A recent report by a University of Arizona faculty committee confirmed FIRE’s concerns that administrators, staffers, and faculty did not follow proper procedures when selecting members for the university’s committee that hears academic freedom grievances. The allegations of undue administrative interference in one of the highest-level faculty decision-making processes at the university prompted FIRE to contact U of A late last year regarding our academic freedom concerns.
On Dec. 20, a faculty governance committee — called the Committee of Eleven — confirmed procedural failures in selecting which faculty members appeared on the ballot to become members of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. In response, on Monday, U of A’s faculty senate passed a resolution ensuring the general faculty will hereafter vote on all faculty deemed eligible to appear on the CAFT ballot.
That followed FIRE’s report in November that three professors suffered exclusion from the ballot because a university staffer deemed them “problematic.” The Committee of Eleven dug into these allegations and found “failures and/or lack of proper coordination” from five involved parties, which will be discussed below.
‘Problematic’ professors with ‘hidden agendas’ excluded from CAFT ballot
Records show the exclusion of three U of A professors — Matthew Abraham, Wei Hua Lin, and Keith Maggert — from the ballot to become members of CAFT, based on rumors that they’re “problematic” and have “hidden agendas.”
When the nominating committee was selecting candidates for the ballot, faculty senate support staffer Jane Cherry brought the committee a list of professors with some names highlighted in red — those procedurally ineligible and those, according to Cherry, who are not “impartial” or who “had been problems for the university.” Those highlighted included Abraham, Lin, and Maggert, who had each filed grievances or lawsuits against the university in the past.
CAFT functions as an administrative body at a public university. When a faculty member files a CAFT grievance, they are petitioning the government for a redress of grievances — a constitutionally protected right. Therefore, impartiality on these committees is of paramount importance, and faculty must be confident the hearing body isn’t biased in favor of the administration.
“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,” wrote an attorney for the university.
Not so, say U of A’s faculty. The Committee of Eleven’s investigation found that improper interference went beyond the support staffer removing candidates, to the highest levels of university administration.
Failures in the selection process
To ensure the proper function of shared governance at U of A, the Committee of Eleven completed a full investigation into the three professors’ exclusion from the ballot and whether proper procedures were followed. (Spoiler alert: They were not.)
The Committee of Eleven confirmed the three professors’ names were highlighted in red when displayed to the nominating committee. But, it also found Maggert was excluded from the ballot from the start because he had an open case with CAFT. The report notes, however, that the case “would likely have been closed” prior to elected faculty officially joining the committee, at which time he would have been eligible.
Cherry — the support staffer who handled the nominating list — says she consulted with U of A’s Office of the General Counsel to discuss restricting faculty who posted a “conflict of interest,” including Maggert because of his ongoing CAFT grievance. But according to the report, OGC denied being involved in this process.
Professors Abraham and Lin, however, were not removed from the ballot until the former chair of the faculty, Jessica Summers, and university President Robert Robbins considered the list and selected the final eight candidates. Summers says she and Robbins removed Abraham and Lin because other faculty from their departments were also being considered for the ballot. But as the report notes, this is a failure on the part of the nominating committee, whose chair, Ping Situ, the faculty bylaws call to be included in final conversation narrowing down the candidates. Those bylaws also require the nominating committee to include its own members at all stages, but instead, the president and chair of the faculty, who were only supposed to appear in an advisory capacity, had the final say.
“For shared governance to function optimally and individual rights of faculty to be protected, various components of University structure must recognize their roles and responsibilities, and act in a fair, objective, and efficient manner,” the report reads.
Each of these policy failures — from Summers, Cherry, Situ, the Nominating Committee, the Office of the General Counsel, all the way up to President Robbins — made for a process through which faculty academic freedom suffered because governance was not properly shared.
Protecting academic freedom
Thankfully, when the administration did not step up to protect academic freedom, U of A faculty did.
On Monday, the faculty senate passed a resolution to ensure that faculty get to select who appears on CAFT. For the 2023 general election, the general faculty will first vote on all eligible candidates — based on faculty roles and other procedural standards, not viewpoint or whether individuals are considered “problematic.” The nominating committee will then narrow down that list to eight for the official vote.
In the future, the faculty senate will vote on a proposed change to the official bylaws to codify this new process and ensure all faculty members receive consideration by the general faculty. This is a positive step forward to safeguard the faculty’s academic freedom rights at U of A and to ensure that no future faculty get cast aside for being too “problematic.”
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
We're joined by First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza and British journalist Brendan O'Neill to discuss the state of free speech in the United States and Europe. Randazza is a First Amendment attorney and the managing partner at Randazza...