Discourteous Dismissal

U. of North Georgia case raises key questions: Is rudeness grounds to revoke tenure? Should professors' jobs be at risk over criteria in employee handbook that are not in faculty handbook?

March 9, 2015
U. of North Georgia
Victoria McCard

Is the University of North Georgia moving to terminate a tenured professor of Spanish at its Dahlonega campus for being rude? Some North Georgia faculty members say that’s what’s happening to their colleague, Victoria McCard, and that her case demonstrates the university’s disregard for the tenets of tenure.

Various faculty accounts of exactly what transpired between McCard and a guest lecturer on campus in mid-October differ slightly, but they’re essentially the same on key issues. McCard, whom colleagues described as outspoken, asked the guest lecturer to speak up during a public presentation in the library -- either because he was too quiet or because McCard thought he wasn’t being direct enough in his remarks about the political climate in his home country of El Salvador, or both. Either way, McCard offended the lecturer, who later met with her to discuss what had happened. He and McCard did not see eye to eye, and the lecturer lodged a complaint against her with the department chair. The chair reported it to the administration, which investigated the claim through a series of interviews with Spanish department faculty members.

A week later, McCard received notice that she was being suspended from teaching and barred from campus. She soon received word that the university was moving to fire her for various charges under the umbrella of being an unruly employee: disruptive behavior, discredit to the university, insubordination and interfering with the work performance of another employee.

Most of those charges come from the university’s employee handbook, which says that employees can be terminated for insubordination, “discourteous” or disruptive behavior and interfering with the work performance of another employee, among other offenses. That handbook is separate, however, from the faculty handbook, which includes a different set of offenses for which a tenured faculty member may be terminated.

While the faculty handbook criteria for dismissal of a tenured faculty member are more extensive than guidelines established by the American Association of University Professors, they do not include discourteousness. Terminable offenses include felony convictions or committing a crime involving “moral turpitude,” professional incompetence, drug use or sale and -- the circumstance most applicable to McCard’s charges -- “disruption of any teaching, research, administrative, disciplinary, public service or authorized activity.” Those mirror terminable charges are outlined by the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, and there is nothing more explicit regarding faculty termination criteria in North Georgia’s statutes.

According to AAUP guidelines, which are followed by many if not most universities, tenured faculty members only should be terminated only in cases of financial exigency, program closures and “adequate cause” related “directly and substantially” to their abilities as teachers and researchers. Greg Scholtz, director of tenure, academic freedom and governance for the association, said that most institutions define that last category as incompetence, professional misconduct or gross neglect.

“I have never seen ‘rudeness’ enumerated among the grounds for dismissal in any institutional regulations,” he said via e-mail. Scholtz noted that McCard’s charges seemed to allege violations of civility, which the AAUP says should never be grounds for dismissal alone. Like its cousin, collegiality, civility is controversial among faculty advocates, who say that it shouldn't be part of personnel decisions. It was at play in the Steven Salaita case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example. Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, also faced criticism last year for talking about the value of civility. 

AAUP’s statement on civility says that while “'civility and tolerance are hallmarks of educated men and women’ and [...] ‘serious breaches of civility’ should be ‘condemn[ed],’ [the association] maintains that ‘adequate cause for a dismissal will be related, directly and substantially, to the fitness of faculty members in their professional capacities as teachers or researchers” and, further, that "consideration of the manner of expression is rarely appropriate to an assessment of academic fitness.”

Scholtz also said there’s no official AAUP policy regarding whether faculty members should be governed by the employee or faculty handbooks, and that to his knowledge the issue has never come up before. He guessed that was because it’s assumed that faculty members should governed by the faculty handbook.

McCard referred requests for comment to her lawyer, John Beasley, who said that her case will be mediated outside of the university setting this week. That’s in lieu of a planned hearing before an elected faculty body, whose recommendation the university could have overturned.

Beasley said McCard hoped to reach an “amicable resolution,” and that if external mediation failed, the university hearing would proceed as planned.

Kate Maine, university spokeswoman, said North Georgia was initiating dismissal proceedings against McCard “in response to a request by faculty members in Dr. McCard’s department.” She said the university was following University System of Georgia policy, and that a panel of faculty members had conducted an “informal review of the investigation report” on McCard, and recommended that the university’s president proceed with termination.

Maine confirmed that the university and McCard have agreed to postpone a formal faculty review of the decision to meet with an external mediator.

Several members of the Spanish department, including Elizabeth Combier, chair, did not return requests for comment.

But McCard has some vocal supporters on campus, if outside of her department.

David Broad, a tenured professor of sociology at North Georgia, said he’s only an acquaintance of McCard’s but became involved in her case as informal advocate because he thinks the charges against her are unfair. He said he’s reviewed all of the paperwork regarding her case (but declined to share it with Inside Higher Ed, citing the fact that it belongs to McCard), and that “if you look at all the facts, frankly, this is an exaggeration.” Moreover, he said, none of the alleged offenses -- even if they were true -- “rise to the level of possible termination of a tenured faculty member.”

Broad also said he felt it was offense to the institution of tenure that the university was slapping McCard with terminable charges ripped from the employee handbook -- which could apply to anyone on campus, including, say, service staff, for whom courteousness is much more arguably a job requirement -- and not the faculty-specific handbook.

He said the informal investigation against McCard -- performed by an administrator and based entirely on unsigned interviews with Spanish department faculty members -- was “hearsay” at best, since they held no legal standing and McCard was not given the opportunity to defend herself before she was barred from campus.

Barry Friedman, a tenured professor political science at North Georgia who also has advocated for McCard on campus, said he’s known her for more than 20 years. He said McCard “always states her opinion,” but that he’s enjoyed a positive relationship with her.

He guessed that McCard “intimidated” some of her fellow faculty members, who, rather than addressing the issue with her personally, were taking advantage of university processes that are increasingly unfavorable to strong-willed faculty members. Friedman said there was a series of changes to shared governance procedures at North Georgia in 2009 that placed an increasing amount of power in the hands of deans and other administrators, and that that’s had a dramatic impact on faculty culture.

For example, he said in a January statement to the Faculty Senate's Faculty Affairs Committee, routine problems that used to be resolved in discussions between faculty members and department heads are now sometimes addressed in written letters of reprimand from deans, placed in faculty members’ personnel files without the opportunity to appeal.

Summing up his concerns about shared governance on campus, Friedman said, “The faculty here lives in fear.”

Broad agreed, saying, “That old traditional advice that we have given to non-tenured faculty to keep their heads down now extends to tenured faculty.”

But Mark Spraker, a professor of physics at North Georgia and chair of its Faculty Senate, said that if the faculty was living in fear there, it was news to him. He said the 2009 changes regarding deans were related to a campus restructuring, and gave them more say in financial issues but not disciplinary ones. Spraker said he hadn't heard of increased letters of reprimand in personnel files, for example, and said that the campus was still a place where "you get things done by leaning on people's doors and talking with them."

Spraker said he also "unfortunately" concurred that the evidence gathered against McCard -- whom he called a "friend" -- was enough to proceed with possible dismissal proceedings. He said he couldn't discuss details about a private, personnel case, but that the informal investigation revealed Spanish department faculty concerns about McCard that went beyond the disagreement with the lecturer, and just being "rude." Asked whether those concerns related to McCard's ability as a teacher or researcher, Spraker said "teaching isn't all you do as a faculty member," and that "collegiality" is an imporant part of interactions with students and fellow professors.


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