U of Arizona professors say they’re blackballed from service

Professors at the University of Arizona are demanding information regarding an alleged list of faculty members deemed too troublesome to serve on a key faculty governance committee.

One of the faculty members who says he was blacklisted from serving on the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure (CAFT) is currently suing the university. Another alleged blacklisted professor says he’s talking to a lawyer about his situation.

CAFT is charged with dealing with faculty employment concerns and internal grievances. The Senate chair and university president are supposed to be consulted on nominees for CAFT, but a faculty nominating committee prepares the final list of nominees. CAFT members are elected by the general faculty for three-year terms.

The Senate already has initiated its own investigation into what’s going on. And the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression is now involved, telling the university in a memo this month that by “allowing a small number of staff and administrators to gate-keep which professors the Faculty Senate may select from to join CAFT, the university can Ensure that only faculty who effectively agree with administrators serve on the panel. Such a rigged process raises serious questions about U of A’s commitment to truly shared governance and academic freedom.”

Irregularities With Nominations

Matthew Abraham, a professor of English whose nomination for CAFT was not accepted last academic year, says that his subsequent open records request revealed serious irregularities about the nomination process. The smoking gun, of sorts: emails in which a faculty governance staff member, Jane Cherry, and a member of the Senate’s nominating committee discussed Cherry’s alleged comments about potential CAFT nominees.

“For the CAFT nominations, certain names were highlighted in red. I asked questions about those in red and I was told they were inligible,” the faculty member wrote to Cherry in January, for instance. “When I asked why they were ineligible, you specified that they were either ineligible because of a position or because you considered them ‘impartial faculty’ with ‘hidden agendas.’ You qualified this last idea by saying that these faculty have been problems for the university, especially around grievances and CAFT cases and that they were not easy to work with.”

Cherry wrote in one response to the faculty member, “We typically choose impartial faculty who don’t have a hidden agenda when it comes to grievance committees.”

Not all faculty “are deemed appropriate,” Cherry continued. “Whether you agree with this aspect of choosing candidates is irrelevant, but based on facts about certain candidates past dealings with committees, the Office of General Counsel, and Faculty Senate.”

Cherry said that things have “always” worked this way.

According to these emails, three faculty members had been blocked from being on CAFT: Abraham; Keith Maggert, associate professor of cellular and molecular medicine; and Wei Hua Lin, professor of systems and industrial engineering and of civil and architectural engineering and mechanics.

Cherry did not respond to a request for comment.

Problem Faculty?

Abraham has previously served as CAFT’s chair. But he says that he apparently became a problem for the university following that role, around 2018. That’s when he filed public requests for more information about who had applied to an associate vice provost job he’d wanted but didn’t get. Since that time, Abraham also has asked for internal faculty survey data and details about the University of Arizona Global Campus’s acquisition of formerly for-profit Ashford University, which remains controversial among the faculty.

Abraham’s ongoing legal complaint against the university deals primarily with the information he requested on the associate vice provost search. The university has released the finalists’ names to Abraham, but he wants to know about all the candidates, and he doesn’t believe the university’s personnel privacy policy blocks the release of such data.

“They just stonewalled us,” he said in an interview, referring to himself and a lawyer he hired to help him obtain the information.

Both Maggert and Lin have filed internal grievances and criticized administrators in the past.

After he received the email records about CAFT nominees, Abraham—along with Maggert and Lin—contacted the Senate. In response, Amelia Kraehe, the nominating committee chair and associate vice president for equity in the arts, outlined a series of corrective actions that the Senate would take moving forward. One was to continue following the faculty bylaws for all eligibility on committees because “unsubstantiated information about candidates was presented at meetings by a non-elected support staff.”

Leila Hudson, Senate chair and associate professor of modern Middle East culture and political economy, has announced that a standing, faculty committee referred to as the Committee of Eleven is “is looking into the complaints and claims and preparing to make recommendations for reforms to faculty processes later in the term.”

Hudson said in an interview that “there is a real concern about these matters. As chair of the faculty, I have initiated an all-faculty committee investigation of these issues, allegations and complaints. There is a widespread view that it’s important to get to the bottom of this … We are trying to investigate whether that’s really going on here, or not. And regardless of what we find, moving on to a future in which faculty manages our own academic affairs without corporate style-interference or infringement is the goal.”

‘Unfortunate Events’

She continued, this “whole unfortunate set of events stems from the phasing out of pure faculty governance to the concept of shared governance in which there is an administrative hand in everything. The rise of corporate management techniques in the academy has encroached on the processes of self-governance in many, many cases.”

In addition to questions about an alleged blacklist, many faculty members at Arizona remain concerned about the Ashford merger. The Senate is also launching a payback campaign regarding a COVID-19-related furlough, which employees have argued was financially unnecessary and draconian.

FIRE’s letter to the university asks that it “make clear it will not exclude faculty, including Professors Abraham, Lin, and Maggert, from the CAFT ballot because of their expression.”

Maggert said in an interview that he thinks Cherry, the staff member, was speaking for administrators and not herself when she allegedly blocked him and others from service on the committee. Maggert also said he thinks the university’s behavior is sufficiently troubling to trigger a state investigation.

“Blacklists being maintained and enacted by the university administration is definitely criminal,” he said, citing the university’s public status and its duty to comply not only with its own policies but state and federal laws—including those on speech.

Lin said via email, “I hope there will be a serious, in-depth investigation on this matter.”

Abraham, Maggert and Lin have jointly asked the Senate, at the very least, to ensure that the administration acknowledges the “list’s existence, its operationalization and history,” and to determine “whether an administrative practice has evolved to exclude faculty members from vital service.” work on the CAFT and other committees” based on their past grievances, complaints or legal actions.

“It would indeed be sad if the administration stigmatizes those who participate in processes the university itself has established to enact and protect shared governance principles,” the three professors wrote to the Senate.

Abraham said it’s likely that there’s a literal written blacklist somewhere, but “we’re just trying to put two and two together and find out how far this kind of thing reaches back.”

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