AAUP report: Academic freedom, shared governance endangered at MU

The Board of Curators violated due process standards when firing Melissa Click, according to the report.
Courtesy of Lacy Rushin

Two months after beginning an investigation into assistant communication professor Melissa Click’s termination, the American Association of University Professors released its report, finding that academic freedom and shared governance are endangered at MU.

The report was published Wednesday night following an investigation of whether the Board of Curators violated the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure when dismissing Click from MU in February. Click was terminated for conduct during the fall semester’s protests that board Chairwoman Pam Henrickson said “was not compatible with university policies.”

The investigation’s findings will be used to decide if MU’s administration will be censured. MU has been censured twice and investigated four times before, including once for a similar reason — according to AAUP’s report, in 1973, the board “‘overreacted massively and ominously’ in taking disciplinary action … following campus demonstrations.”

The investigating committee, AAUP’s committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, visited MU in March and met with several people involved with Click’s case, including interim Chancellor Hank Foley, Faculty Council Chairman Ben Trachtenberg and Vice Chairwoman Nicole Monnier, MU’s AAUP chapter members and Click. The Board of Curators declined to meet with the investigating committee, but did provide a 10-page letter on March 17 with input for the investigation.

AAUP’s report details the events leading up to Click’s firing and the process by which she was fired. The purpose of the report, it said, “is not to defend professor Click’s November 9 actions,” but to decide whether Click was afforded due process and if her termination was due to overreach by the board and state government.

Part of the findings discuss the committee’s belief that they “are not convinced” Click’s actions warranted her termination. The committee said in the report that despite their belief, they recognize that a faculty hearing could have potentially yielded the same result as the curators’.

Regardless, the committee said in the report, it’s impossible to know the potential outcome of a faculty hearing because there was no faculty hearing.

In a statement on behalf of the board in response to the published report, board Chairwoman Pam Henrickson said that the board stands behind its decision to fire Click.

“As the AAUP’s report acknowledges, this case did not involve a denial of Dr. Click’s academic freedom,” the statement read. “But the AAUP’s report disregards the seriousness of her misconduct and reaches inconsistent and unsupported conclusions.”

But the investigation found the curators “violated basic standards of academic due process” by denying Click a faculty hearing. Under the UM System’s Collected Rules and Regulations along with the 1940 Statement, dismissal for cause “should be, if possible,” considered by faculty along with the board.

Click never had a faculty hearing because no one — faculty, students, administrators or the board — ever initiated the process, according to AAUP’s report. While the board has the legal authority to not have a faculty hearing, the investigating committee said it believes that an attempt should have been made. One of the curators could have filed a charge to have a faculty hearing, but none did.

“While the board endorses the normative practice of faculty hearings in cases of mid-term dismissal, the board found it necessary to act on its own in this singular instance when existing university procedures failed to address the seriousness of Dr. Click’s conduct,” the board’s March 17 letter read.

The investigation found the board undermined the authority of both the faculty and administrators when it conducted an independent investigation instead of holding a faculty hearing.

“Indeed, by suspending professor Click just two days after Chancellor Foley had publicly declared his faith in existing processes, apparently with no prior notice to the chancellor, the board revealed a remarkable disrespect not only for the faculty in its governance role but also for its own appointees,” the report stated.

The board said in their response that dismissal procedures are not ‘absolute entitlements’ and that they were justified to act in the manner they did.

“According to the report, the board still should have asked faculty to conduct a hearing and waited longer for action,” the board’s response read. “It essentially argues that faculty hearings should be held unless the faculty refuses to hear a case. But even if that were so, the board had waited months for the seriousness of Dr. Click’s well-known conduct to be addressed. The effect on the situation facing the board was the same as a faculty refusal to act.”

The report stated that there was overreach not only by the board, but also by the state government. While there is no “definitive evidence,” the committee believes there were more reasons for Click’s firing than just her actions.

The Missouri General Assmbly made several demands for Click’s dismissal and also threatened to cut funding equivalent to the salaries of Click, department Chairman Mitchell McKinney and Dean Michael O’Brien’s salaries. The report stated there is little evidence the curators worked to keep the university autonomous from the legislature during these events and that the board bowed to political pressure.

“ ... It is difficult not to conclude that the board’s unilateral decision to terminate professor Click’s appointment without affording her the faculty hearing required under university policies was in some measure a response to inappropriate legislative intrusion and pressure,” the report stated.

AAUP MU chapter member Victoria Johnson told The Maneater that the MU chapter believes state overreach sets a dangerous precedent.

“The national AAUP and MU chapter is deeply concerned about the political pressure that facilitated the firing of a faculty member without due process through which differing perspectives and the context of the situation could be examined,” Johnson said in an email.

Because of the various instances in which committee A believes the board overreached and made mistakes, in addition to “undue political interference,” the committee concluded that faculty cannot “rely on an administration fully dedicated to a robust defense of principles of academic freedom and shared governance.”

Before it was published, the report was sent to both Click and the board, who made comments and recommendations for editing that AAUP took into account when creating the final draft. The board did not agree with most of the report, according to a copy of the letter sent from the board to the AAUP obtained by an open-records request.

While the board agreed with the report on some points, it took issue with multiple claims by the investigating committee. The board asked the committee to revise the report in a number of areas before publishing it.

“ … It makes a number of defamatory statements and takes a result-oriented path to reach its conclusions, casting unwarranted aspersions at the university and its investigators, all in an apparent attempt to protect a faculty member who undisputedly engaged in misconduct,” the board’s letter read.

The board also takes issue with the committee’s findings that academic freedom is endangered in its full response to the published report.

“By finding a danger to academic freedom after acknowledging there is no evidence that academic freedom has been denied, the report loses sight of the true purposes of a faculty hearing and treats such a hearing as an entitlement to throw a ‘thin chalk line’ around Dr. Click regardless of her misconduct,” the board’s response read.

Trachtenberg told The Maneater that the conclusions of the AAUP’s investigative report don’t surprise him. He said that Faculty Council stands by its statement made in February following Click’s firing.

Additionally, he said he doesn’t agree with the curators’ belief that they had to act since no one filed a charge against Click.

“That argument does not hold water,” Trachtenberg said. “If the curators thought that was an appropriate process, then they should have followed their rules they created.”

During AAUP’s standing committee A’s June 3–4 meeting, the committee will decide if it recommends censuring MU’s administration. If it’s recommended, delegates will vote during the annual meeting on June 18.

Edited by Nancy Coleman | ncoleman@themaneater.com

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