Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Statement of Senate Chair Made at the March 12, 2013 Penn State University Faculty Senate Meeting: Restructuring the Way We Operate

The Penn State University Faculty Senate held its fourth meeting of this academic year on Tuesday January 29, 2013 (e.g. Faculty Senate March 12, 2013 Meeting Agenda).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

 I used the occasion to speak to the important reports of the Special Committee on University Governance, and those relating to faculty salaries, tenure flows, and informational reporting.  

I am pleased to report that at the meeting the University Faculty Senate endorsed the Report of the Special Committee for University Governance,   "Improving the Governance of Penn State, Revising the Structure of its Board of Trustees, and Furthering the Academic Mission of the University:  Report and Recommendations of the Special Committee on University Governance."  That endorsement will be conveyed to the Penn State University Board of Trustees.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Agenda for Meeting of the Penn State University Faculty Senate March 2013

This post includes the published agenda of the upcoming meeting of the University Faculty Senate scheduled for March 12, 2013.  The post also includes links to the committee reports that will be presented.

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

There are a number of Reports that are worth comment at the meeting.  It is my hope is that these comments might elicit some response by report authors at the meeting. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Confidentiality and the Ombuds System: A Sensible Approach to an Important Service

The Penn State University Ombuds systems provides a valuable service to the University community. Yet it is one that is sometimes not well understood.  That has been especially true with respect to the confidentiality of discussions between ombuds and faculty.

My own frustration in this respect began at the October 2012 meeting of the Penn State University Faculty Council:
 The sole discussion item was the Ombudsperson Report for 2011-12.  University Ombudsperson Deborah Atwater presented the 2011-12 report which was included in the Senate Council agenda. This report will be posted on the Ombudsperson website and included in the Senate agenda. CLICK HERE for Ombuds Training Materials. The most interesting part of the discussion centered on the issue of confidentiality.  Discussions between Ombudspersons and faculty are confidential, in a loose sense--that is they will not be disclosed at the instance of the Ombudsperson, nor will the ombudsperson report on the conversation to anyone in the department.  However, the conversations are NOT confidential in the strict legal sense: the university retains the full authority to ask the ombudsperson for both recollection of conversations and any written materials produced in the course of the ombudsperson's duties. Neither conversations nor written materials are protected against discovery by University counsel or other university personnel.  That means that if the university's counsel asks, an ombudsperson must produce both recollections of conversations and any written materials made in the course of conversations or other interactions with faculty making use of the service.  Ombudsperson Atwater emphasized the training that specified the need to avoid taking notes and related matters or to take notes that are not intelligible except to the writer--but university officials are always free to both request such notes and to demand an explanation of their meaning. All of this was something of a surprise to Senate Councillors, who worried that faculty may not understand the limited nature of confidentiality. A request was made for the Ombuds office to make sure that they inform faculty thinking about using the system about the limits of confidentiality and the rights of the university to access both conversations and writings produced in the course of the use of an ombudsperson. Faculty, in particular, should be cautioned about making admissions or other statements that might be used against them in further and more formal proceedings. (Informal Notes of October 2 2012 Faculty Senate Council Meeting)
Since then, it has been something of an uphill battle to get our entrenched leadership of the Senate, either elected or unelected, to either hear this or to acknowledge its importance, much less to do something about it. Our senior administrators, however, have recently moved responsibly and sensibly on this problem.  I am grateful to them.  They have added clarity to a system that serves the university in important ways. This post  includes information that all Penn State Ombuds will now be provided.