No Show of Hands

Towson U. policy change raises question: Should tenure committee votes be by secret ballot?
February 11, 2011

The University Senate of Towson University voted on Monday to safeguard the anonymity of committee members' votes in tenure decisions by instituting secret ballots, in an effort to standardize practices on the 21,000-student campus.

The vote, 11 in favor to 7 opposed with 2 abstentions, has resulted in a policy that is thought to depart from the norm in higher education, which is a voice vote or show of hands. While many colleges expect committees that vote on tenure not to reveal how members voted, word has been known to leak out. The new policy has also raised competing concerns. While it is seen as a way to assure that tenure votes will not be swayed by the political or interpersonal pressures that can come when openly casting a vote, others worry that the secrecy will breed a lack of accountability.

At Towson, the new policy was meant primarily to standardize the voting practices of tenure committees across the university's departments and colleges (tenure decisions at Towson go first to a department committee, then to a college committee and finally to the provost). Until now, practices have varied; some departments and colleges conduct voice votes, while others render their decisions by anonymous ballot, said Timothy Sullivan, chair of the University Senate and an associate professor of economics. The new policy stakes out a middle ground: votes are cast by ballot, but they bear the committee member's university identification number.

"It was sort of a compromise," said Sullivan. Anonymity is essentially preserved because university identification numbers are seldom known, even by the people they identify, said Sullivan. At the same time, including these numbers on the ballot makes it possible to attribute the votes to those who cast them in case the decision is appealed later. As was the case before the new policy was adopted, committee chairs will send letters with a tally of the votes -- but without an accounting of how individual members voted -- to explain the decision to candidates.

"The use of an identification number rather than a name is a creative middle ground between an anonymous system and one that uses names," said Ann H. Franke, a lawyer who consults widely with colleges on legal issues. "Having a way to retain the ballots and trace them back can be useful."

Tracing ballots is important in case a lawsuit is filed. While not every candidate who is denied promotion or tenure or whose contract is not renewed raises a complaint after the fact, those who do complain tend to sue, said Franke. Institutions often win such disputes, but settlements or judgments can run between $100,000 and $500,000, as seen at the University of Oregon, the Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle, Brown University and New Mexico Highlands University.

But several experts argued that conducting a secret ballot (or, in this case, an almost secret one) runs counter to the prevailing ethos in higher education. “In an era of transparency and accountability, I would say that a move to this sort of secrecy is not a good idea,” said Cathy A. Trower, research director of the Collaborative On Academic Careers in Higher Education at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education.

"Less transparency can create less trust in the process," said D. Frank Vinik, a lawyer and risk manager with United Educators, which drafted, with the American Council on Education and the American Association of University Professors, an overview of sound practices in tenure decisions.

These practices include making sure standards and procedures are clear. They don't, however, address whether voting should be open. The larger consideration is what happens before the votes are cast, said Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP. "It is important that tenure votes are preceded by frank, thorough, and open discussion," he said. "But I believe votes by secret ballot are acceptable."

Vinik cautioned that secrecy can lead to unfairness. "If people believe their votes are going to be anonymous, they have the potential to be more arbitrary," he said. "If you know you’re going to be held accountable by your colleagues for the way you vote, people may take greater care."

At the same time, Vinik and others said they saw some merit to arguments in favor of the change. In a voice vote or show of hands, voters can be swayed by political infighting, interpersonal conflicts and long memories for grudges. Some even suggested that voters or candidates who are bullies may interfere with an honest result. "I think faculty try hard to be objective and fair, but they’re also human beings influenced by the reactions of others," said Vinik.

Some at Towson described faculty members as being very much split on the change. They voted 8-7 in favor of the new policy (the remaining votes were cast by students). Douglas Ross, professor of management, is also chair of the committee on promotion, tenure, re-appointment and merit, which considers appeals made on procedural grounds. He said he has heard complaints after both styles of votes were conducted by committees -- that open voting created pressure and that closed ballots bred distrust. "It seems to me that there is truth and justice to some extent on both sides," he said. He also doubted the new policy would have a major impact.

Both Ross and Sullivan described the culture at Towson as collegial, and expressed confidence that any problems that may arise can be fixed. "It also is just a policy," Sullivan said. "If it turns out that this is too cumbersome and, in practice, this causes problems, this can always be revised."


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