Standing By Researchers at Public Universities

Early in his career, administrators backed Donald Heller’s right to do politically sensitive scholarly work. He believes public university leaders must do the same for their faculty members now.

November 30, 2021
 
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The recent controversy around the decision at the University of Florida to prohibit professors from participating in lawsuits against the state (a decision later reversed by President Kent Fuchs) is an example of the hyperpoliticization that has gripped many campuses in recent years. University leaders, particularly those in public institutions, have become gun-shy over any action that could have the appearance of antagonizing the politicians in their state.

While governors and legislators can have great influence over public colleges and universities, presidents, provosts and deans need to demonstrate the courage to stand up to them in order to protect the integrity of their institutions, their faculty members and their students. While many today seem reluctant or unable to do so, this is not always the case. An illustrative example from early in my career can demonstrate the critical influence that strong leadership can provide.

In 2000, I was in my first academic position as an untenured professor at the University of Michigan. I had been conducting research on state-funded scholarship programs around the country, examining their impact on college access and whether they helped close or exacerbate existing gaps in college participation among low-income students, students of color and more advantaged groups.

I was approached by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan about being an expert witness in a federal lawsuit (White v. Engler, 188 F. Supp. 2d 730 [E.D. Mich. 2001]) they were in the process of filing against the state of Michigan and the state’s then governor, John Engler. The suit would be a Title VI and 14th Amendment challenge to the Michigan Merit Award Scholarship Program, alleging that the program, which provided merit-based scholarships to college students, discriminated against low-income and racial minority students in the state. The foundation of the suit were some initial analyses conducted by the ACLU that demonstrated that these students were much less likely to be awarded the scholarships than were more advantaged students.

My role in the lawsuit would be to conduct more detailed research on the disparate impact of the scholarship program, and to testify as to my research findings in depositions and ultimately at a federal trial if the suit went that far. As I began to analyze the data, I saw very quickly that the largest beneficiary of this scholarship program was my own institution, the University of Michigan. This was no great surprise, since the scholarships were awarded based on academic merit and the university was the most selective in the state, attracting many of its top students. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation showed that the university would likely receive tens of millions of dollars from this scholarship program annually.

I realized that a successful legal challenge to the program could cost the university this amount, as much of the scholarship money from the state was likely displacing institutional grant aid that would have come directly from university funds. I immediately became concerned about participating in the suit, fearing that the university would see my work as directly threatening its finances. I was also concerned whether the university would receive pressure to take action against me from legislators who created and supported the program, or even the governor, who was a named defendant in the suit and who also was a big backer of the scholarships. And as a junior faculty member, I knew I lacked the protection that tenure provided my more senior colleagues.

On the one hand, I felt strongly from the research I had conducted that the scholarship program was discriminatory and not likely to help the state meet its goal of increasing college participation. On the other, being in my first academic position and with a young family, I needed to be concerned with my job security and did not want to do anything that would jeopardize my shot at getting tenure when I went up for promotion in a few years. So I went and talked with my department chair at the time, seeking her advice on what I should do.

Her response was “You should go talk to the provost and ask her what she thinks.” I did not know the provost, Nancy Cantor (who later went on to become chancellor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Syracuse University and Rutgers University at Newark) well, other than having seen her in large group meetings. But I dutifully made an appointment to meet with her about a week later.

When I met with the provost, I outlined the situation for her, emphasizing the potential financial impact a successful lawsuit would have on the university. She asked if I felt my research was solid, and I replied that I believed it was, and it was consistent with work I had done examining the impact of other merit scholarship programs around the country.

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Without hesitation she responded, “Then you should work on the lawsuit with the ACLU. It’s important work, and if the program is found to be in violation of the law, then it should be shut down. And I’ll make sure there are no repercussions against you, even if we hear from anyone in state government.” I thanked her and, with that assurance, went ahead and worked with the ACLU on the lawsuit.

I worked on the suit for approximately two years, and the detailed analyses I conducted confirmed that the program was awarding scholarships disproportionately to white, Asian and wealthier students—all groups that historically have been overrepresented in higher education. In the end, however, the suit was dismissed by the judge before trial on a technicality, so it never received a full hearing in the courtroom. And I never heard from anyone in state government questioning my participation in the suit.

It is important to acknowledge that the University of Michigan and the University of Florida are different institutions. Michigan enjoys much more autonomy under its state constitution and has an independently elected Board of Regents. In Florida the governor appoints the majority of the university’s board, and he and the Legislature have much more influence over the institution. Historically, Michigan has been more immune to political interference than has Florida.

If faculty members believe their work will run afoul of politicians, the independent pursuit of knowledge will suffer. As I have looked back on my experience from 20 years ago, I appreciate the support that my provost showed me, and her assurance that I would be protected from outside political influences. She showed the courage that university leaders need to demonstrate today to ensure that the work of their faculty members is not stifled by the political debates of the day.

Bio

Donald E. Heller is vice president of operations and former provost and vice president of academic affairs at the University of San Francisco.

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