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Killing the Messenger?

July 8, 2008

The presidents of faculty unions and college administrators sometimes clash -- it goes with the territory. But at the Moore College of Art and Design, in Philadelphia, union leaders say that their president has been fired for being a strong advocate -- raising questions about the ability of anyone to speak out.

Despite an arbitrator's ruling that the college did not have cause to issue a "final warning" to Steve Sherman, and a pending arbitration over the actual termination, the college says that the firing stands. And that means that when Sherman wants to communicate with the professors he is supposed to represent, he can't use the college's e-mail and he must be watched by security guards whenever he is on campus.

"When the most visible person is attacked in that way, it sends a signal to the entire campus. People are afraid to speak out," said Amy Rosenberger, a labor lawyer representing Sherman.

For its part, the college denies that Sherman was fired for being a strong advocate for professors, and says he was treated fairly. But the college acknowledges that faculty members played no role in deciding Sherman's fate -- even though dismissal decisions involving professors at other institutions routinely include some peer review, and faculty advocates say that such a role is essential to protect academic freedom.

Faculty members voted no confidence in President Happy Craven Fernandez in February, shortly after Sherman was fired. But now, with an arbitrator's ruling that backs Sherman on one of the incidents that led to his dismissal, the American Federation of Teachers -- with which Moore's faculty union is affiliated -- is drawing attention to the case and trying to push for Sherman's reinstatement.

Sherman, a painter, was elected to lead the union in 2005 and his tenure has seen numerous disputes with the administration -- disputes that his supporters maintain are the real reason he was dismissed. For example, in 2006, the college imposed a new "code of ethics" that the union believed infringed on academic freedom and amounted to a non-negotiated change in its contract. Among other things, the code barred employees from doing anything that might negatively reflect on the college. Since many art professors are themselves artists, and since artists regularly create works that offend all kinds of people, the union said that this effectively would limit their artistic expression. A federal administrative judge ruled for the union and found that imposing the code without negotiation amounted to an unfair labor practice.

The most recent ruling against the college concerns the "final warning" Sherman received that he might be fired for further infractions. In this case, Sherman was brought up on charges for saying that a dean had lied in claiming faculty support for merging two departments -- one on two-dimensional art and another on three-dimensional art (or, to oversimplify, the department that works on painting and drawing with the department that works on sculpture). The issue was an important one because the supposed faculty support was a factor in the board's decision to approve the merger. And, as Sherman noted, while combining such art genres might seem standard at some colleges, these are distinct fields at an art college.

The arbitrator found that the evidence was divided -- while the administration could point to some who said that the faculty members in the two departments had voted to merge, Sherman had the testimony of several eyewitnesses who said that no such vote had ever taken place. Further, there was no written record of it having taken place. The arbitrator also noted that many of those who testified in his hearing were opposed to the merger -- putting into question the college's assertion that no one had opposed the merger.

While the arbitrator found in the end that there was no conclusive evidence one way or the other, he asserted that in such a circumstance, it was wrong to reprimand Sherman -- when there was no proof. Sherman was clearly "pugnacious" and used some "inflammatory" language, the arbitrator ruled, but he added that "the policing of diction that is short of slander or ethnically pejorative, or the penalizing of a demeanor that is short of threatening or assaultive, constitutes a censorship that is incompatible with the robust free-speech environment of a collegiate institution."

By the time the arbitrator ruled, Sherman had been fired -- this time in an incident his lawyer described as his asserting his authority over a disruptive student. (The college won't comment on why he was fired.) A new arbitration is taking place over that incident. Since the "final warning" is theoretically a sanction that comes before a dismissal, and that sanction has now been invalidated, Sherman says he should be rehired, but the college says it has no plans to do so.

Sherman said that the real issue is that he constantly challenges the administration. He has noted the increase reliance on adjuncts (he says it has shifted over the last decade from 75 percent full-timers to 75 percent adjuncts -- the college disputes that the full-time figure was ever so high). Noting all the grievances and arbitrations, he said, "I've been seen as a considerable problem for them as I've slowed their progress." The apparent goal, he said, was to make Moore "a more commercial institution," with limited faculty rights.

Supporters of Sherman also note that his last five-year evaluation prior to becoming union president was glowing. He was praised by the college for "devotion to students" and his "passion for teaching," qualities that professors say were suddenly called into question when he assumed a role as their chief spokesman.

Fernandez, the president, sees the situation differently. While refusing to comment on why Sherman was fired, she said that he "was terminated from employment at Moore because of his behavior as a faculty member. The fact that he is a union president was not part of the termination."

She said that Moore believes the union can play a role on wages and benefits issues, but that's all. Although there is no faculty senate or equivalent at the college, she said "it's really not the union's business to be making decisions or representing the faculty on all the other non-union issues in the college." (She added that many college committees do welcome professors as members.)

She said that because of possible litigation and her respect for Sherman's privacy, she wouldn't comment on the case directly. But she said that dismissal was appropriate, as was the requirement that he be accompanied by security officers if he's on campus for union business.

Fernandez said that one of her top priorities has been raising faculty salaries and improving the academic quality of the college -- goals that professors back. Asked why they voted no confidence overwhelmingly, she said that "I knew when I made the decision to terminate Steve Sherman for his behavior as a faculty member ... there was bound to be some backlash." She said that faculty members "do not know why he was terminated."

Of course, to some faculty members, that points to a precise problem. Most experts on academic freedom argue that in dismissing faculty members in the middle of a contract (there is no tenure at Moore so a multi-year contract is the most secure one can be), some faculty members should be involved. While a president may make a final decision on dismissal, the norm is for faculty peers to play a role in evaluating alleged wrongdoing and to offer an opinion on the case.

Fernandez said flatly that this was not "tradition or custom" at Moore and she noted that when she terminated another employee without any faculty input, some years ago, no questions were raised.

Of termination, she said that "in this school, that is an administrative decision."

 

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