Saturday, June 20, 2015

Speaking Past Each Other About Retaliation at Universities--The Example of Penn State

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2014)

I have considered the issue of retaliation within the context of shared governance at large universities (see, e.g., here, here, and here). The problem is especially acute where, as at Penn State, employees, including faculty, are increasingly encouraged to serve administrators through whistle blowing mechanisms (see, e.g., here) that themselves tend to be traps for the unwary (see, e.g., here). 

This post considers the difficulty of speaking to issues of retaliation at U.S. universities.  It suggests that at its core, the difficulty lies in the inability of administrators and faculty to communicate effectively.  And it further suggests that this inability arises not merely because people speak but don't listen, but also because key terms have acquired substantially distinct meanings and because administrators and faculty/staff approach the issues from quite distinct perspectives. The issues are illustrated with a pair of letters reflecting on the poor state of discourse at Penn State University.  

One of the most intractable issues related to retaliation-whistle-blower mechanisms is the inability of faculty and staff, on one side, and administrators, on the other, top communicate effectively with each other.  Part of the problem arises from perspective.  Administrators tend to focus on formal effectiveness of systems; they tend to gauge the utility of systems of reporting and protection against retaliation by the formal sufficiency of written policies, appropriately published to the university community.  Faculty and staff tend to focus on the functional effectiveness of whatever mechanism has been put in place by administrators. Administrators appear to wonder why employees fear retaliation in the face of elegantly articulated systems of reporting and formal structures for protection against retaliation. Faculty and staff appear to marvel at an administration so focused on the conceptual clarity of written policies that they me be blind to its failures at the level of implementation. It does not take much to chill reporting; even less to instill in employees the very real fear of retaliation.  Even one example of retaliation successfully effected may be enough to effectively gut the effectiveness of any administrative effort to encourage reporting.  

The problem is exacerbated  because while administrators and faculty use identical words, they invest those words with quite substantially different meaning. To administrators, terms like retaliation and reporting have quite distinct meanings, and well defined narrow application.  To faculty and staff, retaliation includes a broader range of actions, usually including a range of actions, perhaps large, that administrators tolerate as within the scope of administrative discretion--especially by middle level official like deans--buy which appear to function like retaliation to faculty and staff.  It is in the area of bad faith use of administrative discretion that a large gulf appears between administration and faculty.   The result--administrators begin to believe that no retaliation is being tolerated  in form while faculty and staff come to believe that retaliation is tolerated in effect, at least up to the line when it is severe enough to trigger formal response. 

When these two tendencies are combined, one gets a better sense of the extent of the ineffectiveness of administrative efforts to encourage  reporting, and of faculty and staff efforts to initiate a difficult conversation about the scope of retaliation.   This is an issue that is relevant to virtually all universities and reflects a fundamental divergence in the socialization of administrators and faculty.  It suggests that, across universities in the United States, discourse becomes harder as groups become less capable of listening, and if listening, of appropriately understanding what is being said.

One get a good sense of the issues, and of the difficulty of finding common ground to communicate (much less to agree on formal standards and the mechanics of assessing the effectiveness of its implementation) from a pair of letters to the editor touching on these issues at Penn State.  These appeared recently in the local newspaper.  These letters were triggered by what appeared to have been a disclosure by a senior administrator that fear of retaliation appeared to be quite high in his department.  The first letter reflects the faculty perspective--focused on implementation, functional effect and objectives based assessment.  The second, ostensibly a response to the first, reflects the administrative perspective--focused on the creation of formal systems.  Taken together, these letters reflect the enormous chasm that separates faculty, staff and administration on a core issue of university operation.  

The letters follow; the first from a faculty member, the second from a senior administrator:

Letter to the editor: Retaliation fears systemic at Penn State
Centre Daily Times
June 10, 2015

The writer of the June 4 letter “Retaliation fears real for Penn State workers” highlights fear of retaliation among Penn State employees in the areas of finance and business, writing that “The folks concerned about retaliation for reporting wrongdoing are not the people in the academic units, not the people in athletics.”

Fear of retaliation for reporting concerns is also real and justified for staff and faculty — non-tenure line and tenure line — across the university.

I have seen or had described to me retaliation, or its threat, used by supervisory staff against their direct reports; by department heads and deans against faculty; by department heads against associate deans; and by deans against department heads.

And I have learned from colleagues at other campuses that the problems they face are as serious than those faced at University Park.

In the examples that I am aware of, taking a report of retaliation — or its threat — “up the food chain,” to human resources or to the ombudsman office is ineffective at best; at worst, it compounds the problem.

At Penn State, retaliation is not isolated; it is systemic.

It is part of a suite of condign “management tools” that are deeply embedded in this very hierarchical institution’s DNA. I was heartened by Vice President David Gray’s admission that the fear exists; however, it will take much more than an admission, or a set of forums, to transform the Penn State that is into the one that it could be.
Lee Samuel Finn


Letter to the editor: Penn State addressing retaliation concerns
Centre Daily Times
June 18, 2015

The June 11 [sic] letter from Lee Samuel Finn expressed appreciation for David Gray’s acknowledgment of the issue, but indicated that fear of retaliation in the Penn State workplace is systemic.

We appreciate the concerns expressed, and we are doing much to address the issues uncovered through a 2013 survey, which was publicly shared with internal and external audiences. This includes a message from President Eric Barron, who views this as a top priority for his administration.

We have a team of individuals updating and improving policies. We are augmenting our training programs for academic and staff supervisors and leadership. We are providing more support resources to our university community, including developing ethics-awareness training and establishment of investigatory protocols and check-ins with self-disclosed reporters to prevent retaliation.

Next week— as we do at the start of every semester — we will send out an email to all faculty, staff and students explaining how to report wrongdoing and how to find resources to assist anyone who feels they may have been a victim of retaliation or wrongdoing. The message covers a wide swath of reportable behaviors with appropriate resources.

I urge anyone who has witnessed or suspects illegal, unethical or unsafe conduct to report it promptly so that it may be addressed. The university will not tolerate wrongful conduct, including retaliatory behavior, by any member of the Penn State community.

Regis Becker

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