations were eventually revealed to the rest of the college in retaliation for their complaints -- effectively embarrassing them before other faculty who might not have agreed with their complaints or their tactics.

After attempting to settle the matter informally, the SIUC Faculty Association filed a formal unfair labor practice charge against the university with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, saying they had been threatened by the administration. Meanwhile, the professor who had been singled out in the complaint, Jyotsna Kapur, filed a grievance with the university saying it had damaged her reputation. That was later dismissed on technical grounds.

"We wanted to make sure that people had a right to basically petition without fear, to be able to get together, address their concerns, bring it up to the administration without fear that they’re going to be retaliated against," said Marvin Zeman, the faculty association president. "Everything we wanted, we got." (Zeman added that perhaps it was a mistake for the complaining faculty to single out a professor by name.)

The settlement acknowledges no wrongdoing on either side, but recognizes the faculty's right to act "in concert" to "correct problems" in the work place. It also guarantees that the university will not intimidate or coerce faculty members who bring concerns forward about the administration. It affirms that documents and identities relating to an investigation won't be disclosed without consent, and that grievances won't be discussed in faculty meetings outside the investigation process. Faculty members have said that both occurred over the past two years.

A spokesman for the university said it is "pleased with this settlement."

The faculty members who lodged the original complaint were concerned over both the direction of the college -- Pendakur wanted to emphasize theory over hands-on practical experience in journalism, TV and other media -- and his managerial style.

"It was very, very dictatorial," said Fern Logan, one of the nine professors. She said his goals and methods split the faculty into "factions" and engendered a "hostile environment." Pendakur could not be reached for comment.

She added: "We never talked about it publicly, and we were publicly humiliated and chastised ... and that’s why this settlement is so important to us and to other faculty in the college, because it gives us the right to organize, to fix problems that we see in the institution."

Still, not everyone is satisfied with the outcome. Kapur, the faculty member singled out in the original complaint, said she was worried that the agreement could potentially condone future personal attacks under the cover of confidentiality.

"In my view this settlement has set a very bad precedent for the work culture at SIUC, of what one can expect from other colleagues in terms of basic standards of ethical conduct," Kapur said in a statement. "Faculty have every right to organize and defend their rights against administration. As a one-time very active member of the [faculty association] and one who is very firmly committed to labor rights I absolutely support that right. Yet, that right does not mean that faculty can make demeaning and libelous attacks against colleagues they disagree with and that such attacks can be made in secret."

 

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