Academic freedom under attack at WMU: Administrative abuse of the disciplinary process

A message from WMU-AAUP President Dr. Cathryn Bailey, and Vice President Dr. Whitney DeCamp

When Western Michigan Professor Jackie Marvin (not her real name) received notice a few years ago that the administration was initiating disciplinary proceedings against her, she was stunned and confused. “I knew I had done nothing wrong,” she said, “but this very official letter from the administration, out of the blue, implied — without providing any details — that I was guilty of serious misconduct.” Ultimately, the matter was dropped, according to Dr. Marvin, with no evidence for the allegations ever provided, but the impact on her was devastating and lasting. “Ever since, I was basically walking on eggshells, knowing that, at any moment, they might be getting ready to drag me through another nightmare.”

It is in response to such ongoing and increasing abuse by WMU of Article 22 of the WMU-AAUP Agreement that the Chapter is redoubling its efforts to address this matter. Although we have repeatedly and urgently brought this concern to WMU’s attention over the past many months, the situation has actually become worse. To summarize, since the start of 2023, at least seven professors have been dragged into the formal disciplinary process, a staggering figure.

Another truly disturbing fact, however, is that in at least five of these cases, the targeted faculty member apparently received no communication about the concern from their chair (or other appropriate administrator) prior to being thrust into the formal process. The new approach of Academic Affairs seems to be that, when a complaint or concern arises, the presumption shall be that the faculty member is likely guilty of serious misconduct. The upshot is that, for the first time in history, the policy of Academic Affairs regarding such concerns — including straightforward student complaints — seems to be to launch a formal stressful, frightening, and time-consuming contractual process against professors. This is in addition to the separate very serious problem of the failure to provide appropriate evidence in many of these cases, which also urgently needs addressing.

In most of these instances, it is evident that a simple conversation would have cleared up misunderstandings. An informal, collegial discussion of concerns with the faculty prior to taking formal action — as had historically been WMU’s norm in most cases— is a contractually recognized part of the process (22.§1.2) precisely so as to avoid unnecessary escalation. The unwillingness of some administrators to discuss concerns with faculty in their units, and the enthusiasm of other administrators to unnecessarily drag faculty members through this intimidating formal process exacerbates many ongoing problems, including our university’s morale crisis.

Not only is the casual, liberal application of the formal disciplinary process a further assault on Western’s already fragile campus morale, it also undermines professors’ ability to do their jobs. So long as any WMU faculty member fears that they too might be swept into the disciplinary process as a result of a passing complaint — by a student, employee, or administrator — they are not free to flourish as academics. Although WMU has not yet been in the news for top-down attempts to intimidate or retaliate against faculty as, for example, has happened in Florida and Texas, Western is on a similarly problematic trajectory given its increasingly liberal application of this key contractual article, the integrity of which is essential to maintain robust campus speech, academic freedom, and faculty and student morale.

Last Summer and Fall, we and several WMU-AAUP officer colleagues made repeated efforts (throughout administrative personnel changes) to explain the serious implications at WMU of invoking Article 22. And we have done so repeatedly in the months since then. Over and over again, we have explained both the ethical and practical imperatives for following the norms of academic culture with respect to addressing the numerous inevitable complaints and concerns about faculty that arise on all university campuses. This makes it especially alarming that, in the first year with a new Academic Labor Relations Director, the WMU-AAUP is dealing with a deluge of hasty and frivolous “disciplinary” cases. As we watch the precipitous and authoritarian attacks on faculty rights around the nation, the conclusion we must draw is that an escalated response from the WMU-AAUP has become necessary.