Monday, November 20th, 2017

Michael Berube chairs the AAUP investigation

Alex Greenlee

Posted on January 27, 2015 in News
By Emma James

Last week, a team was sent to USM by the American Association of University Professors to investigate claims against USM’s execution of academic freedom and shared governance.

Chairing the investigative committee was Michael Berube, director of the institute for arts and humanities at Pennsylvania State University.

According to Berube, hundreds of requests for intervention come before the AAUP every year, regarding what he described as “shady practices in American higher education.” From those, only a handful are selected.

“The investigative process is very labor intensive,” said Berube. “We try to take the ones that we think are the most important for the future of higher education.”

USM fell into that category.

“What’s going on in Southern Maine, it seems, is pretty drastic,” said Berube. “It seems to have pretty far-reaching implications and that’s why it was authorized for investigation.”

Berube explained that the process of investigation includes two main components. First, the committee must read every document relevant to the investigation.

“I’ve read massive amounts of material, ranging from the faculty bylaws, to the constitution; I’ve gone through email exchanges, reports from the administration, various information about financial disaster,” said Berube. “We just try to get the lay of the land here.”

Berube explained that, in an investigation, the team wants to hear as much from administration as it does from faculty.

“We come in as outsiders,” said Berube. “We come in as impartial observers.”

Berube addressed the idea brought up time and time again by USM administration that the AAUP has no standing, and reiterated that it is only true in a “narrow” legal sense.

“The AAUP is in fact a nationally recognized authority on what academic freedom and governance actually are,” said Berube. “So we don’t take this stuff lightly, but we don’t come in with any preconceived notions either.”

Another member on the committee as well as a professor of accounting at Eastern Michigan University, Howard Bunsis is in the process of the financial analysis.

Berube explained that this step has been difficult, because USM has not published all of the information or made available the numbers that they’re basing the financial crisis upon.

“President Flanagan did go over some larger scale demographic and financial projections for the state of Maine,” said Berube. “We have been able to go over published financial information of the system as a whole, but Howard Bunsis has only recently been able to get ahold of specific information about the University of Southern Maine.”

Christopher Quint, executive director of public affairs, explained that USM has been “nothing but transparent” throughout the process of closing the financial gap.

Berube also noted the difficulty in determining the financial status of USM because the numbers they’re looking at are projected, and have been for quite some time now.

“The administration’s approach on this is ‘Yeah, we’ve had a looming problem for quite some time. We’re not making this up, this is a systematic problem.”

The third challenge, Berube said, is not about the numbers or about the money.

“Even if these projections and these predictions are true, is this anyway to run a university?” asked Berube. “Is this really the way we go about retrenching faculty and cutting programs? And that’s a procedural question, but a really important one.”

Berube explained that even if the numbers pan out, the AAUP will still be looking at whether or not the process to filling the budget gap was done in a “proper and professional manner.”

A censure, according to Berube, could have any number of effects, and depends on how willing the administration is to get off the censure list once they’re put on it.

When asked whether USM would make an effort to be removed from the censure list if the university is indeed censured, Quint said, “USM is focused on implementing the Metropolitan University concept and ensuring that we remain an affordable, accessible and quality institution for our current and future students.”

Berube said that the state university of New York system has been on the censure list since the mid 70s, and will be on the list forever. They have a clause that allows them to fire faculty at will.

On the other hand, Louisiana State University was censured and immediately began working to be removed.

“It’s not like we censure you and we’re done and we never talk to you again,” said Berube. “The idea is not to censure people and show that they’re bad. The idea is to get institutions to stop doing the kinds of things that are getting them censured.”

The vote on whether or not USM will be censured will go before the AAUP during their annual conference in June.

  • Guest

    Excellent–it appears from your comment that we do agree on one thing: “the AAUP has already prejudged the situation at USM” That being the case, the selection of Prof. Bunsis makes perfect sense. The investigation report can be written before the investigation begins. Perfect. Academic freedom at its finest!

  • Guest

    AFUM is obviously very comfortable with the AAUP “investigation” being led by someone who has already taken sides on the issue being “investigated.” It’s ironic that an organization that professes to embrace intellectual honesty would proceed in such a fashion.

