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MSU Faculty Senate recommends changes to for-cause dismissal policy

April 18, 2019
The John A. Hannah Administration Building on Jan. 10, 2019.
The John A. Hannah Administration Building on Jan. 10, 2019. —
Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Michigan State’s Faculty Senate unanimously passed recommendations urging the MSU Board of Trustees to amend its policy on firing faculty members for-cause.

The proposed changes aim to add due process to recent changes to MSU’s Discipline and Dismissal of Tenured Faculty for Cause Policy, which allowed MSU’s president to decide whether a faculty member relieved of their duties during a disciplinary process should have their pay withheld. The changes also prevented an individual from retiring after firing for-cause proceedings began.

The protocols were put in place June 2018 in response to the case against former Dean of the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine William Strampel, said Len Fleck, Chairperson of the University Committee on Faculty Tenure. MSU policy forced the university to continue paying Strampel’s salary while it underwent the process of firing him, despite Strampel being charged with multiple crimes related to sexual misconduct and negligent oversight of Larry Nassar.

“This was seen as something that could not reflect well on the university,” Fleck said, “Especially from the point of view of taxpayers who would say, ‘Why in the world are we paying somebody to do nothing, after they have engaged in some truly egregious behavior?’” 

However, the changes were enacted without faculty input or approval, Fleck said. Faculty opposed changes that would force an individual to retire or face loss of retirement benefits if they wanted to go through with disciplinary proceedings, he said.

Faculty Senate sent a letter to the board with its concerns and the board was receptive, Fleck said.

“We have a new board which is listening even more, and is quite open to the policy revisions,” he said.

The proposed changes would shift decision-making power for withholding pay from MSU’s president to a three-person panel composed of “dismissal for cause review officers,” who would be selected individually from a group of 10 faculty members to be responsible for proceedings under the current policy. None of the selected officers would be from the accused’s college, and any decision must be unanimous.

“The conduct of the accused faculty member must be ‘egregious’ to justify denial of pay,” the document states. “We have more confidence in a judgment of ‘egregiousness’ with three faculty members who concur in that judgment as opposed to a simple majority.”

If the panel decides to withhold the individual’s pay, they would have the option to retire at that point or face loss of retirement benefits if fired. If the individual’s pay is not withheld, they would have the option to retire at any point up until the board renders a decision, according to the suggested revisions.

Some members of faculty senate were concerned with a specific section in the proposed recommendations. The guidelines state there is no specific way to define “egregious” conduct, but provided examples of what the board might consider as parameters. The first of these was, “The alleged behavior represents substantial damage to the reputation of the university.”

Some were concerned this language would lead to the punishment of faculty who had exposed institutional wrongdoing if it worsened public opinion. 

“It really has to do with clarifying that it’s not about criticizing the university, and not about even very publicly criticizing the university, and that we’re protecting free speech that way,” said Jennifer Johnson, an endowed professor in the College of Human Medicine. “Damage to the reputation of the university — under some of our administrations — sometimes felt like it was defined as anything critical of what they were doing, and it can’t be that.”

A motion to remove that piece of language passed with one dissenting. Following that motion, the recommendations were unanimously approved.

Based on a recent lunch meeting with the board, Fleck said trustees would be likely to approve the proposed changes.

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