Grievances About Grievance Procedures

Professors at U. of Missouri consider whether they can get a fair hearing with an administrator in the room.
October 16, 2008

When a faculty member feels wronged, there's usually a system in place to turn to, whether or not it's one that has broad support and trust.

It's that last part that makes the difference between grievance procedures that enjoy broad buy-in from faculty, as opposed to a perception that they are a tool of the administration. At the University of Missouri at Columbia, where the system has undergone several overhauls in recent years, faculty members are again voting for a new set of procedures that would streamline the process and, among other things, place an administrator on the grievance resolution panel along with members of the faculty.

"We’re so used to the old hearing/panel model ... with a panel of our peers, make a recommendation to the chancellor who then makes a decision," said Laurie Mintz, an investigative officer in the current grievance procedure who helped initiate the new policy. "So people are so used to that model ... but if you look at this very carefully, this is not called a hearing panel. It’s called a grievance resolution panel, and unlike a faculty hearing panel who takes into account all the data and simply sends a recommendation to the chancellor, this grievance resolution panel actually can do one of many different things including informally mediate the dispute."

Supporters say the proposed changes will move the grievance system toward a focus on a cooperative process of mediation rather than one based on litigation, with aggrieved faculty pitted against the administration. But a group of faculty members, including the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors, warns that including an administrator on the review panel could discourage some faculty members from using the system out of fear of retribution or allow the administration to co-opt the process.

"There's been a longstanding problem with the system in that it takes too long," said Michael Middleton, deputy chancellor and a professor of law at the university. "The system has always involved a hearing panel of faculty members selected to hear grievances, and they sort of preside over a quasi-legal-type proceeding where there is a good deal of discovery and production of documents and there are formal hearings and you take testimony and then the panel deliberates and when there is a recommended decision, that is then submitted to the chancellor for action."

Critics have also charged that the chancellor, Brady Deaton, sometimes did not follow the recommendations of the grievance panel. So, considering that and what some called the contentious nature of the existing system, which is itself a temporary pilot program approved by the Board of Curators, the faculty affairs committee of the Faculty Council went back to the drawing board.

"The biggest problem in my mind is the lack of oversight of the entire process and the implementation of the remedies at the end," said Tom Phillips, chairman of the Faculty Council. He said that as it currently stands, "the reality is, no one knows" whether the chancellor's remedy matches that recommended by the faculty because of privacy safeguards. Whether or not that was intended to keep them in the dark, he said, the new system will improve the process by allowing an observer throughout the hearing and making the results public. If the chancellor doesn't fully implement the chosen remedy, he added, the faculty can press for a reason.

"I think that will keep a lot of misconceptions and innuendo [at bay]," he said, since "people are saying things and no one really knows whether it's true or just a perception thing."

Ballots are already out to faculty, who will decide by the end of the month on the plan that was already approved by the Faculty Council. On Monday, at a faculty meeting on the subject, professors expressed their concerns about the plan, many of which echoed the AAUP's criticisms.

Many faculty "feel strongly that this should be a peer review" of violations of faculty rights, said Victoria Johnson, co-vice president of the university's AAUP chapter. Having an administrator be part of the whole process, she said, raised questions about perceived pressure on faculty as well as the fact that the resolution panels would be small -- some could "find those interpersonal dynamics to be a bit awkward."

"Some of the complaints ... have concerned issues of alleged retaliation by administrators for someone filing a hostile complaint, that kind of thing," she continued, and some faculty "might see the panel as already rigged, that is, an administrator is already there."

Phillips disagrees, arguing instead that having an administrator on board during the whole process could actually make it easier to convey that a certain course of action is preferable, and that it could turn officials into advocates rather than adversaries.

"I guess I have a higher respect for our administrators than some do," Phillips said.

"I think there's a misunderstanding. If you view the panel as a democratic process among faculty or a jury-type process where you're voting on which side you agree with, I can understand an argument that there shouldn't be an administrator on that group because he or she is always going to vote against the agreement," said Middleton, the deputy chancellor.

"That assumes that all administrators are always against the grievant, which is, of course, not true. And it assumes that this is a voting situation, which it is not. If you make those assumptions, then I understand the argument that there shouldn't be an administrator. But if you assume the grievance resolution panel is indeed a resolution panel ... then it makes sense to have an administrator among that group because the administrator is likely to know what is possible [in terms of an] administrative resolution."

The Board of Curators is "getting tired of pilots," he continued, and the current pilot -- extended for a fourth year -- is set to expire. If passed, the new plan will likely go into effect for a two-year trial period.

"There is no perfect grievance procedure, ever," Mintz concluded. "Grievances involve people who are upset, who feel they have been wronged, who are in pain and angry, and the other side is often also angry and in pain.... [W]hat we were truly trying to do here is to truly find an efficient, thorough procedure that has the potential to solve rather than exacerbate problems."


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