  • Jane Kuenz

    So “biased” is a kind of all purpose explanation for things you don’t like or just find “surprising”? Good to know. Sword is not evaluating the subjectivity of the research but of the language used to present it. No one’s qualified to peer review research in 10 different disciplines. As it happens, I did sense a distinct preference for some kinds of writing over others, such as the use of personal pronouns, but then I actually read the book.

  • Eileen Eagan

    I think we’ve about gone past what’s fair in using the student paper for our discussion. Too bad there isn’t another place for this but I think we have all made our points.

  • Eileen Eagan

    Well, It could be that Helen Sword is based since her claim seems, well, surprising. Personally, I tell students in our research and reference course that the use of “I” can be fine but I doubt that my colleagues who discourage it are being more subjective pretty subjective. This appear to be a red herring.
    The point however is that there are commonly agreed on ideas , at least in some fields, about objective studies and well, really, many people have a sense of the importance of fairness and the appearance of fairness. I think it’s sad that the AAUP didn’t find a committee that better represented what many people think of as academic values of research and judgment. There is a legal issue too since the judgment may not have many consequences but could have some. Of course having a trial of any sort is not supposed to presume the findings of the trial which is why jurors get questioned about their ability to be fair and judges, while presumably believing in upholding the law in general are not supposed to have announced their decision before the trial..

  • Jane Kuenz

    Eileen: On the question of “disciplinary difference”: In reviewing books for my Rhetoric, Syntax, and Style course, I’ve come across Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing. Sword analyzed 1000 peer-reviewed articles in 66 different journals in 10 disciplines across the arts, sciences, and social sciences, including history. Among other things, she found that 1) philosophers blame their bad writing on what they erroneously claim is the difficulty of their subject, and 2) historians avoid the first person pronoun, especially compared to their colleagues in the other humanities, philosophy and literary studies. According to Sword, “Historians who avoid personal pronouns often insist that they do so as a means of maintaining an objective authorial stance. Yet of all the researchers in the ten disciplines I surveyed, the historians were the most clearly subjective–manipulative even–in their use of language.” She goes on for several pages citing examples of “subjectively weighted” words and phrases “designed to sway readers to a particular point of view.” Sword’s point is not that historians are wrong to use subjective language, only that the use of first person is not an exclusive or even accurate sign of subjectivity in analysis or the presentation of research data. One wonders, though, about the insistence of historians on their own disciplinary objectivity. Is it just ignorance, lack of self-awareness, or another instance of what she describes?

  • Jane Kuenz

    The AAUP is not making a decision about the future of USM. It’s making a judgement about whether or not recent administrative decisions and actions accord with the principles of academic freedom as defined by the AAUP and widely recognized in higher education by faculty and administrators in many universities, now and in the past, including this one. These calls for an objective, neutral investigation miss the point that in making its decision to pursue a full investigation, the AAUP has already prejudged the situation at USM, at least enough to distinguish it from the many other complaints around the country as one of the very few that merit a closer look. Everyone on that committee understands they’re on campus precisely because the evidence already exists or the complaints are so egregious.

    There is a familiar assumption being floated here that the less someone knows about a particular case or situation the more objective that person will be in judging it, but it’s not true and is actually extremely dangerous. Judges are supposed to avoid conflicts of interest, but they’re not required to pretend not to know anything about the issues that come before them, much less not have opinions about those interests. Yes, confusing opinion with bias is a freshman mistake, especially when the opinion is informed by experience and knowledge and rendered on a subject in which that person has expertise. Otherwise, why not just grab three people off Congress St. and ask them to weigh in on the question of retrenching tenured faculty in programs not being eliminated, or how changing a university’s Carnegie classification affects promotion and tenure policies and, in turn, the changes in curriculum, research, and service that will follow, or how all of these relate to academic freedom as it has been traditionally defined. After that, we can send them over to Maine Med to advise on best practices in surgery.

