Texas A&M University’s Faculty Senate has formed a committee that will propose standardizing procedures for investigations into professors.
The proposal will be presented to the provost and the president.
The creation of the seven-person Senate Select Committee on Faculty Investigations is the result of concerns among faculty members regarding recent investigations into anthropology professors Filipe Castro and Michael Alvard, which led to the dismissal of the former and disciplining of the latter.
The investigations into Castro and Alvard were led by Texas A&M Chief Risk, Ethics and Compliance Officer Kevin P. McGinnis and focused heavily on remarks the professors made in class.
Committee member Adam Kolasinski said in an email to The Eagle that he called for the Faculty Senate leadership to take action because a lack of rigorous and fair investigations could open doors to faculty members being punished for protected speech or exercises of academic freedom. He said that while he does not have sufficient information to say if this occurred in the cases of Castro and Alvard, details available so far “warrant serious concern.”
Kolasinski added that the cases of Castro and Alvard revealed that A&M does not have rules outlining a formal process, standard of evidence or standard of proof for faculty investigations.
“Even more concerning, there is nothing in the rules requiring faculty participation in the investigation and adjudication of such cases, even though guidelines of the American Association of University Professors explicitly call for it,” Kolasinski said. “I look forward to serving on a committee that will establish what happened in these cases, as well as propose reforms to university rules that will establish a formal fact finding and adjudication process in which faculty play a key role, and which protects faculty from being punished for legitimate exercises of free speech and academic freedom under the pretext of some trumped up charges.”
Kolasinski is an associate professor of finance at A&M.
Investigations at A&M, including those in the Office of Risk, Ethics and Compliance, present findings to administration and academic leadership for consideration before a decision is made, an A&M spokesperson said Tuesday afternoon.
“The administration always welcomes input from faculty, staff and students on improving processes,” a statement to The Eagle reads.
The committee was announced at a Feb. 8 meeting. John N. Stallone, speaker of the Faculty Senate and professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, said the group will meet for the first time next week. Stallone is also on the committee. He expects work to be completed by the end of the semester, he said in a Tuesday interview with The Eagle.
“[Alvard and Castro’s investigations] raised some serious concerns for the way that it was conducted. I understand that we’re a public university, and professors do have rights of free speech, and certainly to explore controversial ideas in their classrooms,” Stallone said. “But when there’s a complaint about that, the way that it’s handled needs to be done in a very careful and prescribed way. We know from the American Association of University Professors that there are recommended ways that this be done, and evidently we didn’t do that in these two particular cases.”
Stallone stressed that transparency is critical to the process of faculty investigations. While there may be legal reasons not to share some details during an investigation, Stallone said there needs to be a time when the process is made transparent. Allowing the Faculty Senate to weigh in during investigations and following guidelines outlined by the American Association of University Professors would be beneficial, he said.
In the Faculty Senate meeting, Stallone said that there are concerns among faculty members in part because “it was felt that Mr. McGinnis was not qualified to evaluate academic content of faculty members’ instructional materials.”
In the Tuesday interview, Stallone clarified his point, saying that McGinnis shouldn’t necessarily be excluded from such investigations, but rather there should be a greater emphasis on faculty involvement throughout the process since fellow academicians would have more expertise evaluating a faculty members’ actions.
“When you evaluate something, you want it to be evaluated by a person that has the background to do an adequate quality evaluation,” Stallone said. “Maybe from a legal standpoint, Mr. McGinnis could do that, but from an academic standpoint, probably not so much.”
Texas A&M currently holds a “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. This is the highest rating for free speech on campus that a university can earn, showing that the school’s written policies “do not seriously imperil speech,” according to the FIRE website.
Kolasinski raised concern at the Feb. 8 Faculty Senate meeting about A&M’s green light rating. In a Monday email to The Eagle, Kolasinski said that while he has no knowledge that FIRE is considering removing A&M’s green light rating, he knows that FIRE is monitoring these cases closely and has intervened on behalf of both Castro and Alvard.
“My conjecture that we might be in danger of losing our green light free speech rating is based solely on the fact FIRE chose to intervene, as well as my general knowledge of FIRE’s principles, and not on any inside information about what is happening inside the FIRE organization,” Kolasinski said.
The A&M Board of Regents released a statement on Aug. 21 condemning the “vulgar, disrespectful and divisive language of a few members of the faculty at the flagship university.” The statement cites concerns about social media posts and actions of faculty members.
On Aug. 27, FIRE sent then-President Michael K. Young a letter expressing concern that an investigation into Castro’s social media posts departs from the letter of the First Amendment. FIRE urged Young to end any investigations into Castro. The letter was obtained by The Eagle last month.
In a Sept. 7 response, Young wrote, “Texas A&M has a proud history of supporting free speech on its campus. ... Rest assured Texas A&M has no intention of investigating or sanctioning Dr. Castro for protected speech.”
In addition, Young wrote: “If, while fielding commentary about Dr. Castro’s protected speech, the university learns of potential workplace misconduct, the university has a duty to investigate the allegation to determine if Dr. Castro’s behavior has violated university rules.”