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Author Topic: University Personnel Policies and Workplace Violence  (Read 43547 times)
aandsdean
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« on: February 13, 2010, 12:59:46 PM »

All--

I almost never start a thread.  However, the discussion of the UAH shooting, I think, requires separation of the expressions of shock, grief, condolence, and mourning, from the wider and possibly less cordial discussion of the way college and university personnel policies are a contributing factor to incidents such as the tragedy at UAH.

Since I'm a VPAA, and since I've recently (as in the last few days) had to deal with several incidents involving individuals exhibiting emotional challenges of one sort or another (for the moment that's all I can say), I probably have a somewhat different perspective on these matters from a lot of my friends here who do not occupy administrative positions with line authority. 

I do think that we need to have a constructive discussion about these matters separately from our collective sorrow for our colleagues at UAH, VA Tech, Northern Illinois, Iowa, and the other places that have suffered such ghastly and unnecessary tragedies.

Enough said for the moment.  Thanks to all, aandsdean
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tuxedo_cat
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« Reply #1 on: February 13, 2010, 1:26:45 PM »

Thanks for starting this thread, which I take to be a place for suggesting some thoughtful ways of avoiding such tragedies on other campuses.  I have previously worked on a campus where a faculty member was turned down for tenure, in part, it seems, because of serious concerns about his demeanor towards colleagues, which was confrontational and occasionally aggressive (although not physically).  Before coming up for tenure, I believe he had alienated nearly every member of his department.  Fortunately, his departure did not result in violence, and I believe he was able to land a respectable teaching position elsewhere.

When a faculty member is turned down for tenure, would it be possible to have a senior colleague (probably outside the department) offer to provide regular support and contact for that person during their final year?  Someone who is at least in regular contact with this person who can guide him or her through both the psychological and professional hurdles and distress of that last year?  Perhaps help the departing faculty member as s/he goes through the, no-doubt distressing experience of trying to land another position? 

I would guess that the experience of being turned down for tenure, the profound anxiety of wondering if your entire career has come to an end and the terrible, terrible isolation that must inevitably follow from that experience would be almost overwhelming for any of us.  I went through a minor version of this when I was turned down for a TT position after serving as a VAP for 3 years (and treated to ridiculous humiliation by some colleagues).  The isolation was absolutely as bad as anything else.  I had an ok therapist, I was on medication, but I seriously thought about suicide.  I didn't plan it or get close, but wow that was a dark time. 

Having even one sympathetic colleague, one familiar person to turn to, to vent to, to problem-solve with -- I would imagine that could be very comforting, perhaps even help that person avoid thinking about self-destructive behavior (which must be a very common response to being denied tenure), would be very helpful.
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crowie
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« Reply #2 on: February 13, 2010, 1:57:21 PM »

tuxedo_cat, I can see the possible benefits of such a system but if this is an assigned role one would have to be very careful about who was assigned to it.  The faculty member who is asked to perform this task may feel that this is likely to merely be another not-particularly-rewarded-or-appreciated service role, even more so if it is for someone outside their department.  Unless the faculty member sincerely does care about and sympathize with the person who was denied tenure, regularly scheduled meetings with someone who is just 'phoning it in' may do more harm than good.
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pollinate
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« Reply #3 on: February 13, 2010, 2:10:41 PM »

....

Unless the faculty member sincerely does care about and sympathize with the person who was denied tenure, regularly scheduled meetings with someone who is just 'phoning it in' may do more harm than good.
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As can the trying-to-be-sweet-but-totally-clueless types - [personal story removed - maybe I'll tell it later....]
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madhatter
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« Reply #4 on: February 13, 2010, 2:23:38 PM »

At this point, I wouldn't personally blame the tenure process for this event. Workplace violence is triggered by a lot of things -- job loss, harassment, perceived injustice. People experience adverse events at all kinds of workplaces all the time. Only a small fraction resort to violence. I've personally been laid off, passed over for promotion, demoted, harassed by supervisors -- none of those events led me to take violent action, though I certainly experienced emotional turmoil and very strong negative thoughts and fantasies.

