A group representing Purdue University faculty says it is encouraged by discussions with President Mitch Daniels about how the university handles disciplinary cases but says changes in policy are needed to ensure professors accused of wrongdoing get fair hearings.
The American Association of University Professors has sent a string of letters in the past year criticizing the university's due process and asking Daniels to institute changes to policies they say often make administrators judge and jury.
"The way in which Purdue regulations operate, it appears that Purdue faculty members are guilty, then need to prove they are not," B. Robert Kreiser, the association's national associate secretary, told the Journal & Courier in Lafayette. "If the administration wishes to impose a severe sanction on a faculty member … it should prove them all in a hearing in front of a faculty body and demonstrate body of proof for the cause of the severe sanction."
Purdue administrators have rejected the accusations of bad policy by the AAUP, a national group representing faculty. Provost Tim Sands said policies on tenure, sanctions and academic freedoms have been in place since 1977 and have been upheld in federal district court.
Marcus Rogers, president of the AAUP Purdue chapter and a cyber forensics professor, said faculty have long been concerned about Purdue's use of attorneys in "informal conversations." He said many faculty members believe administrators have had too-easy access to attorneys on retainer with a Lafayette firm, leading to unnecessary, costly legal actions against faculty.
Purdue paid nearly $1.6 million to law firm Stuart & Branigin for "legal issues resulting from administration action against any staff or faculty member" between April 2011 and December 2012, according to documents reviewed the Journal & Courier.
Rogers said he hopes Daniels' recent decision to hire in-house counsel and reduce its ties to Stuart & Branigin will create cooler heads when questions or accusations over conduct arise.
Another idea being discussed is creating a position for a mediator, or ombudsman, who would informally hear disputes or accusations in an effort to head off a formal university grievance or investigation. Both sides appear open to the idea, but the University Senate hasn't publicly weighed in.
Sands said a mediator could help diffuse situations that get wrapped up in personalities and other issues.
"Once you call in an attorney, there is no turning back," Sands said. "You can no longer deal with it one-on-one anymore. That changes everything."
Rogers said faculty want more input on a panel that drafts and approves university policy. Currently, only one non-administrator is a member. The group came under fire three years ago with a proposal that would have required approval for involvement in what the faculty view as part of their scholarly duties, such as volunteering and leadership roles in professional societies.
Sands said policy review and better communication of policy are in order.
"If there are lessons to be learned from the last few years, it would be that erring on the side of too much stakeholder input is a good idea," he said.