Intervention From On High

UC San Diego faculty object to a dean telling a professor not to write or speak about a colleague's research.
May 26, 2011

When two faculty members disagree about issues related to research, is it right for an administrator to intervene?

A faculty committee at the University of California at San Diego examined that question in a report this week that finds that a dean responded to a dispute between two professors by telling one not to publish or speak out about the other's research. And that order, the committee concluded, violated basic principles of academic freedom.

"Faculty members’ rights to study, re-analyze, and publish controversial scholarly materials cannot be abridged," says the report from the UCSD Committee on Academic Freedom. "These rights to academic freedom cannot be administratively revoked to prevent possible future breaching of professional norms. In our view, the campus administration’s fundamental responsibility is precisely to protect the right of faculty members to research and publish scholarly work even when others, on or off campus, find the work or its conclusions controversial or objectionable."

The report goes on to call on the administration "to promptly and publicly accept responsibility for serious errors of judgment in this case" and "to take concrete steps to prevent future violations of academic freedom rights, such as training for all administrators and their staff on these rights, which lie at the very heart of the university."

The dispute at UCSD comes as a controversy with some similar overtones has alarmed some faculty members at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. In both cases, administrators have raised questions about faculty critiques of colleagues.

Even the suggestion that administrators might intervene in disputes between faculty members over research questions leaves faculty advocates concerned. "It really is not the business of an administrator to intervene in disputes over scholarship," said Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors.

Nelson acknowledged that faculty members who disagree with one another loudly might sometimes make people uncomfortable. But he said that it is the duty of administrators to protect the right of everyone to share his or her views, not to shut down one side of a dispute.

"This is life," he said. "People disagree, and out of disagreement sometimes better understanding comes, and sometimes disagreement comes and that's all.... But if you don't want faculty fighting, all you have to do is not have faculty."

The report prepared by the UCSD faculty committee does not identify the professors who are in a dispute or the dean who intervened, going so far as to avoid naming disciplines, genders or the nature of the scholarly disagreement.

The dean's letter in question told a faculty member identified only as "Professor A" the following: "You are to stop harassing [Professor B]. This means: stop contacting B with questions regarding [name of B's publication], his/her research methods, or his/her previous research methods; stop contacting others about your re-analysis of his/her data; refrain from discussing ... your re-analysis of B’s data at your presentations at any meetings, including scholarly meetings like the [name of professional association]; and do not publish texts that refer to ... your re-analysis of B’s data."

The letter went on to tell Professor A: "If you continue to engage in these activities, you may be subject to formal discipline, which can include written censure, reduction in salary, demotion, suspension, or dismissal."

The faculty committee that issued the report said that it was surprising and alarming to have an academic administrator order a faculty member not to publish or speak about a scholarly matter. The panel noted that the dean went beyond potential issues of libel or slander or legal matters that might necessitate intervention. "Moreover, no faculty body had (or subsequently has) found that either professor had talked or published unprofessionally," the faculty report says. "To the contrary: a duly-appointed faculty committee involved in the dispute called precisely for continuing discussion through the normal channels of academic debate (publication and oral presentation)."

Adding to the concern of the faculty committee was that the dean's letter noted consultations with other senior administrators on the matter. Though the dean told the committee that his letter was simply "a well-intentioned effort to protect reputations and collegial relations," the panel viewed the matter quite differently.

"We can not avoid the conclusion that the dean’s letter contains clear and unacceptable violations of core academic freedom rights, violations that were apparently implicitly or explicitly supported by others in the university administration at the time," the faculty report says.

Late Wednesday, the university released a statement that accepted the committee's findings. "We deeply regret that statements made by an academic administrator have led to questions about the administration's commitment to academic freedom rights," said the statement. "The Academic Senate leadership and administration of the University of California, San Diego unequivocally affirms our commitment to the principles of Academic Freedom. We acknowledge the recent determination by the Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) and agree with CAF that the administration has a fundamental responsibility to protect the rights of faculty to research and publish scholarly work, and we will jointly redouble our efforts to ensure that every member of our administration fully understands this responsibility."

Aftermath in Minnesota

While the nature of the scholarly dispute at UCSD is unclear, that's not the case at Minnesota. There, the question of faculty criticism arose after bioethicists and other professors asked the Board of Regents for an independent review of a death in a clinical trial at the university. The board rejected the request.

Subsequently, Mark Rotenberg, general counsel of the university, posed a series of questions to a faculty committee, including this one: "What is the faculty's collective role in addressing factually incorrect attacks on particular [University of Minnesota] faculty research activities?"

Rotenberg has argued that the question is legitimate, and protects researchers at the university from having their credibility unfairly undermined. And he has denied trying to punish those who have raised questions about the clinical trial.

Many faculty members at the university haven't been reassured, and see the question about "factually incorrect attacks" as an administrator's attempt to declare certain subjects off limits for faculty critiques of colleagues. Some faculty leaders, however, have said that Rotenberg's role has been mischaracterized and that the discussions have not amounted to any effort to limit academic freedom.

In both Minnesota and California, administrators have said that they are in some ways protecting faculty members from unfair or unreasonable criticism from colleagues. Those who are upset about the administrators' involvement say that they aren't opposed to civility, just the way it is being promoted.

Nelson of the AAUP said that "I'm a great believer in civility" and that everyone on campus can be a role model in promoting it. But he said that "faculty themselves" need to sort through any problems -- and that research disputes are best left for the market place of ideas to work out.

What if a faculty member complains about a colleague? Nelson said the answer is simple: "The dean should say, 'According to my records, you are both grown-ups and can handle this problem yourselves.'"

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