I do think we could do more to prepare people to be aware of warning signs and have actual actions they can take in response. I'm thinking of a situation where I was in charge of a director-level administrator who showed that he had problems with irrational anger. I was at a loss how to respond. Although I eventually called in HR, they didn't have much to offer me in the way of tools, other than how to prepare to fire him if necessary. He ended up leaving of his own accord, but I wonder how that situation might have escalated.

In academia, this might be exacerbated by the semi-autonomous nature of faculty and the cloak of "academic freedom" which is sometimes used inappropriately to protect people who are stepping outside the norms of acceptable behavior.
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prytania3
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« Reply #5 on: February 13, 2010, 2:44:15 PM »

At this point, I wouldn't personally blame the tenure process for this event. Workplace violence is triggered by a lot of things -- job loss, harassment, perceived injustice. People experience adverse events at all kinds of workplaces all the time. Only a small fraction resort to violence. I've personally been laid off, passed over for promotion, demoted, harassed by supervisors -- none of those events led me to take violent action, though I certainly experienced emotional turmoil and very strong negative thoughts and fantasies.

I do think we could do more to prepare people to be aware of warning signs and have actual actions they can take in response. I'm thinking of a situation where I was in charge of a director-level administrator who showed that he had problems with irrational anger. I was at a loss how to respond. Although I eventually called in HR, they didn't have much to offer me in the way of tools, other than how to prepare to fire him if necessary. He ended up leaving of his own accord, but I wonder how that situation might have escalated.

In academia, this might be exacerbated by the semi-autonomous nature of faculty and the cloak of "academic freedom" which is sometimes used inappropriately to protect people who are stepping outside the norms of acceptable behavior.

I agree with Madhatter.
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barred_owl
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« Reply #6 on: February 13, 2010, 2:49:49 PM »

I think it's safe to say that if one were to sample the faculty handbooks from a variety of institutions, it would become obvious very quickly that the written procedures about negative tenure decisions or disciplinary measures for things like professional misconduct are laid out in much more agonizing detail than almost any other component of the institution's policies.  I'm not saying that's a bad thing--it's incredibly important, in fact, for all parties involved.  But the need to follow those procedures to the letter can sometimes contribute to that sense of isolation that tuxedo_cat described, I think.

What I mean by that is that the interpersonal dynamic changes dramatically upon initiation of the action.  Conversations must have witnesses, even if the discussions are about things like scheduling or supply requisitions.  Lawyers and union reps become intermediaries, effectively placing a communication barrier between the faculty person and the administration.  Everyone operates in a sort of "walking on eggshells" manner, so as to avoid any escalation of the case into a lawsuit (or worse).  Again, the imposition of controls over what can and can't be discussed isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just that those controls may add to the faculty member's sense of isolation during the process.

The one thing that personnel policies can't take into account or anticipate is the variability in each person's reactions or behavior, on both sides of the table.  Some faculty may simply resign themselves to moving on, they might appeal, or--in the worst case scenario--may decide that the only recourse is to do harm to themselves or to others.  Likewise, some administrators may act very calmly and professionally during the process, while others may be inclined to further embarrass or antagonize the faculty member (even if the personnel policies at least imply that such reactions are inappropriate).  Madhatter touches on this aspect very well, I think.

And, I agree with madhatter, too, about the importance of recognizing problems early and seeking resolutions to those problems before they escalate to the point where everyone is walking on eggshells, seeking legal recourse, or worse.  I'd really like to see our discussion here expand into talking about some of those solutions, whether in the hypothetical or in terms of existing strategies that are working at others' institutions.
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yellowtractor
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« Reply #7 on: February 13, 2010, 3:10:26 PM »

Agreed w/Madhatter et al.   And, to add to what Barred_Owl says:

I've been thinking, since Aandsdean started this thread, not about "what's wrong with the tenure process," but with the academic culture that has arisen around the process, at least at the five schools I've taught at. Three of the five schools had, in recent memory at the times I taught there, experienced either a T&P-related lawsuit or the threat of a T&P-related lawsuit.  The result was that once the tenure process was in its final swing, something like paranoia descended on whole departments.  The thought seemed to be "anything you say can or will be held against you," at some point, by somebody, if the decision was negative.

