‘A veiled threat’: Changes to racist clause in faculty handbook stalled by provost
February 11, 2021
In early 2019, DePaul professors Valerie Johnson and Quinetta Shelby began questioning the language and purpose of a clause in the university’s Faculty Handbook that states “a pattern of extreme intimidation and aggression towards other members of the university committee” can be grounds for faculty dismissal or other repercussions.
The language, they argued to a faculty committee recently, provides no objective criteria for violation, leaving it ripe for abuse – particularly toward faculty of color, who are often accused of being threatening or aggressive if they are outspoken.
“It feels like a veiled threat toward faculty of color— if we perceive you as aggressive, then you may stand to lose your job,” Johnson told The DePaulia, as the perception of both intimidation and aggression is widely subjective.
Two years later, despite support from the Faculty Council and two faculty committees, the language remains unchanged, blocked by Interim Provost Salma Ghanem in June and now stuck in negotiations over the language.
Faculty and administrators spar over clause’s language
Johnson and Shelby, both Black women, requested the language be examined in February 2019, launching a review by the Faculty Council to determine whether the clause’s language should be changed and whether the evidentiary standards for misconduct should be raised.
An internal Faculty Council memo obtained by The DePaulia from April 2020 shows the Faculty Handbook Committee agreed with Johnson and Shelby’s objections and proposed alternative language.
“The concern expressed within the Committee is that there is a fine line between disagreeing and being disagreeable,” the memo, written by a Faculty Council committee, reads. “All would agree that faculty need to be held accountable for misconduct, and that no faculty member has the right to harass, persecute, or otherwise abuse their colleagues. However, there is concern that the subjective nature of the handbook language as written affords a significant amount of leeway to silence faculty, and that this risks a negative impact on the free exchange of ideas and the willingness of faculty to dissent.”
The Faculty Council resolution ultimately moved to eliminate the clause from the handbook, and a month later, the resolution to change the language passed in a 24-4-6 vote via Zoom.
The last step in the process is approval by the provost, because unlike its bylaws, the Faculty Council cannot make amendments to the handbook unless the administration agrees to it, Faculty Council President Scott Paeth told The DePaulia.
“The Faculty Council passed a resolution in June of 2020 calling for the Handbook chapter 4.4.1. to be revised to remove the language about ‘a pattern of extreme intimidation,’” Paeth said. “The provost did not approve this action, and so the language remains unchanged.”
Ghanem said in an email to The DePaulia that she declined to support the Faculty Council’s resolution because the proposed amendment “removes violations of university policies and violations of the Faculty Handbook from the definition of misconduct,” seeks to “require repeated, substantial violations of policy or standards before conduct rises to the level of misconduct that is subject to any level of discipline” and “removes extreme bullying conduct from the definition of misconduct.”
“The proposed changes are not balanced and have the effect of lowering expectations for faculty conduct, which I cannot support,” Ghanem said.
Paeth said that since June, the Faculty Council’s Handbook committee has been working with the administration to find language that would “satisfy the concerns that motivated the resolution.”
But finding common ground between faculty and the administration has been a challenge, as negotiations have gone on for nearly seven months.
New language for the clause may be proposed soon, a source confirmed, which would read “a severe, pervasive, or persistent abusive behavior that could or does cause distress or potentially undermines the work of another member of the DePaul community” instead of “a pattern of extreme intimidation and aggression towards other members of the university community.”
Johnson said she objects to the language change.
“The revised language retains the subjective language,” she said. “Both the old and new clauses depend on the action of a dean, rather than HR or OIDE (Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity). There is no difference between ‘pervasive and persistent’ and ‘a pattern’? If something is pervasive and persistent, it is also a pattern? Intimidation and aggression are abusive behavior.”
Ghanem told The DePaulia in an email that she met with a group of faculty looking at the new language and believes they reached an agreement on the revision. She added that the revised language has not landed on her desk for official consideration and approval.
