The University of Missouri “violated fundamental principles of academic due process” and endangered academic freedom when it fired Mizzou Communications Professor Melissa Click following her actions during protests in Columbia last fall, a new report on the situation said.
The investigation by the American Association of University Professors added that the university's curators, who voted 4-2 to fire Click in February, bowed to political pressure from lawmakers in Jefferson City who had threatened to cut the university’s budget and look into its operations.
“It is difficult not to conclude,” the report said, “that the board's unilateral decision to terminate Professor Click's appointment without affording her the faculty hearing required under university policies was in some measure a response to inappropriate legislative intrusion and pressure.
“Indeed, we find no evidence that the curators ever publicly protested this interference or resisted individual legislators' attempted exercise of undue influence.”
In a response to the lengthy analysis, the university defended its actions.
It said the AAUP “overreaches and takes a result oriented path to its conclusions. It does not dispute the key facts of Dr. Click’s misconduct and admits that this is not a case about her academic freedom. Yet it reaches the incongruous conclusion that academic freedom is endangered at the University of Missouri.”
The university said the AAUP does not dispute the basic facts of the case against Click but draws the wrong conclusions.
“By finding a danger to academic freedom after acknowledging there is no evidence that academic freedom has been denied, the report loses sight of the true purposes of a faculty hearing and treats such a hearing as an entitlement to throw a ‘thin chalk line’ around Dr. Click regardless of her misconduct.”
On the question of due process for Click, the university said:
“We do not suggest that faculty hearings should be cast aside whenever there is a case of faculty misconduct that does not involve exercise of academic freedom. The Board has no pattern of doing so and hopes to work with faculty to ensure that any future instance of faculty misconduct is addressed through a process involving faculty review, and without need for the Board to act in this manner again.
“Rather, we make the narrower point that, in the unique circumstances of this case, the Board was obligated to act on its own to enforce the University’s standards and its decision to do so was in the best interest of the University and does not threaten academic freedom.”
The timeline in Columbia
Click, who taught communication, first attracted national attention during protests at Mizzou in November, when the demonstrations led to the departures of system President Tim Wolfe and Columbia Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.
In the aftermath of those actions, Click was caught on video calling for “muscle” to block journalists’ access to the quadrangle where a demonstration was taking place.
Later, another video surfaced showing Click involved in a shouting match with Columbia police during the campus homecoming parade in October.
As those examples became public, many lawmakers called for Click’s dismissal and threatened to withhold money from the university in retaliation for her continued presence on the faculty.
After having suspended Click from her position, university curators voted on Feb. 25 to fire Click. It offered her the chance to appeal to the board, but her effort to overturn the dismissal was rejected.
As tension surrounding Click’s behavior intensified, the AAUP announced it was sending a team to campus to look into the situation. The heightened feelings in Columbia did not spare the organization; it points out in a footnote to its report that when it announced its upcoming investigation, a message left at its Washington office said members of the committee should “bring [its] body bags.”
In its report, the association recounts not only Click’s actions, which it says are not in dispute, but what it calls other “autocratic decisions” at the university that “foreshadowed the more serious disruptions” that followed.
It cited Wolfe’s decision in 2012 to shut down the University of Missouri Press; Loftin’s decision to eliminate full tuition waivers for quarter-time graduate assistants at Mizzou; and the campus’ decision to withdraw the graduate student health subsidy, a decision that was later reversed.
“Hence,” the report said, “even before African-American students organized to protest racism at MU, the atmosphere had grown uneasy. Faculty members and midlevel administrators saw evidence of mounting conflict between President Wolfe and Chancellor Loftin, while dissatisfaction with both executives was building within their own ranks.”
That tension grew after the confrontation at the homecoming parade, where Wolfe’s car was blocked by demonstrators, then by the hunger strike and protest that led to the departure of the two top administrators.
When Click was charged with third-degree assault as a result of her actions on campus Nov. 9 — a charge that was later put aside — interim Chancellor Hank Foley was asked whether Click might be dismissed before pending action could be taken on her effort to secure tenure.
The AAUP report quotes Foley as responding: “No. Not going to happen.”
No proper hearing
But the AAUP report concludes that once Click was fired, the process did not follow proper procedure.
“Just as there is no dispute regarding whether Professor Click engaged in the conduct cited as the grounds for her dismissal,” its report said, “there is also no dispute regarding the failure to afford her a faculty hearing.”
It cited an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post by curator David Steelman in January in which he said Click should be fired, noting that it came before the board launched its formal investigation.
Because the vote to fire Click was 4-2, and there are only six curators currently on the board, the AAUP concluded that Steelman did not recuse himself even though he had judged Click guilty before a formal investigation was launched. It cited that fact as one of several that indicated she did was not treated fairly by the university.
“Curator Steelman’s op-ed in the Washington Post not only prejudged Professor Click’s case but arguably can be seen — and was so viewed by many faculty members — as an unwarranted and inappropriate attack on shared governance, academic freedom, and the faculty itself, in violation of Mr. Steelman’s duty under the bylaws to defend academic freedom and “collaboration governance.”
The report concluded:
“By acting unilaterally in the case of Professor Click, the board effectively undermined the authority of the very leaders it appointed just months earlier to restore order and address underlying problems. Indeed, by suspending Professor Click just two days after Chancellor Foley had publicly declared his faith in existing processes, apparently with no prior notice to the chancellor, the board revealed a remarkable disrespect not only for the faculty in its governance role but also for its own appointees.”
“While there is no definitive evidence to suggest that the board of curators did not act upon its stated motives, there is reason to suspect that grounds other than Professor Click’s actions were the real cause of her dismissal. By threatening budgetary and other consequences and openly demanding the summary dismissal of a faculty member, members of the Missouri legislature exerted undue political interference in the case of Professor Click, and the threat of such illegitimate interference continues ….
“In light of the board’s action against Professor Click and in the context of legislative threats to the institution and unresolved administrative turmoil, academic freedom and shared governance at MU are endangered.”
The university response
In its statement, the curators emphasized that the board “does not intend to set a precedent through its action in this case.”
It also said that the AAUP report “takes its eye off fundamental issues of academic freedom in failing to appreciate fully the impact of Dr. Click’s misconduct on the University’s educational environment. While Dr. Click’s academic freedom was not at stake, the failure of existing procedures to address the seriousness of her misconduct had raised worrisome questions about the University’s commitment to upholding the standards that protect its educational environment.
“When others failed to act, it was incumbent on the Board to act and enforce those standards. Engaging any other process would have allowed questions to linger for such a time that the effects on the University’s educational environment would have been caustic.”
The university response points out several examples of what it considers to be misrepresentation of the facts and misinterpretation of actions by university officials, saying the investigation by the AAUP is “plagued by inconsistency and speculation.”
“We recognize there can be reasonable debate about whether the Board should have tried to prompt a faculty hearing before it dismissed Dr. Click,” the university statement concluded, “and we encouraged a thoughtful discussion about academic freedom. But to find that academic freedom is in danger at the University of Missouri based on this singularly challenging case of misconduct requires an overreach. And that is what the Committee’s report does.
“We also recognize that faculty hearings can guard against dismissals that target a faculty member’s academic freedom. As the Committee’s report admits, however, that was not this case. Faculty hearings should not be a means to ignore or blindly defend faculty misconduct. But that too is what the Committee’s report does.”
At a meeting in June, a committee of the AAUP will decide whether to recommend that the association censure the administration at Mizzou. Censure can be imposed only by vote of delegates to the group’s annual meeting on June 18.
The University of Missouri’s Board of Curators holds the license for St. Louis Public Radio.
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