When I arrived at SunnySLAC a tenure case had just ended negatively in, shall we say, the next department over from mine.  Even though the professor in question was still at SunnySLAC--teaching his "lame duck" year while his appeal was processed--it was difficult to find out anything at all about the case, or even about the prof.  The presumption was a lawsuit or worse, and therefore anxious, protective silence.

I couldn't help but feel for the prof, not only because of his professional and practical predicament, but also because the institutional culture (predicated on fear of lawsuits etc.) served to isolate him at perhaps the moment in his career when he most needed human contact and connection.  The prof effectively became a nonperson while he was still teaching at the institution.

SunnySLAC has--I assume most schools have, though I don't know for sure--a multi-step review process leading up to the final tenure hearing, which is supposed to prevent unpleasant surprises on either side.  In the case alluded to, the offending prof was supposedly told several times which elements of his CV were not considered adequate, alongside what he would need to do to bring them up to par.  He did not--and knew he did not, rather arguing that mitigating circumstances should be taken into account.  He lost that argument, both in the initial hearing and on the appeal.

I would like to know more about just how the review process at UAH worked in this instance, especially since it was, apparently, the dean who made and delivered the final decision (denial of appeal) on the morning of the shooting--not the department.  I would like to know this not in order to assign blame, but to understand the process by which warning signs were not heeded, if warning signs there were.
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dellaroux
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« Reply #8 on: February 13, 2010, 3:25:21 PM »

While away, feeling like a spot of mystery reading in English , I picked up a sort-of-well-written book, "Quoth the Raven,"

At one point, before my time on the lobby computer ran out, I was going to post a jokey comment to the effect that, "this is taking tenure a bit too seriously--thankfully no-one ever gets this close to lethal treatment of their academic foes." Guess I might have been wrong.

Whatever the complicated causes the consequences are horrible. The question of revisiting charges in the accidental death of her brother several years ago has also been raised:

   http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2010/02/13/professor_held_after_3_are_killed_at_ala_university/
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history_grrrl
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« Reply #9 on: February 13, 2010, 3:25:33 PM »

In the context of this discussion, I wonder: is tenure denial in an academic institution fundamentally different from someone being fired in any other type of workplace? And if so, why? After all, people are fired all the time in all sorts of work settings; is our situation really so unique? Figuring out what is distinctive might help us think about how the process might be handled differently, if in fact that seems necessary. (Mind you, many employers do a terrible job of handling this process.)

I can think of a few big differences. For example, the typical person getting fired in XYZ workplace doesn't get to stick around for an additional year; usually it's a few weeks or, at most, a few months (or in very high-level positions, as with the president of the University of North Texas, the person gets paid through the end of their contract but must step down immediately). Out of sight, out of mind.

Also, a typical firing decision is made by a single boss, or perhaps a board, but one's peers are not usually involved as they are in academia. (Something we still don't know about the UAH situation is whether the perpetrator was appealing a tenure denial by her department, or by higher-ups who reversed a positive vote in the department.)

Perhaps the nature of the academic job market makes our situation unique relative to other workplaces, but I'm not sure about that; an auto worker losing her job right now doesn't have a lot of options either.

Are there other ways in which our situation is unique, which might justify unique strategies for handling tenure denial, i.e., the firing of faculty?
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bibliologos
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« Reply #10 on: February 13, 2010, 3:35:37 PM »

AandSDean, you may find the Concordia University archives site on their 1992 shooting helpful.  Linked to it are the two reports that the university commissioned: one deals with the culture of scholarship and publishing in the Engineering faculty at Concordia, and although now over 15 years old, looks pretty relevant to me.  The other deals with the administrative issues that arose over the shooter's term of employment with the university.  It seems to me that much can be learned from these two reports.
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glowdart
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« Reply #11 on: February 13, 2010, 3:53:38 PM »

In the context of this discussion, I wonder: is tenure denial in an academic institution fundamentally different from someone being fired in any other type of workplace? And if so, why? After all, people are fired all the time in all sorts of work settings; is our situation really so unique? Figuring out what is distinctive might help us think about how the process might be handled differently, if in fact that seems necessary. (Mind you, many employers do a terrible job of handling this process.)

