University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty and administrators have spent the last year wrestling over how to clarify policies and procedures detailing how and when administrators can suspend or terminate a faculty member’s employment.
Tuesday, the UNL Faculty Senate approved several changes that will “make it clear for administrators what procedures have to be followed and when they have to be followed,” according to President Kevin Hanrahan.
As part of UNL’s shared governance structure, the new language will now be reviewed by Chancellor Ronnie Green and NU Interim President Susan Fritz before going to the NU Board of Regents.
But for now, it’s a step toward removing UNL from the Censure List maintained by the American Association of University Professors, a national organization that outlines standards for academic freedom and due process.
The AAUP placed UNL on its Censure List after it found administrators caved to pressure from conservative state senators in dismissing graduate student lecturer Courtney Lawton in November 2017, after Lawton was filmed protesting a recruiting event for conservative student organization Turning Point USA.
In removing Lawton from her part-time teaching appointment in the English Department, the AAUP said administrators ignored university policy, violated her right to a hearing and may have violated her academic freedom.
The new procedures approved by the Faculty Senate eliminate any uncertainty about how administrators should act in disciplining professional employees.
For example, the new language delineates different procedures for the “immediate suspension” of a faculty member versus other forms of discipline, the formal complaint process and timeline, and the responsibilities of special faculty committees convened to investigate complaints.
It creates mechanisms to settle complaints before a hearing, while also giving faculty members the right to have an open hearing and obtain a transcript of the proceedings afterward.
New language in UNL’s grievance procedure also addresses potential conflicts of interest by chancellors that could be called as witnesses in an investigatory hearing.
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Hanrahan, an associate professor of voice in the Glenn Korff School of Music, said while the incident that launched a review of UNL’s disciplinary procedures was political in nature, those events are now irrelevant.
“In the end, the bylaws and procedures are better with these changes,” he said. “It makes it very clear for the administration what they are to do and how they are to handle it. It makes it very clear what the faculty’s rights are and their role in all of this.”
Hanrahan added that the ad hoc committee formed in October 2018 to review the disciplinary procedures has worked with faculty leaders across the NU system to develop guidelines acceptable to all, while also settling on language agreeable to both administrators and faculty.
The goal is to have proposed bylaw changes before the Board of Regents for consideration early next year.
Deb Fiddelke, a university spokeswoman, said the administration has worked closely with the faculty to clarify the language in UNL’s procedures.
“We will continue to work collaboratively in getting final approval on something that is in the best interest of this university,” Fiddelke said.
“The chancellor is going to have to be the one to sell it above us,” Hanrahan said. “We are hopeful that all parties see this as good for our administration, as good for our faculty, as good for our university and our system.”
The proposed changes, if approved by regents, would go a long way to removing UNL from the AAUP’s Censure List, said Julia Schleck, an associate professor of English and member of the Nebraska chapter of the AAUP.
AAUP officials will interview faculty, administrators and others involved in the brief political dispute in 2017 that ultimately led to UNL being censured, Schleck added.
They will also need to see that UNL has made some effort of restitution to Lawton.
“The goal is to get somewhere by the end of the academic year, so we’re still on track for that,” Schleck said. If the regents adopt the bylaw changes, then “it’s up to the administration to reach out to Dr. Lawton and start discussions on what some kind of restitution looks like.”