Northeastern Illinois University has settled for an undisclosed amount with Loretta Capeheart, the tenured professor of justice studies who sued the institution for defamation after she said it accused her of “stalking” a student. Capeheart has claimed the university made that allegation in retaliation for her activism on campus, including protesting the Central Intelligence Agency. Previously, the university had tried to kill Capeheart’s suit by citing state anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) laws. But an appeals court sided against the university in September, saying that the institution did not refute any major aspect of Capeheart’s claim. The news of the settlement comes just weeks after the American Association of University Professors released a report accusing the institution of denying tenure to second professor in retaliation for his department’s involvement in a no-confidence vote in the president. Capeheart, whose legal battle began six years ago, said via email that the September ruling most helped her case, but the recent AAUP report also likely encouraged the university to settle, in that it “publicly exposed the university’s willingness to override basic faculty and citizens’ rights.”
She added: “It is incomprehensible to me that a university that is supposed to be the place for vigorous debate and discussion, the very basis of democracy, chose to engage in a legal battle intent on silencing faculty and others who work at the university.”
A university spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Don Matthews, the professor of religious studies who was suspended from teaching at Naropa University after taking an indefinite vow of silence, has been reinstated, the Daily Camera reported. Matthews was suspended in December after refusing to speak in class, in protest of what he said was institutional racism at Naropa. Administrators said they had logged dozens of students complaints against Matthews, including that he told students they needed to seek mental health services and had threatened to sue others for defamation. The vow of silence in the classroom was a kind of last straw, they said, although President Charles Lief said the institution was devoted to working with Matthews to ensure he returned to teaching. Matthews denied those claims, and said he was unaware of student complaints against him prior to his suspension. Lief said he'd been offered multiple opportunities for professional development. Naropa, a Buddhist university, does not offer tenure to professors. Matthews said he had hired legal representation and had filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to see if the suspension had violated his civil rights. A board spokesman on Monday confirmed that his case was being investigated by a regional board, but had no further information.
The Christian Theological Seminary, in Indiana, has announced a "sustainability plan" that involves buyouts to faculty members while looking for partnerships with other institutions and developing new financial strategies. While not detailed in the announcement, the buyouts could substantially change the nature of the institution. Some concerned students have heard rumors that essentially all faculty members are being asked to accept deals. But a spokeswoman for the seminary said that the buyout offers have been presented to 70 percent of tenured faculty members.
The job market for faculty positions in religion was relatively stable in 2012, better than it was immediately after the economic downturn hit in 2008, but still down from earlier, according to a report by the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion.
Based on job listings with the associations, the report says that the 2012 totals were only about 80 percent of those in 2008. In the past three years, the scholarly sub-specialties in which there were the greatest increases in positions were New Testament, Christian origins and ancient Christianity; and systematic/constructive theology.
Among the specialties showing declines were introduction to religion; Hebrew Bible; and religions of the ancient Near East.
About a year ago I was paging through a report prepared for our college by a group of leading risk-management consultants. Illustrated with brightly colored heat maps and tables, the report’s conclusions looked fairly reasonable. But then I reached a chart titled “Reputation Risk.” Tucked among the factors that contribute to reputation, listed only after “branding” and “community relations,” was the phrase “academic excellence.”
As a longtime faculty member and dean of the college, I reacted strongly. Academic excellence, I thought, deserved more than this supporting role. For your typical manufactured product, its quality may be adjusted to optimize reputation with customers (and thus profits). But academic excellence? That’s the ultimate goal. It’s what we should most fear putting at risk.
At the end of June, I would complete my term as dean. As my thoughts kept turning to risk and liberal education, I talked with the president. We agreed that as a transitional step before returning to teach, I could spend one year conducting a risk project. Some of its goals are specific to our campus, but more broadly it’s a labor of translation. Why would that be needed?
The Language of Risk
Corporate jargon may help explain why campuswide awareness of risk has not fully taken hold at many academic institutions. Deans, presidents, and faculty leaders can find the framework of Enterprise Risk Management, commonly known as ERM, alienating. The talk of suppliers, products, deliverables, and profits is not our language.
Risk management was born to protect the bottom line of corporations. (Success has been mixed, but that’s a different story.) For the past 10 years or so, financial consultants offering risk services have tried to expand into the higher education market. While it’s hard to reject the pitch that “nonprofits face risks, too,” one could also argue academe is sufficiently different from the corporate world that frameworks like ERM will require at least a translation — and perhaps deeper revision — before they can serve us well.
Taking Risk Campuswide
In many ways my transition feels natural. For five years I was second to the president, serving as vice president for academic affairs. I helped to confront the risks that typically face a college, from anticipating a flu pandemic to deciding whether to shut down during a blizzard; from the agonies of the recession to nervous reports of little brown bats winging through the chapel. I’m well-prepared to step back and evaluate how our college responds to risk. Yet to my knowledge, this particular administrative move is unprecedented.
At most places — as I know from recently attending the national meeting of URMIA, the University Risk Management and Insurance Association — risk management lives in the treasurer’s office. Risk managers may have a background in environmental health and safety or human resources; often their primary training is in insurance. Regardless of specific professional field, college risk managers are likely to have broad responsibilities, from regulatory compliance to decisions about campus events, and from employee training to coverage for student travel abroad. Groups of universities have formed organizations like United Educators and EIIA (Educational & Institutional Insurance Administrators) to offer insurance and other risk services.
The risk managers at the conference were forthcoming and curious. My status as a faculty member was more interesting to them than my recent deanship. They told me that they wish professors understood more about how risk works. The risk managers want to be perceived less as naysayers and obstructionists, and more as a resource to keep activities safe and legal. They don’t want to shut down study abroad, but they want to be sure the college has a plan for evacuation in the event of national crisis or natural disaster. From where they sit in the finance office, it’s not easy to have this conversation with the faculty.
As we talk, it’s clear the risk managers recognize that for colleges and universities the real bottom line is the institution’s mission: to teach and conduct research. Threats to the mission are, for us all, the ultimate risk. And since no one knows more about teaching and scholarship than they do, the faculty is the proper guardian of college mission. I now start to understand that purposeful risk engagement could help colleges take a fresh look at shared governance.
Risk and Governance
Faculty leaders, whether as champions or critics of a proposed initiative, are all too familiar with hearing about risk from administrators, legal counsel, and even from board members. Fiduciary risk, compliance risk, liability: We’ve all seen the risk card shut a conversation down.
But once they are fluent in risk, academic leaders will contribute more effectively. They can evaluate and speak to risk in the special context of a college’s mission. As any risk manager will tell you, risk can be positive or negative. The uncertainty at hand may represent an awesome academic opportunity, or may threaten what the institution stands for. Shared governance will work better when we succeed in having all the relevant dimensions of risk — including the ultimate risk, to institutional mission — fully voiced and appropriately weighed.