I can think of a few big differences. For example, the typical person getting fired in XYZ workplace doesn't get to stick around for an additional year; usually it's a few weeks or, at most, a few months (or in very high-level positions, as with the president of the University of North Texas, the person gets paid through the end of their contract but must step down immediately). Out of sight, out of mind.

Also, a typical firing decision is made by a single boss, or perhaps a board, but one's peers are not usually involved as they are in academia. (Something we still don't know about the UAH situation is whether the perpetrator was appealing a tenure denial by her department, or by higher-ups who reversed a positive vote in the department.)

Perhaps the nature of the academic job market makes our situation unique relative to other workplaces, but I'm not sure about that; an auto worker losing her job right now doesn't have a lot of options either.

Are there other ways in which our situation is unique, which might justify unique strategies for handling tenure denial, i.e., the firing of faculty?

An auto worker may not have immediate options, but an auto worker is also not subject to the same seasonal hiring processes.  When tenure decisions are not made until late spring, then you are guaranteeing that a prof who is denied tenure will be unemployed for the next 18 months if there is no terminal year in the contract.  

I've seen schools who handle reappointments horribly on all sorts of levels.   (Grad students finding out about non-reappointment through their absence on the fall teaching schedule and office assignment list, colleagues finding out about promotion denials because the campus memo announcement didn't include their name, etc.).    


I chalk up most of the other gaffs that I see as a result of the "professor-turned-administrator who is trained by another professor-turned-administrator" process.  I would never want someone who is not an academic in an administrative post, but I know that I've had conversations with admins who never had any training in or exposure to the particular major issue that we're discussing -- and there is no real reason why they would have had any training unless they were in my discipline or another discipline with related concerns.  

But, those conversations really drove home for me how much this profession only functions because we all have specializations and skills and because we all have to work together.  And they have also made me wonder:  

So, really -- what kind of training do you get as an academic administrator?  Is it all on-the-job and pick-it-up-as-you-go?  Is it primarily an apprentice system where your skill acquisition depends a great deal on those learned by those above you, or do you get crash courses in certain major elements like workplace violence?  

My apologies for the rambling here -- I've really been struck quite a lot lately about how much we really depend on each other in this world and by how much we all kind of suck at that whole process from time to time.  
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t_r_b
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« Reply #12 on: February 13, 2010, 4:03:39 PM »

I'd say the key problem here is not how to make or announce tenure decisions, but rather how to support faculty throughout (and for that matter after) the probationary period. Some places do this better than others, and I suspect it has a lot more to do with institutional culture, and the interpersonal dynamics of the individual department, than with the policies on the books. Too often, academic work can be a damned isolating endeavor. In a lot of departments, I suspect, there isn't a lot of water cooler or lunch break chatter. The effectiveness of faculty mentoring depends a great deal on the inclination and personality of the faculty mentor. And let's face it: a lot of people in this line of work really aren't very good with people.

The problem is also exacerbated by the lack of ties between colleagues outside of their academic work, and the lack of much community support when you've lived in a place for only a few years. Communities that do a better job of supporting those in need tend to be those where people have known and cared about one another for a long time, and are therefore personally invested in each other's well-being. Someone who is struggling emotionally during their first few years on the tenure track can easily fall through the cracks in a way that someone working in a community where they've lived their whole life probably wouldn't. And in the case of someone with severe detached-from-reality problems that might lead to violence, it's a lot less likely that colleagues will catch on to the full extent of the problems when they've known each other just for a few years, and only in a professional setting. They're more likely to think, "what a control freak! How annoying!" and leave it at that.

