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MU Faculty Council votes to tell Deaton to uphold tenure committee's decision in Engel case

Thursday, February 23, 2012 | 10:59 p.m. CST; updated 11:42 p.m. CST, Thursday, February 23, 2012

COLUMBIA — MU's Faculty Council voted Thursday to send a letter to MU Chancellor Brady Deaton asking that he not send the case of suspended MU engineering professor Greg Engel back to the Campus Committee on Faculty Responsibility for another hearing.

Engel's case is the first to pass through the faculty responsibility committee since the MU faculty bylaws were written in 1974. So the Faculty Council finds itself discussing a part of the bylaws that hasn't seen light in almost four decades: What does this committee do, and what should be its standard for evidence?

The standard for evidence for the faculty responsibility committee is not defined in the bylaws. The omission has brought up tricky questions about how difficult it should be to fire a tenured professor.

The faculty responsibility committee found that charges of faculty irresponsibility against Engel did not stand up to a test of "clear and convincing" evidence that his case should move further in the tenure removal process.

"They acted in good faith, and their work should stand," said council member Leona Rubin, who led the discussion.

Deaton can decide to affirm, modify or reverse the faculty responsibility committee's decision or to send it back for a second hearing. If Deaton decides Engel's case should move forward in the dismissal process, it is no longer regulated by the MU faculty bylaws, but by the University of Missouri System's academic tenure regulations.

Weeks ago, Provost Brian Foster requested that Deaton send the charges back to the committee to be heard under a lower standard of a "preponderance of evidence." That standard requires only that evidence show accusations are more likely to be true than not.

"Our reputations are all we have," council member Gordon Christensen said at Thursday's meeting. He said he thinks anything that besmirches those reputations should have to hold up against a higher standard than "preponderance."

Putting off a decision

The faculty responsibility committee is part of a long process to revoke tenure, which is a guarantee that a professor who earns it will not be fired without just cause. It's possible for a complaint against a tenured professor to skip the faculty responsibility committee and move to a second committee, the Campus Faculty Committee on Tenure, which can recommend dismissal.

A hearing with the faculty responsibility committee was an opportunity for faculty members outside of Engel's department to hear his case.

Several tenured professors have been dismissed without going through the faculty responsibility committee, Rubin said.

No matter how rarely the committee has been used, Faculty Council Vice Chairman Joe Parcell said last week that he thinks it's important for the council to discuss the bylaws in the interest of future generations of faculty.

Some Faculty Council members said they were uncomfortable with making a move that might affect future cases.

"I do not want a precedent set in any way regarding our faculty responsibility committee — not by the provost, and not by us," Rubin said.

Before approving the letter to the chancellor, council members voted 10-9 to put off deciding on a resolution to define the standard for evidence in the bylaws. Rubin said the vote had to be the closest she has ever seen.

What is the committee's role?

Faculty Council members were hesitant to make any resolution, in part, because many of them did not feel sure they understood the faculty responsibility committee's role in the tenure removal process.

Members of the Faculty Council questioned if the faculty responsibility committee exists to advise Deaton on whether the case would provide the Campus Committee on Tenure with enough evidence to recommend a professor's dismissal. Members of the tenure committee, which has a defined standard for evidence, must be "convinced" that the evidence presented warrants dismissal.

University of Illinois law professor Matthew Finkin, author of "The Case for Tenure," said the purpose of the faculty responsibility committee is to advise the chancellor, which he attributes to the American Association of University Professors' standard process for faculty dismissal. MU, along with many four-year liberal arts colleges and universities, adheres to this process.

Therefore, Finkin said, it is logical that both committees would have to use the same standard of convincing evidence.

"You can't have two different standards; that would make no sense," Finkin said, adding that the standard for the faculty responsibility committee is rarely defined in campus bylaws.

But some faculty wondered if the faculty responsibility committee could have other roles.

Rubin said she feared the university would be too restricted if it was not able to consider evidence at a lower level. She said the "clear and convincing" standard should certainly be used for recommendation for dismissal, but that dismissal is in the purview of the tenure committee, not the faculty responsibility committee.

Clyde Bentley, an associate professor of journalism, asked whether the faculty responsibility committee was meant to have a vetting role or a judgment role, and no one gave a definitive response. Many council members said they didn't feel they understood the issue well enough to make a resolution to change the faculty bylaws.

"This legal-speak is unintelligible," said Craig Roberts, a professor of plant sciences, requesting that the council discuss more examples of how the faculty responsibility committee is used at other universities.

 


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