Some faculty are arguing IU administration violated university policy when suspending political science professor Abdulkader Sinno without first consulting the Bloomington Faculty Council, potentially creating a chilling effect for faculty. At the heart of the dispute is a difference between university and campus policy on disciplinary action and ambiguity in a provision of university policy.
On Dec. 15, IU suspended Sinno from teaching until the upcoming fall semester for violating university policy when he filled out a room reservation form for an event with Israeli American speaker and pro-Palestinian activist Miko Peled. Sinno reserved the room for the Palestine Solidarity Committee, which he was the faculty advisor for before his suspension.
The alleged violation in university policy involves the Academic Appointee Responsibilities and Conduct policy, or ACA-33, which is a university-wide policy that outlines the process of sanctioning faculty. When arguing IU that has violated their own policy, faculty point to a provision which states, “A campus faculty governance organization may have a policy that includes the involvement of a faculty advisory body in the decision to impose severe sanctions.”
IU- Bloomington does, described in BL-ACA-D27. This policy describes a Faculty Misconduct Review Committee whose job is to hear complaints against faculty before disciplinary action is issued. The hearing allows administrators and the faculty member in question to present their case. The committee then makes a recommendation on a course of action, though administrators have the final say.
When IU skipped the step, IU Maurer School of Law professors Steve Sanders and Alexander Tanford wrote a letter detailing their concerns, which Sinno’s lawyer then sent to Carrie Docherty, vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, and IU’s General Counsel office. Sanders said the General Counsel office responded that university policy trumps IU- Bloomington’s campus policy, meaning IU did not have to refer the matter to the misconduct review board first.
Sanders said the explanation has a glaring hole because the provision that says a campus can have a faculty advisory board is in the same university policy they’re referring to: ACA-33. In fact, Tanford was the one who wrote the language in the policy, Sanders said.
When Sanders chaired a committee on the BFC two years ago, he said the former vice provost for faculty and academic affairs previously initiated complaints through this process. He isn’t aware of times where the step had been skipped, but because these processes are usually private, it could have happened before.
During a BFC meeting Jan. 16, Docherty said only two of the nine faculty discipline cases in the last five years involving limited contact with students and reassigned teaching duties were reviewed to the Faculty Misconduct Review Committee.
In the same meeting, IU Provost Rahul Shrivastav committed to implementing the recommendation of the Faculty Board of Review if they determine administrators misinterpreted university policy.
The process is important, Sanders said, because it gives faculty members a sense they have been involved in the decision-making process. Broadly, it embodies shared governance, which sees administrators and faculty members working together to form policies. More than just employees, faculty members are entitled to a say in how their institution is governed, Sanders said.
He believes shared governance is steadily declining at universities across the country, which he said are opting for more heavy-handed forms of management. The suspension of Sinno without following standard procedure will only accelerate its decline at IU, he said.
He also said IU’s “might makes right” attitude could have a chilling effect because it makes staff and faculty concerned they may be the next victim of what some see as IU’s neglect for their processes.
“Everybody’s rights are in danger when a university administrator takes a written policy and ignores it,” he said.
P. David Polly is a professor of earth and atmospheric science and former member of the Faculty Board of Review, a committee of the Bloomington Faculty Council that hears complaints by faculty against administrative decisions. Being a part of the board requires members to fully understand university policies and evaluate if administrators violated policy or acted on incorrect information, he said.
“On the surface of it, the penalty that has been leveled against what the alleged infraction was are very disproportionate to one another,” he said.
In the cases Polly was involved in where faculty members have been removed from teaching, it was often because they demonstrated they may be a danger to members of the campus community. Nothing he’s seen about this issue suggests it is the case, Polly said.
He said faculty mentors often reserve rooms for student groups and that the distinction between department activities and student activities is not always clear.
Polly said the administration's interpretation of policy means many faculty may have unintentionally violated policy by reserving a classroom for a student event and could face a stiff penalty for merely making a mistake. This may cause faculty to lose confidence in the administration’s ability to be fair, he said.
Marianne Kamp, an IU professor in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies, said she found the decision shocking.
“It’s really really astounding to me that the decision to bring a speaker was questioned at all, but the bigger thing is that a document that we fill out for the purposes of reserving a room could be used to decide that we are not properly doing our jobs,” she said. “Thats appalling. That’s ridiculous.”
Kamp said the decision was outside the norms of the university and encouraged faculty to get involved in faculty governance and speak out.
“We really need to be speaking up on things like that because otherwise the fundamental underlying principles of the university get undermined, bit by bit, until we won’t recognize what we have anymore,” she said.
In an email to the IDS, IU political science professor Christopher DeSante wrote that the situation led him to question his own ability to speak freely without retribution.
“I wish I could better answer your questions, but unfortunately I no longer believe that simply by having tenure at Indiana University I am free to comment on administrative decisions without fear of punishment; especially when those decisions I’m asked to comment on appear to involve university administrators ignoring extant rules related to the rights of tenured faculty members,” he said. “Without more information from the administration, one of the decisions you have asked me to comment on, the suspension of my colleague, has, by its very nature, called into question the protection tenure affords each and every faculty member here at IU Bloomington.”