Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, October 26, 2009

Proposal would revise process for handling faculty grievances

University administrators and faculty governance leaders are considering a proposal to streamline procedures for resolving faculty grievances and make the process more “peer-based.”

A key recommendation from the provost-appointed Faculty Grievance Process Task Force would change the composition of boards conducting the grievance hearings so a majority of members are from outside the unit from which the grievance arose.

The Senate Assembly is expected to take up the proposal today, after which the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (SACUA) will formulate and vote on a formal recommendation to Provost Teresa Sullivan.

Theodore St. Antoine, a former Law School dean who chaired the 12-member task force, says the current procedure is too cumbersome, takes too long to resolve grievances and was prone to delays.

With the current model, the time to resolve a grievance could take years, pending the number of appellate iterations. “There was a general feeling that something had to be done to make this a more expeditious system,” St. Antoine says. “You shouldn’t have to be a good trial litigator to move around the system.”

In 2007 a SACUA task force laid out what it considered to be several deficiencies in the current system. Among its complaints were: potential conflicts of interest; lack of access by grievants to information and personnel; inadequate, ambiguous and conflicting definitions and standards; and a lack of effective enforcement.

Following that report, Sullivan appointed a series of two task forces to look into the procedure and suggest revisions. The recommendations now being considered are a model, and each academic unit has the option of fine-tuning the procedure to its own particular circumstances.

“Overall, while there are some clarifications in language that are needed, the proposal is a considerable improvement over the existing procedures,” SACUA Chair Michael Thouless says.

The grievance process provides for redress when a department, school or other unit at the Ann Arbor campus takes action concerning a faculty member’s conditions of employment that he or she believes violate university policy or is otherwise “manifestly unfair.” It would apply to tenured, tenure-track, clinical or research faculty. It would not apply to adjunct or visiting faculty or lecturers.

The issue most disputed during the latest task force’s discussions, St. Antoine says, was how many of the three members comprising each Grievance Hearing Board (GHB) should come from inside the academic unit where the grievance originated.

Currently, two members of the board are tenured faculty from within the unit and the third comes from another unit. The task force suggests changing that ratio so two members are from outside the unit, while the third comes from within.

The change was proposed to ease fears that insiders would have prior knowledge of the grievance or that they could be subject to “negative repercussions” by unit administrators, St. Antoine says.

“Having two members from outside the originating unit is clearly better than having only one,” Thouless says. “There are differences of opinion about whether all three should be from outside the unit. It will be interesting to hear what a broader group of faculty think about this when it is discussed by the Senate Assembly.”

An earlier provost-appointed task force, which set down principles for the new procedure that were generally followed by the current panel, had suggested all three members be outsiders. The administration objected to that change, St. Antoine says.

He contacted executive committee members from U-M schools of various sizes and found considerable sentiment for one internal member on GHBs to provide a sense of a unit’s culture and traditions. GHBs will be chaired by one of their outside members.

For the task force’s purposes, an academic unit generally means a school, college, center, institute or program. Schools or colleges with more than 100 faculty members would be allowed to choose the third member from a department within that school or college that is different from the department that is part of the grievance.

Under the task force’s proposal, the GHB will make the initial ruling on “grievability” — whether a complaint meets the criteria for a hearing. That decision may be appealed to SACUA, which has the final authority on whether the issue is heard.

Thouless says that proposed change would be a significant improvement in process.

Currently, the grievance board decides whether an issue is grievable. If the panel determines a complaint doesn’t fall under the policy, it goes no further. Since a respondent’s first step often is to challenge whether a complaint should be heard, Thouless says, adding SACUA as the appellate body for grievability disputes is a useful step in making sure complaints are given due consideration.

SACUA also would like the new policy to address instances in which potential witnesses decline to testify. Testimony at grievance hearings is voluntary, and SACUA members have expressed concern that some witnesses refuse to testify because their testimony could be damaging.

At its meeting last week, SACUA suggested wording to clarify that if a witness declines to voluntarily testify, the hearing board may draw conclusions about that testimony based on the refusal to testify.

Other recommendations in St. Antoine’s task force report include:

• Shortening the time frame in which a faculty member may file a grievance from 180 days to 90 days.

• Simplifying the procedure for appealing the GHB’s final ruling. Appeals will go to the unit’s dean or director. If they are a respondent in the grievance, then the appeal will go to the provost.

• A grievant or respondent may be accompanied by an attorney or other advisers, but the advisers may not participate directly in the hearing.

• The GHB hearing shall be private and confidential, attended only by the principal parties and their advisers, if any.

• The GHB’s written, provisional decision is to be delivered with 20 working days of the completion of testimony and argument; the grievant and respondent shall have 10 working days thereafter to submit a written response. A final decision by the GHB is due within 10 working days of the receipt of responses.