But it's also worth noting that in most of these respects, academia is really not all that different from the rest of American society (and other post-industrial societies, I suspect). We separate home and family life from work life, which means that people close to you in one setting may well not know much about what's going on with you in the other. We segregate ourselves pretty strictly along generational lines, which deprives us of the support and insight of those who are older and wiser. We treat mental instability as an individual problem, which discourages us from taking responsibility for the well-being of those around us. We've created all sorts of written and unwritten rules about personal independence and privacy and staying out of people's business, so we're likely to hold back even when we suspect something is wrong. And we train ourselves, our peers, and our children to suppress and be ashamed of emotion, to maintain a public persona sharply at odds with our inner feelings, and to hold ourselves to impossibly high standards of achievement (it's not enough to do well in life - one has to go to Harvard AND invent something incredible AND get tenure AND start a successful company AND win a Nobel Prize). More generally, most of us don't have much emotional intelligence, so much so that some of the ones who do have it make a respectable living hiring out their services as empathetic listeners under the heading, "psychotherapy." Most of us see ominous behavior, think "that's weird," and dismiss or even mock the person rather than paying closer attention to figure out what's going on. And who can blame us? Each of us as individuals has very little invested in the sanity of some other individual we barely know. Our loyalties lie with a relatively small group of people we call "our loved ones," and not with the broader community. Because heaven knows the broader community doesn't give a damn about us.

Of course, the majority of people deal with all of that pretty well. For any individual who goes off the deep end, there will be dozens muttering (quite callously, in my view), "well I had it a lot worse than she did and I never went nuts!" But we are not all built the same way. We all have different kinds of vulnerabilities. Some of us are more emotionally sensitive and vulnerable to breakdown. Others are less sensitive and vulnerable to being oblivious to the vulnerability of those we care about. The road to a better kind of society starts with being more attentive to our own needs and those of people around us. A good second step is to stop thinking of social problems in terms of individual maladies and instead think of them as collective ones. It's a beginning, anyway.
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ideagirl
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« Reply #13 on: February 13, 2010, 4:10:18 PM »

At this point, I wouldn't personally blame the tenure process for this event. Workplace violence is triggered by a lot of things -- job loss, harassment, perceived injustice. People experience adverse events at all kinds of workplaces all the time. Only a small fraction resort to violence. I've personally been laid off, passed over for promotion, demoted, harassed by supervisors -- none of those events led me to take violent action, though I certainly experienced emotional turmoil and very strong negative thoughts and fantasies.

I do think we could do more to prepare people to be aware of warning signs and have actual actions they can take in response. I'm thinking of a situation where I was in charge of a director-level administrator who showed that he had problems with irrational anger. I was at a loss how to respond. Although I eventually called in HR, they didn't have much to offer me in the way of tools, other than how to prepare to fire him if necessary. He ended up leaving of his own accord, but I wonder how that situation might have escalated.

In academia, this might be exacerbated by the semi-autonomous nature of faculty and the cloak of "academic freedom" which is sometimes used inappropriately to protect people who are stepping outside the norms of acceptable behavior.

I agree with Madhatter.

Me too.
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prytania3
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« Reply #14 on: February 13, 2010, 4:11:51 PM »

In the context of this discussion, I wonder: is tenure denial in an academic institution fundamentally different from someone being fired in any other type of workplace? And if so, why? After all, people are fired all the time in all sorts of work settings; is our situation really so unique? Figuring out what is distinctive might help us think about how the process might be handled differently, if in fact that seems necessary. (Mind you, many employers do a terrible job of handling this process.)

I can think of a few big differences. For example, the typical person getting fired in XYZ workplace doesn't get to stick around for an additional year; usually it's a few weeks or, at most, a few months (or in very high-level positions, as with the president of the University of North Texas, the person gets paid through the end of their contract but must step down immediately). Out of sight, out of mind.

Also, a typical firing decision is made by a single boss, or perhaps a board, but one's peers are not usually involved as they are in academia. (Something we still don't know about the UAH situation is whether the perpetrator was appealing a tenure denial by her department, or by higher-ups who reversed a positive vote in the department.)

Perhaps the nature of the academic job market makes our situation unique relative to other workplaces, but I'm not sure about that; an auto worker losing her job right now doesn't have a lot of options either.

Are there other ways in which our situation is unique, which might justify unique strategies for handling tenure denial, i.e., the firing of faculty?

See, this is not a unique situation. After all, it was the postal workers who first began this type of payback. In CT, the state lottery office was shot up by a fired employee. It happened in Atlanta in a brokerage firm, a plastic factory in Kentucky, a Xerox warehouse in Hawaii. It happened at Lockheed Martin, Modine Manufacturing, It's called "Going Postal" not "Going  Academic."

If anything, the tenure process may have postponed the terrible event for a year.
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