Collegiality Concerns

After controversies involving two professors, Fresno State wants its "community" to be "respectful," "kind" and accountable. Many faculty members are on board, and university says principles won't be enforced. Others are skeptical.

January 2, 2019

Like many institutions, California State University, Fresno, has seen some major campus speech flaps in the past few years. One of its faculty members was investigated and eventually cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for tweeting that “[President Donald] Trump must hang.” Another professor publicly called Barbara Bush an “amazing racist” hours after the late first lady’s death.

Now the university is attempting to build positive “community” with a set of draft principles that “exemplify what we can and should be.” Specific principles include, “We approach interpersonal interactions with collegiality and integrity” and “We hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable for behaviors and outcomes.”

Professors who joined administrators and staff members in writing the principles say that their work was about improving campus culture -- not about controversies over free expression. But the proposed principles have alarmed and annoyed First Amendment and academic freedom watchdogs.

The American Association of University Professors, for example, opposes institutional regulations -- namely tenure criteria -- on “collegiality” for their potential to chill unpopular ideas or be used against controversial scholars. Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay, and chair of the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, said that documents such as Fresno State’s are at best “anodyne and quickly forgotten.” At worst, he said, they’re “used to justify censorship and conformity.”

Much depends on how these documents are used, Reichman said. The “problem” at Fresno State thus far is that the draft text “includes nothing to suggest what that use will be," he added.

If the devil is in the details, or lack thereof, here are some details. Fresno State’s draft “Principles of Community” say, “We all play a role in fostering a work and learning environment of respect, kindness, collaboration and accountability where every student, faculty, staff and administrator can thrive.” Such principles “reflect our core values of Discovery, Diversity and Distinction and our deep commitment to our mission to boldly educate and empower students for success,” they continue (emphasis Fresno State’s).

The draft continues as follows:

WE ARE RESPECTFUL  We approach interpersonal interactions with collegiality and integrity.  Value all employees and welcome their contributions. Listen with attention to all perspectives with the intent to understand. Consider the impact of our communication. Honor our word and commitments. Maintain confidentiality and privacy as appropriate. WE ARE KIND  We foster a sense of belonging by demonstrating compassion, empathy, care and concern.  Contribute to making Fresno State a welcoming community for all. Use words thoughtfully and be mindful of our actions. Assume good intentions. Acknowledge the contributions of others. Be patient and supportive. WE ARE COLLABORATIVE  We work together to achieve common goals, support the greater good and embrace Fresno State’s mission.  Build relationships to create a positive work and learning environment. Communicate to engage and be supportive of each other’s goals. Consider diverse ideas and opinions. Participate fully as a team member, do our share and make space for others to shine. WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE  We hold ourselves and our colleagues accountable for behaviors and outcomes.  Clearly communicate expectations and, when appropriate, jointly develop goals and objectives. Explain the purpose of decisions and actions. Share honest, meaningful feedback in a timely manner and receive feedback with an open mind. Own responsibility for our behaviors and actions.Source: Fresno State

Thomas T. Holyoke, professor of political science and chair of Fresno State’s Academic Senate, was part of a task force that wrote the principles. That task force held open forums, presented to the Senate and unions, and solicited faculty and staff input online, he said. And while forum attendance was never strong, Holyoke described feedback in general as “supportive.”

“After all, basically the principles just say we should be nice to each other. How do you object to that?” he asked. “The principles were, after all, created by faculty and staff for faculty and staff in an effort to reduce bullying problems.”

Academic bullying is not unique to Fresno State: stories abound across higher ed. And bullying doesn’t seem to be pervasive at Fresno State, based on a 2017 workplace quality survey that informed the principles. Respondents tended to agree that theirs was a good, inclusive place to work. Some 83 percent said they were well accepted by their co-workers, for example; the same percentage said they had a good relationship with their chair or supervisor. Still, the survey revealed some concerns about “accountability, especially as it relates to the inability to deal with low performers, disrespectful behaviors, and the perception of favoritism,” according to one report. Holyoke said some other faculty members involved in the project had experienced bullying firsthand.

Those concerns aside, Holyoke emphasized that the principles won’t and can’t be enforced.

“This is something I hope everyone at Fresno State is clear about -- these principles are just guidelines,” he said. “It is an aspirational document, not a policy.”

The Academic Senate will soon take up a separate project on guidelines for free speech and social media, he added, saying that, too, will be aspirational and not enforceable.

A university spokesperson referred a request for comment to another faculty member involved in the task force, Matthew Jendian, chair of sociology. Like Holyoke, he said that the principles are “not a policy or a set of rules.” Rather, he said, they’re a “philosophy that will inform and inspire the day-to-day practices of everyone who works at Fresno State. The principles are aspirational and align with our university values of discovery, diversity and distinction.”

Jendian said that his work surrounding this project -- including reading 2,600 responses to the online poll question "What are some of the behaviors we should expect of our teams and each other at Fresno State?" -- revealed “we had some workplace issues to address.” Nevertheless, he said, there will be “no disciplinary ramifications related to nonadherence.”

A second workplace quality survey will be conducted in March. Jendian said he imagines the principles will be revisited upon occasion.

As for the current draft, Jendian said the task force finalized it last month. The final version will be presented by Fresno State’s president, Joseph Castro, later this month.

Adam Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights Defense program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, is among those who have publicly criticized the draft. He said via email that Fresno State’s principles “urge that people should ‘clearly communicate expectations,’ which is good advice.” But the draft itself “falls short of that goal,” he said, “leaving unclear whether the ‘principles’ are merely aspirational goals or instead enforceable in some manner. They're almost certainly aspirational, as the principles are far too vague and subjective to be enforced without violating the First Amendment, but any chilling effect could be mitigated by clearly stating that they're goals, not rules.”

Steinbaugh said that some of the past speech controversies on at Fresno State were “prolonged” by the university's “hesitation to affirmatively defend its faculty members' First Amendment rights.” So “being clear now would help the university explain -- if, or when, the next controversy arises -- that while the institution has goals, its constituents have rights,” he added.

Reichman, of AAUP, said that campus officials have elsewhere stated that the principles will inform campus interactions. “Well, what happens if they don't inform the practice of someone who works at Fresno State?” he asked. Noting the principles’ nod to “accountability,” he wondered, “How will people be held accountable if these are just unenforceable guidelines? At minimum far greater clarity is needed.”

Reichman also criticized the principles’ use of the term “community” as lacking, in that it does not describe Fresno State as a very particular kind of community -- a university.

“One would think that in a university the first principle of community would be that we as a community are dedicated to the unfettered pursuit of knowledge through teaching and learning,” he said. “Yet there isn't the slightest recognition of that.”


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