The University of Missouri’s top academic office has changed how it handles complaints about faculty behavior, months after administrators received a deluge of angry emails and phone calls about a former professor’s actions during the November protests.
Now there’s an online form that allows formal complaints to be submitted.
“Once submitted, the form is conspicuously labeled and sent to multiple members of the Office of the Provost,” Provost Garnett Stokes said in an email.
Stokes said she had communicated to senior associate provosts that they could take initiative and respond to complaints rather than wait for her say-so.
The university’s faculty disciplinary process involves a series of hearings to investigate whether a professor acted irresponsibly. That process is started when a person with university standing — a faculty member, student or administrator, for example — files a formal charge with the provost.
Many complaints about former communication professor Melissa Click were received after an incident during the protests, but Stokes said none of them were formal faculty irresponsibility charges.
The university suffered while Click’s case was up in the air. State lawmakers threatened massive funding cuts before settling on a $3.8 million decrease for the university system, and at the Columbia campus, enrollment is projected to plummet and hiring was frozen.
One faculty member — Michael Sykuta, a professor of agricultural and applied economics — believed he had filed such a charge with Stokes back in November, but no action was taken and he didn’t receive a response until after the university’s Board of Curators voted to fire Click in February.
“I think a lot of the political fallout of the entire Melissa Click situation and the Board of Curators’ engagement in that process was a result of the provost’s inaction in response to what’s been described as a large number of complaints, none of which she took as official complaints under our university rules,” Sykuta told The Star this week.
Faculty, students, alumni and others had lambasted Click en masse after she was filmed calling for “some muscle” to eject a student videographer from protests at the Concerned Student 1950 camp on the Mel Carnahan Quadrangle in Columbia. The video posted afterward went viral.
While all that was going on, people were calling for her to be disciplined in some fashion or another, according to emails to administrators obtained through a Sunshine Law request.
The curators eventually fired Click without affording her the series of hearings detailed in the university’s Collected Rules and Regulations, which describes how faculty irresponsibility charges are handled.
A report released by the American Association of University Professors found that the Board of Curators erred by not giving Click due process. Click has said that she would weigh her legal options but has not yet filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Sykuta sent his complaint to Stokes via email on Nov. 10.
“I certainly understand the tense circumstances surrounding the encounter; however, Professor Click’s behavior violates her professional obligations as a member of our faculty community,” Sykuta wrote in part to Stokes.
Stokes didn’t reply. She told The Star that she doesn’t know when she first read Sykuta’s email but said she did forward the message to Ken Dean, a senior associate provost regarded as an expert on the university’s bylaws. Dean drafted a response for Stokes to send to Sykuta, telling the professor that his message was not considered a charge of faculty irresponsibility.
“For some reason – probably due to the quantity of emails coming in and being circulated, as well as other serious disruptions in everyday activities following the events of Nov. 9 – the drafted email was never actually sent to the faculty member, Dr. Sykuta,” Stokes said. “I am sincerely sorry for this oversight and take full responsibility.”
Sykuta said he “thought a reasonable person would interpret it as a charge” but said he “would like to give (Stokes) the benefit of the doubt.”
Sykuta followed up with Stokes, Interim Chancellor Hank Foley and Ben Trachtenberg, a law professor and chair of the MU Faculty Council, on Feb. 25 — a few hours after the curators announced that they voted to fire Click.
“If this complaint had been acted upon in the first place, perhaps the channels of due process and resulting internal hearing would have resulted in Dr. Click’s dismissal before invoking the political wrath of the State legislature,” Sykuta wrote in part. The failure of due process started when complaints such as his “went overlooked or were ignored by your office,” he said.
However, Stokes told The Star by email, even if Sykuta’s complaint had been interpreted as a formal charge, “initiation of the faculty irresponsibility process does not constitute quick action; initiating the process in November would NOT have led to resolution by the time the Curators took their action. The process is deliberative.”
Trachtenberg, the MU Faculty Council chair, said the bylaws had been reviewed, and while there’s no final proposal yet, he hoped a change to the process would be before the council early in the academic year.
The proposed language would make it clear that a person who files the charge isn’t bound to personally handle the case each step of the way.
Instead, charges could be handed off to a third-party official “vaguely analogous to the role of prosecutor,” likely someone in the provost’s office, Trachtenberg said.
Stokes said she would support that: “The process needs clarification and greater transparency.”
Will Schmitt: 816-234-4269, @ws_missouri