    Bunsis was provided with publicly available budget data and asked to analyze and comment on it in terms of his own professional expertise and specifically in light of reporting and commentary about USM and UMS by the Bangor Daily News. It is entirely likely that he will remember that data and analysis in evaluating USM now, though he will also be able to amend it in light of what he learns on campus. It is not an instance of “bias” to evaluate data in light of specific, articulated principles. You may not like the principles or prefer to judge by a different set, but that is a different thing.

    Again, it is telling that no one on this comment page seems to be able to say that Bunsis’s analysis is wrong. The best anyone’s been able to do is say it’s irrelevant, which is a useful dodge but at least is in the realm of refutation. I’m not an accountant, nor particularly up to speed on the UMS budget, so if you can say why his analysis is wrong, please do. Otherwise, save the charges of bias until after the AAUP has actually said something.

  • Guest

    “It’s a common mistake to confuse an opinion or judgement about an issue with bias.” You’re kidding, right? If someone is appointed as an impartial investigator on an issue about which the person has already developed opinions and made a judgment, you don’t see that as bias? It’s called prejudging an issue. You truly don’t see a problem with the fact that one of the three committee members has already prejudged the very subject of the investigation?

  • Guest

    Agreed–Eileen, you have framed the issue much more delicately than I have.

    My take: if the AAUP investigation were meant to be a legitimate quasi-judicial inquiry into whether the University deserves to be censured, those who organized it would not include as one of the three committee members someone whose extensive historical involvement presents at least the appearance of bias and partiality. Obviously, if the AAUP investigation is what I and other cynics think it is, then the composition of the committee. A more neutrally constituted committee might not fulfill expectations.

  • Eileen Eagan

    There are several different arguments going on here. Here is my point. Perhaps there is some disciplinary difference . Historians and I think many scholars and lawyers think that a person who has announced his (or sometimes her) opinion over several years (and especially one who has been paid for it) may offer one useful perspective in a large and balanced group looking at an issue but is not the best person to put on a small committee making a judgment about the future of an institution (or of a person). It is I think an old and useful concept that an investigation should be fair and preferably not include someone who is representing a side in a dispute. I’m commenting on this in the context of past experience at USM. The Faculty Senate, for example, has done a series of “studies” in the past eight years and most of the committees have been composed of people who had made up their minds before looking at evidence. Personally I think this contradicts what some of us expect of students’ research and analysis (as well as our own), And, yes, I do thinks it’s embarrassing and, yes, I think it is shameful.

  • Jane Kuenz

    So your point is not that Bunsis is biased, nor that he is wrong, but that the UMS Board of Trustees has the authority to make decisions regarding how and where to spend money on higher education in Maine? That’s more a statement of fact than an argument. It’s not as though Bunsis or anyone else has questioned the Board’s authority, certainly not the AAUP. Whether or not redefining an institution’s Carnegie classification is an assault on academic freedom is an argument worth having. I don’t think the assertion is preposterous on its face, though the language of “assault” doesn’t help make anyone’s case.

  • Guest

    My argument is that the UMS Board of Trustees has the right to reconfigure USM as a metropolitan university, with all of the changes that the reconfiguration entails. Further, Prof. Bunsis’s financial analysis is actually irrelevant because the Board’s right to make these changes does not hinge on whether the UMS reserves could fund the shortfall at USM. Clearly, the BoT could divert the reserves to USM, but they are not required to. Lastly, it is preposterous to suggest that the decision to make USM part of the nationwide metropolitan university movement is an assault on academic freedom.

    How’s that for an argument? I do realize, incidentally, that you will not–cannot perhaps–acknowledge the legitimacy of any perspective not in accord with your own, so I fully expect the same dismissive response as in your prior communications.

