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Mum's Not the Word

December 13, 2012

The American Association of University Professors on Wednesday released a draft of a new policy against blanket confidentiality requirements for faculty members serving on shared governance committees.

A trend of complaints over time from professors – some of whom have been asked to sign confidentiality agreements – prompted the policy. AAUP finds such requirements problematic because faculty often are selected or choose to serve on committees to represent the views and interests of fellow faculty members.

“The default should be the expectation that faculty serving as representatives be allowed to inform and confer with the faculty they represent,” said Hans-Jeorg Tiede of AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance. The computer science professor at Illinois Wesleyan University helped write “Confidentiality and Faculty Representation in Academic Governance,” AAUP’s first explicit statement on the topic.

The draft attempts to differentiate between shared governance roles in which the faculty member’s primary purpose is to represent the faculty, such as on faculty senates, and roles for which the faculty member has been selected due to his or her particular qualifications, such as faculty personnel committees. The former roles should not require confidentiality, while the latter roles may require confidentiality, AAUP contends.

Examples of nonconfidential matters include faculty status and curriculum, as well as those that aren’t traditionally considered the primary responsibility of faculty, such as budgeting, administrative searches and long-range planning. Potentially confidential information includes that relating to individual privacy, such as appointments, reappointments, tenure, promotions, grievances or internal grants.

Ultimately, the policy places the burden of proving the need for confidentiality on the institution, rather than on faculty members to prove that confidentiality isn’t necessary. It also advises faculty against preemptively committing to or signing confidentiality agreements (other than those serving on personnel committees).

Concerning search committees for presidents and other chief academic officers, AAUP acknowledges the need for confidentiality during certain stages of the process, but recommends an “open phase” toward the end, in which search committee members as well as the general faculty can discuss and review finalists’ names and credentials before a decision is made. Candidates who wish to remain anonymous can drop out of the search before that phase, the policy states.

Although he agreed that an open phase could keep some candidates from applying, Tiede said “that consequence will have to be balanced against the longstanding position of the AAUP that faculty should have an important voice in the selection of administrators, certainly presidents, provosts and deans.”

But search committee experts took exception to that logic.

Jamie Ferrare, principal of AGB Search, said he likes open searches, as they’re a win-win for communities and candidates that have an opportunity to vet each other. But the policy could shrink the candidate pool, especially at the presidential level, he said. Search format choices should be therefore left to individual institutions.

Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and a former search consultant who now advises faculties and administrations on a variety of issues, agreed that the policy could have negative consequences. “Higher education is replete with stories of sitting presidents whose candidacies for other positions alienated their boards, including cases where boards have fired their presidents for looking elsewhere,” she said.

 

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