Sunday, June 18, 2017

Letter of Reprimand and recording of classes didn't violate university professor's academic freedom

Arbitrator Thomas W. Young issued an award in a dispute between the University of Central Florida and one of its professors. The grievant had been employed by the University for 15 years without discipline in his record. At some point, the University conducted an investigation of a series of incidents involving grievant and his students. The investigation was conducted by a team including the University's Assistant Director EOAA, Title IX Coordinator, The Director of Compliance and Ethics, and a Senior Compliance Analyst. That investigation culminated in a report, finding that while grievant's conduct did not constitute sexual harassment under applicable law and policies, grievant "has a long standing pattern of hostility towards women and ... he lacks the ability to conduct himself with civility and professionalism in the classroom and the office."

In response to the report, the Chair of grievant's Department issued a Letter of Reprimand. The letter incorporated ten incidents expressed in the report and admonished grievant to avoid certain behaviors in the future. These behaviors included ceasing any stories or anecdotes which suggested to students that they cannot report complaints about him to the University, a prohibition on profanity directed at students, sexist language in the classroom and discriminatory behavior in the classroom or office.  The Letter also advised grievant that his classes would be recorded and reviewed for the Summer and Fall terms.

A grievance was filed over the Letter and related restrictions. Among the professor's claims in the grievance process was an assertion that the University's action restricted "the spirit of intellectual exchange in the classroom" and violated his academic freedom as guaranteed by the cba. That agreement provided:

Academic freedom is the freedom to teach, both in and outside the classroom, to conduct research, and to publish the results of that research. Consistent with the exercise of academic responsibility, employees shall have freedom to present and discuss their own academic subjects, frankly and forthrightly, without fear of censorship, and to select instructional materials and determine grades in accordance with the University policies. Objective and skillful exposition of such subject matter, including the acknowledgment of a variety of scholarly opinions, is the duty of every such employee. Faculty are also free to address any matter of institutional policy or action. As individuals, employees are free to express their opinions to the larger community on any matter of social, political economic, or other public interest, without institutional discipline or restraint due to the content of those messages. Unless specifically authorized by the administration, employees’ opinions do not reflect the policies or official positions of the University of Central Florida.

 Grievant maintained that the conditions set forth in the Letter of Reprimand and the decision to record his lectures limited his ability to freely debate and discuss since he did not know how the video of his teaching would be used or who would be viewing it.

Arbitrator Young rejected these claims. Concerning the restrictions contained in the Letter he concluded:

There is nothing in the 6 admonitions, or anywhere else in the Letter of Reprimand, that would require Grievant to alter course content or restrict "the spirit of intellectual exchange in the classroom." Specifically, there is no record evidence that the Letter of Reprimand required or even suggested that Grievant stop teaching his classes using the George Carlin Pacifica monologue. To the contrary, testimony from Beckman at hearing is instructive on this point. Beckman was asked, "[A]t any time, through this document [Letter of Reprimand] do you direct any faculty member to actually alter course content in terms of the delivery of their academic instruction?" Beckman responded:

In my five years as chair I have never once requested a faculty member change course content, change course delivery, change what chapters they’re assigning in a book, what they’re not assigning in a book; . . .

Rather than alter course content, the record instead establishes that the admonitions address Grievant's use of profanity and vulgarity and discriminatory treatment directed at students in his classroom. The Investigative Report establishes that the referenced profanity, vulgarity and discriminatory treatment were not germane to his course material therefore not protected pursuant to section 5.2 of the CBA.

Concerning the requirement that his classes be recorded, Arbitrator Young noted that Grievant did not object to random observation of his classroom and concluded that failed to explain why monitoring by video would chill "the opportunity for open discourse, whereas monitoring by a human being would not."

The Arbitrator found the restrictions contained in the Reprimand were narrowly tailored to prevent a breach of grievant's academic freedom rights and determined that the recording of classes was not imposed to alter course content but simply to ensure compliance with the restrictions contained in the Letter of Reprimand.

Arbitrator Young's award can be found here.

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