  • Jane Kuenz

    As for Bunsis, note that in that letter to Matt Stone at BDN, he’s careful to note that he is not what people in these comments insist he is: “I am president of the Collective Bargaining Congress of the AAUP (American Association of University Professors), but our union has no affiliation with the faculty union at USM or any other union in Maine. Some faculty members are members of the AAUP, but we do not represent these faculty members in collective bargaining, and my role with the AAUP is as a volunteer related to our union chapters.” Most of that letter to Stone is an analysis of the UMS budget in relation to public claims made about it and faculty and staff retrenchments made on the basis of those claims. The closest he gets to showing his hand is when he says, “At USM, what has happened is that people have lost their jobs, and for no good reason.” That last part is obviously a judgement, but it’s based on the preceding analysis. One might disagree with his conclusion, but then, again, you’d be obligated to say why. At least, that’s what we do in universities.

  • Jane Kuenz

    It’s a common mistake to confuse an opinion or judgement about an issue with bias. The judge can agree with one side without being biased, even when the factual evidence is in dispute and especially when the judgement is informed by expertise, as Bunsis’s analysis is. You can take issue with his argument, though that would require you to make an actual argument of your own.

  • Guest

    Isn’t it really the AAUP investigation (with a prosecutor sitting on the jury) that is intended to poison the well?

  • Jane Kuenz

    As I’ve suggested before, “Guest,” your comments are an obvious and ham fisted attempt to poison the well. You need either to make a real argument or get better at this kind of rhetorical sleight of hand.

  • Jane Kuenz

    The fact that Bunsis has already performed some of the financial analysis of USM and the UMS budget doesn’t mean he’s biased, only that he’s prepared, i.e., he’s already done some of the work, probably in preparation for AAUP’s decision to move forward with a full investigation. Similarly, that AFUM claims him as an ally doesn’t mean he feels similarly. It is possible that his conclusions concur with AFUM’s because they’re the right conclusions.

  • Guest

    Yes– AAUP member, what say you in defense of the choice of Prof, Bunsis?

  • Birch040

    Wow. Puts the AAUP investigation in rather a new light, doesn’t it?

    Is there an explanation for how this person, who does appear to have made his mind up long ago that the University was in the wrong from what I can see, is one of the committee members?

  • Guest

    Hey Free Press–How about some coverage of how neutral and impartial this AAUP investigation is going to be. The fact that Prof. Bunsis, a longtime friend and ally, of AFUM is one of the three AAUP investigative panel members is kind of like having a prosecutor sitting on the jury, isn’t it? I invite one of the trained seals or other commenters here to defend the choice of Bunsis on this panel.

  • Blundemeier

    AAUP or no AAUP, the damage is done. USM is a shell of its former self. We don’t need a “report” to tell us the misplaced priorities of this sham admin and BoT. The charade is endemic to the institution.

  • Guest

    Thanks, Eileen. Good post.

    Here is the link to the AFUM Facebook post beginning, “Dear AFUM colleagues: Our friend and ally, Professor Howard Bunsis, . . . ”

    Professor Bunsis’s role as one of the three investigators puts the lie to any notion that the AAUP investigation is impartial and neutral.

  • Guest

    Bunkum–the AAUP is a union. The outcome of this investigation is foreordained. Let the charade begin.

  • Eileen Eagan

    Well the fix wouldn’t necessarily have to be in. AAUP has a long, and usually honorable,(some weaknesses about McCarthyism) history of examining controversies on campus. However, one of the three committee members, Howard Bunsis, has, since 2009, been quoted frequently by AFUM and has been described by them as an “ally”. That doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t try to be objective, but that seems unrealistic. If one of the other committee members has been a supporter of the administration view of the financial or governance situation, then one might say, great. Let truth prevail through contrasting views. Let the third person mediate. That doesn’t seem to be the case since there is no obviously balancing view. But we’ll see.

  • AAUP member

    Thanks for linking to an irrelevant article about an AAUP statement that has nothing to do with this investigation. As a matter of fact, some AAUP investigations do not result in censure, and I know, because some years ago, I chaired one. But you seem not to understand the nature of these investigations. The AAUP authorizes investigations only when the association is presented with situations that have implications for American higher education at large. The AAUP does this because it is obliged to uphold professional standards for the treatment of professional workers. You might as well complain that your local fire department is too biased against fire.

  • Guest

    Let’s see–how many AAUP investigations over the decades have found in favor of the university administration over the faculty? Any?

    The fix is in.