“While I cannot discuss personnel issues or litigation, I will note that the handbook was revised over several years,” Ghanem said. “New language was added after deliberations of many individuals including faculty. All revisions were voted on by Faculty Council. I would welcome reviewing criteria if that were suggested.”
Language upholds ‘structural racism,’ deemed ‘odd and problematic’ by outside expert
The debate over whether to change the clause’s language is emblematic of larger issues of structural racism at DePaul, Johnson said. She noted that when George Floyd was killed by police in June, the university released a “message of solidarity” calling for the university to examine the structural biases it holds. Shortly after, the resolution was nixed.
“Structural racism refers to biases that are built into the policies and practices of an organization,” Johnson said. “We have identified a structural bias. I don’t understand how the administration could, on one hand, talk about messages of solidarity and a commitment to dismantling racist structures and processes, but then on the other hand, reject ridding the institution of practices and policies that are identified as potentially discriminatory. It’s really painful.”
Ghanem declined to comment on whether she believes the clause rises to the description of systemic racism.
“The quoted language is subjective, and intentionally or not, it targets (and has been used against) diverse faculty,” Shelby told The DePaulia. “I have directly made this point to the Provost, and she has been in the room when this topic has been discussed by others. The Provost did not accept the revision that was approved by Faculty Council.”
Outside its broader implications, the language itself is not commonplace in faculty handbooks at other universities. Greg Scholtz, a department director for the American Association of University Professors, told The DePaulia that the language in the Faculty Handbook is “odd and problematic.”
“It’s problematic because it’s susceptible to abuse,” he said. “Who gets to define what is a ‘pattern of extreme intimidation and aggression?’ And how will it be defined? By someone’s stated experience?”
Scholtz added that the AAUP’s guidelines suggest that adequate causes for dismissal be related directly to the fitness of faculty in their professional capacities, and that despite having reviewed “hundreds” of faculty handbooks, he’d never seen such language.
“Over and over you see issues affecting faculty of color — all these incidents and no one is really connecting the dots and responding to the factors that give rise to these incidents,” Johnson said. “I co-sponsored the resolution that overwhelmingly passed Faculty Council, because I believed that I myself might be targeted, and I wanted to ensure that there were some protections.”
Day-to-day activism, discrimination leaves professors of color anxious and exhausted
During many faculty of colors’ tenure at DePaul, advocacy and internal fights for equity often become part of the day-to-day job.
Sydney Dillard, a Black professor in the College of Communication, sued DePaul in late December, alleging the university unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of her race and disability. In the lawsuit, Dillard claimed that the discrimination she faced at DePaul led her to suffer from “debilitating medical conditions,” including anxiety, depression and an aggravated seizure disorder. Lisa Calvente, another former faculty of color, also sued DePaul for discrimination.
Johnson said she experienced symptoms herself from stress incurred at DePaul.
“It creates a degree of anxiety to be placed in a position where you’re challenging your boss publicly,” Johnson said. “Going through the regular routine channels should be sufficient. But the routine channels are rarely sufficient. Faculty of color either respond by disengaging or feel compelled to say something. Unfortunately, however, saying something comes at a tremendous cost.”
And they’re not the only ones, she said. The DePaulia previously reported on the civil rights case brought against the university by former law professor Terry Smith, a Black man, who Johnson said was terminated through the use of the “extreme aggression and intimidation” clause. Smith recently died.
“I really do believe that a contributing factor to his death was the stress that he endured at DePaul,” Johnson said.
But Johnson is a self-proclaimed “eternal optimist.”
She described a wall facing her home office area decorated with family photos, dating back to her great grandparents. It reminds her of the closing quote from the 1997 film “Amistad:” “For at this moment, I am the whole reason they have existed at all.”
“They’re dead, so when you think about the reason that they had existence at this moment, I am that reason,” Johnson said. “You have to brighten the corner that you’re in. And so I think that moving forward, even after I’ve retired or died, there will be people at DePaul who will benefit from the fight that we’re having now.”
“It will make DePaul a better place,” she said. “It’s just tragic that it has to come at such great costs.”