The censure vote was fair, but was the decision just?

UB should tell faculty why they've been dismissed

UB can dismiss a pre-tenure professor without offering a single reason why.

A clause in the professors’ union-negotiated contract upholds this practice; it’s not just a rarely cited, last-resort clause, but rather a policy deans and administrators are specifically advised to follow. They are told not to offer grounds for dismissal to term-appointed employees, even if they want to.

The reason behind this policy, as UB officials explained to me, is that any dismissal will inevitably bring complaints. No one wants to be told their career is over. But the lack of understanding –– the lack of transparency –– as to why one is dismissed is unfair, damaging and ultimately un-academic.

I’ve been reporting on the censure resolution for the last month. I’m not an expert in employee relations or labor law, but I would argue it’s better to have more openness than secrecy and more explanations than excuses.

If I’m fired from my job as a waitress, I would expect an explanation, and I’m sure I would receive one. I don’t have a union, or a senate full of highly-educated academics willing to fight for me.

But I have employers who are good people, and if they felt I was seriously failing in the delivery of burgers and beer, they would give me an explanation –– not owing to any legal obligation, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Under their current contract, non-tenured professors are made disproportionately vulnerable in a workplace which, I hope we can all agree, merits better protection than a brewpub.

I believe our senior administrators and professors take issues of mentorship and employment seriously. If I didn’t believe that, I would not bother writing this.

After a contentious public debate on the School of Architecture’s dismissal of the professor, Dean Robert Shibley spoke earnestly about how seriously he takes these decisions, and the lengths to which the architecture school will go to make sure all professors receive the support they need to proceed to tenure track.

But Shibley’s good intentions didn’t work in this case. A professor not only got dismissed, she also lost health insurance she desperately needs to pay what has become a life-threatening illness.

I know the faculty voted and the democratic process played out. All the details were right, but the humanity went missing.

I keep thinking about this professor I have never met and wondering how she must feel. We don’t get answers to the big questions in life, like why a young woman at the start of her career would contract a terminal illness. But surely, the university could have done better to give her answers to the smaller question of why she lost her job.

The UB process dictates that no one outside senior administrators can know why someone is dismissed. That allows for privacy, but it also means review by colleagues can’t occur. What checks are in place to keep the powerful accountable? The assistant professor, by all accounts provided by members of the grievance committee, was stunned she was not renewed and does not not have the slightest idea what she did to merit dismissal.

She searched her memory, went through all her mentoring reports and still came up with nothing. The committee charged with investigating her grievance also could not find anything in her case that warranted grounds for dismissal.

And yet, she was dismissed.

Central to the committee’s argument for reinstatement was an allegation that the school did not follow the “typical tenure-track schedule” when it dismissed her.

Multiple people familiar with the case stood in front of their colleagues Tuesday night and said the case was “atypical” and therefore warranted dismissal procedures not beholden to the policies and procedures laid out in the school’s “typical tenure-track schedule.”

I asked Dean Shibley if there was any way he could help me make sense of these two things. The professor and the grievance committee said they saw nothing unusual about her case, but those defending the school’s position clearly cited “atypical” circumstances.

How can both be true?

He said, as he is instructed by UB policies to do, that there was no way to adequately explain these circumstances to me without going down a “slippery slope” and revealing confidential information surrounding the case.

But not giving out information can be just as slippery.

I understand confidentiality. But I value transparency, accuracy and fairness more. I would imagine a room full of academics would, too.

The policies and procedures in place that allowed this case to unfold in the way it did–– with lopsided information and a string of unanswerable questions ––requires serious debate and consideration from administrators who have the power to change them.

A professor lost her job and is battling for her life, alone and unprotected by the university that was supposed to mentor her.

The censure vote was fair, but the justice eludes me.