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Three ‘problematic’ professors excluded from selection for University of Arizona’s academic freedom committee

Entrance to the University of Arizona

When a prosecutor stacks the jury, should we trust the results of the trial?

Records show the University of Arizona appears to be manipulating the academic freedom grievance process by excluding professors critical of the institution from the relevant review committee. Three U of A professors, Matthew Abraham, Wei Hua Lin, and Keith Maggert, were excluded from the ballot to become members of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure based on rumors that they’re “problematic” and have “hidden agendas.”

The faculty senate votes on which professors will make up CAFT — a faculty governance committee tasked with “consider[ing] the protection of academic freedom and tenure as a principal obligation.” CAFT has jurisdiction to conduct hearings about matters concerning the “contractual employment relationship between the General Faculty member and the University/Board of Regents” and “grievances against or by any member of the General Faculty.” However, the list of professors who appear on the ballot is first narrowed by a U of A nominating committee in “consultation with the Chair of the Faculty and the [university] President.” 

This year, in determining the faculty to appear on the ballot, faculty senate support staffer Jane Cherry brought the U of A nominating committee a list of professors with some names highlighted in red — those procedurally  ineligible and those, according to Cherry, who are not “impartial” or that “had been problems for the university.” However, Cherry did not give the nominating committee further details on why the individuals were highlighted red, and thus excluded, until one member asked. Professors Abraham, Lin, and Maggert, who were each deemed too “problematic” to be considered for the ballot, have all previously criticized the university publicly. (For background, Abraham filed an open records lawsuit against the institution, and multiple grievances alleging violations of his expressive rights. Maggert has also filed a grievance with CAFT alleging an institutional violation of his right to academic freedom.)

These exclusions leave FIRE concerned about the state of shared governance and academic freedom at U of A. It’s especially concerning that unfavorable faculty are excluded from a committee evaluating important institutional decisions about academic freedom. FIRE has spoken with multiple U of A professors who felt their academic freedom rights were violated and that CAFT endorsed the university’s views, in derogation of faculty First Amendment rights. If CAFT is stacked with university-approved faculty members — and those who speak up against institutional action are excluded — how can those who bring cases to CAFT truly believe the committee will be impartial?

When administrative staff exclude faculty because of their views or past criticism of the institution, that violates academic freedom.

In an email, Cherry told the nominating committee, “We typically choose impartial faculty who don’t have a hidden agenda when it comes to grievance committees.” Cherry said these decisions are “based on facts about certain candidates [sic] past dealings with committees, the Office of General Counsel, and Faculty Senate.” But why does U of A empower a university staffer to determine which faculty members have hidden agendas, and why are professors’ decisions to speak out against the university in the past relevant to their appearance on CAFT? The faculty who vote on which members appear on the ballot should determine whether a professor is worthy of the position. 

On Sept. 21, FIRE brought these concerns to U of A privately, explaining that academic freedom is of “special concern to the First Amendment” and limiting faculty participation in shared governance based on their expression violates the academic freedom of all faculty. The American Association of University Professors has highlighted the importance of shared governance, stating

A sound system of institutional governance is a necessary condition for the protection of faculty rights and thereby for the most productive exercise of essential faculty freedoms. Correspondingly, the protection of the academic freedom of faculty members in addressing issues of institutional governance is a prerequisite for the practice of governance unhampered by fear of retribution.

We told U of A that the faculty’s decisions should be authoritative and “given the highest weight” on issues of academic freedom, as faculty have primary responsibility for teaching and research at the institution. Filing grievances with CAFT, we explained, is effectively petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. Faculty must be confident the body that hears their concerns isn’t biased in favor of the administration.

As we said in our letter:

The AAUP makes clear that “faculty’s voice should be authoritative across the entire range of decision making that bears … on its responsibilities”; however, that is not possible if all members of the committee are administration-approved. This is especially so given that administrators excluded the professors from the ballot by continuously subverting the nominating committee. Although support staff and administrators may use neutral procedural criteria for selecting CAFT nominees, when administrative staff exclude faculty because of their views or past criticism of the institution, that violates academic freedom.

Unfortunately, U of A disputed FIRE’s characterization and refused to acknowledge that the professors deemed problematic were excluded from the ballot. U of A told FIRE, “The suggestion that a single staff member, whose role is to provide administrative support to the Committee, overrode the decision of six respected faculty members and influenced the slate of candidates is unsubstantiated and simply lacks credibility.” However, in investigating the allegations that faculty were improperly excluded, the faculty senate itself said the proper process was not followed, “as the Nominating Committee was not involved in reducing the list to a final slate of candidates as it should have been.”

FIRE is now publicizing the problems with the CAFT ballot selection process because we believe sunlight is the best disinfectant.

FIRE again wrote to U of A to reiterate our concern given the university’s insistence that administrators did not exercise undue control over the selection of faculty appearing on the CAFT ballot. However, the university again said “no single staff member has the ‘power’ to exclude faculty members from the CAFT ballot, and further, that no single staff member excluded faculty members from the CAFT ballot in this instance.” The university did state its commitment to academic freedom and shared governance, but in practice, that commitment does not look so strong.

FIRE is now publicizing the problems with the CAFT ballot selection process because we believe sunlight is the best disinfectant. It is paramount that universities do not prevent faculty participation in shared governance simply because those faculty members are outspoken against the university. Government officials like U of A administrators must expect challenges and embrace accountability when they violate faculty expressive and academic freedom rights. Oftentimes, the best people to deem whether the university has violated rights are those who have not always been in lockstep with the university — and even if they’re not the best, that’s for the faculty to decide, not staff or administrators.

In 2019, FIRE was pleased to work with U of A to revise its policies implicating students’ expressive rights. The university has admirably maintained our highest, “green light” rating for its policies implicating students’ expressive rights. We are glad those policies line up with the First Amendment to which U of A is bound. However, in practice, it must also live up to its reputation as an institution committed to free speech and in particular academic freedom.

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