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Faculty Perspective: Malfeasance in academe and its danger for democracy

America faces a crisis over the lack of ethics and morality among elected officials, police, business executives and religious leaders. Academics so far are largely shielded from the public "tar brush" but they know about similar woes in their own profession, noted for example in the book "Leasing the Ivory Tower" by L. C. Soley. Conspicuous eruptions of academic administrative crime and corruption were reported in recent news stories by NPR and CNN regarding the University of California's Los Alamos National Laboratory and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory. Those reporting the story observed that American universities were as deviant as other institutions in American society. Notice that the "Persons of the Year" recognized by Time magazine were the three whistleblowers who exposed government malfeasance and business corruption.

The pervasiveness of this societal ill is being revealed through the ongoing sexual abuse scandal at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The academy administration had successfully conducted the usual cover-ups and had intimidated the victims. Fortunately, outside oversight in the form of the secretary of the Air Force is now finally exposing the fraud.

At U-M, many faculty and staff know of malfeasant acts inflicted by employees within the University's administration. Instances of malfeasance such as theft of intellectual property, plagiarism, conversion of resources, penalization for efforts to maintain academic standards, or bringing attention to creation of false information and documentation have been covered up by the administration. Investigation reveals that these cover-ups occur regularly, they are successful, and they have become a staple of the administrative underworld. U-M is a significant case study because of its large number of influential alumni and huge administrative appetite for the overhead from federal funding.

Policy statements do exist ostensibly for faculty and staff to protest and rectify malfeasant disregard for the public trust, but such statements are no better than practice and oversight procedures that are not implemented. In practice University administrations are no more capable of policing themselves than is Wall Street. Grievance procedures are whitewashes constructed to shield administrative perpetrators and to deflect federal investigations that could be conducted by the Office of Research Integrity at educational institutions that receive federal funding. Malfeasance could lead to suspension of federal funding with its vital overhead. For whistleblowers there is no protection of due process in these internal proceedings. They are exposed to retaliation, retribution, harassment, intimidation and surveillance by the university administration in defense of the indirect cost revenue stream. In the late 1980s, the Financial Affairs Committee of the Senate Assembly made repeated requests to the central administration for an accounting of indirect cost funds without result.

Few of these cases receive public scrutiny and most are not litigated in the courts. U-M can tap the public coffer for defense funds as well as for the costs of spin behavior. Faculty and staff, rightfully aggrieved, may pursue their complaints at personal expense in the court of law or the press–the court of public opinion. U-M cannot always prevail by dint of superior public relations and richly rewarded representation, but its deep pockets filled with public funds often force by attrition most aggrieved individuals to accept a token settlement that acknowledges no foul, and the harmed ones typically consent to gag orders constructed by the general counsel that keep malfeasance by officials of U-M hidden but alive. The exact amount of money the U-M administration spends on its liabilities and its reactions to discovered limitations is not yet fully discovered, but it cannot remain unknown. For a public institution facing the current very austere times, this is an unacceptable luxury for the responsible.

In my own case, I developed a proposal for funding an undergraduate educational initiative. The idea along with most of the text was plagiarized by an administrator and submitted to the foundation that I had identified. The plan was funded, but I was excluded from its implementation. An internal U-M investigation orchestrated by the Office of the Vice President of Research purported that the two documents were similar (they were identical except for some omissions of what I wrote), but that such was not of consequence to the U-M administration. Documentation and independent analysis of the U-M cover-up is listed on the AAUP Web site,

Because I protested this immoral behavior, I received retaliations including reduced salary, removal from traditional teaching duties, loss of teaching assistants and graders, removal from student advisory positions, assignment of excessive work loads, loss of laboratory equipment and space, and insulting treatment by the administration.

I brought a lawsuit that is still pending, and the U-M administration has now proposed its settlement offering me money for early retirement if I sign a gag order. I reject this payment to hide the abiding malfeasance of my own alma mater. The general counsel now asks me to propose a settlement that mimics my original proposal. This has been done, with no result as yet. Meanwhile, I have developed some serious stress-induced medical problems. As part of a campaign of unrelenting retaliation, U-M officials refuse to grant me medical leave despite requests from my physician for necessary diagnosis and treatment.

The academic community is fast becoming another societal institution steeped in moral or ethical decline. The situation must be addressed, and integrity be restored with transparent oversight. The abuse and intimidation against faculty and staff whistleblowers must be terminated. There is historical similarity between Academe and Church. Both were long regarded the seed bank of society's moral values. Now the legal experience gained in the archdiocese scandals may loom over university cover-ups. Both Church and university are averse to negative publicity and public pressure. Public exposure of malfeasance is the effective corrective mechanism. Hence herculean efforts may be required. A Freedom of Information Act request filed in federal court asking for a listing of all lawsuits, settlements, gag orders and the details of the employment of all outside legal counsel seems a good way to start.

U-M is a public institution, and it should have no more success in hiding its money deals than Ford-Firestone or the Boston Archdiocese. A writ of mandamus, moreover, could direct U-M to finally follow its own rules and regulations on a non-selective basis as articulated in The Standard Practice Guide. Policy statements, like law, are of no use absent penalties that result from their violation.

The American university has been acknowledged widely to be the last great, untainted invention of our spirit and the springboard to our greatness. We cannot allow corporation wannabes to tear it down. We need more sharing of common experience, less acceptance of gags and shackles, and more willingness to voice our common sense of outrage against violation of the public trust at our great treasure–our public university. On Jan. 3, I asked President Mary Sue Coleman to meet in private discussion with some victims of U-M academic malfeasance. She has not yet responded to this request.

The Faculty Perspective page is an outlet for faculty expression provided by the Senate Assembly. Any member of the University Senate is eligible to submit a Faculty Perspectives essay. Prospective contributors are invited to contact the Faculty Perspectives Page Committee at Submissions are accepted in electronic form and are subject to review by the committee. Essay lengths are restricted to one full printed page in The University Record, or about 1,500 words. Past Faculty Perspectives can be accessed through the Faculty Governance Web page at

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