Conflict and responsibility

Michael's picture

The debate on extra-curricular activities by University of New Mexico staff and postgraduate students continues in the Blogosphere. Of particular interest are those from within UNM, and those associated with Professor Chavez’ writing and teaching (English and Women’s Studies ), such as Samantha Anne Scott.

Yet there is little evidence of any public statements on managing the conflict within the English Department, a conflict that reports suggest threatens the careers of faculty, the integrity of teaching, and is inappropriately dragging students into the debate.

Constructive debate on issues in the academy is productive, unmanaged conflict is not. What then are the issues at stake, that must be of concern to all academics, authorities and students? These can be dissected on a number of levels from the micro-environment, the conduct of individuals to the macro level, the responsibility of the organisation.

The first of these is whether our extra-curricular activities should be of concern to our colleagues and university authorities, particularly when those activities occur in private. However in many small university towns, the chances of one’s private life becoming public are not inconsiderable. Should we have reasons to be concerned if we are acting as private citizens and not as representatives of the university, and are not pursuing actions that run contrary to what we teach? In the case at bar, the activity was private, but once one becomes involved in the internet, the probability of one’s actions becoming widely known rise considerably.

In Samantha Scott's article linked above and subsequent comments, Chavez is accused of not being ‘smart’. What does this mean? There are a number of issues we need to consider here. Should we engage in activities that we would not want to be front page news? Were people aware of the risks of this when they posed for photographs that would appear on the internet, did they have the option of not showing their faces, and was appropriate consent obtained? It means, I believe, that people took calculated risks that their activities would not become public knowledge and that they may not have been fully aware of the magnitude of those risks. However there is always the possibility of an insider exposing one, as may have happened here. What if Chavez and Derrington were not concerned about their activities being known, but miscalculated the reaction of their colleagues? It is not so much a matter of being ‘smart’ or not. These were two highly intelligent women, but they may have miscalculated the probabilities of an outcome such as eventuated.

Philosophically it is a common manoeuvre to substitute a variety of scenarios, and see whether people react in the same way, to test the robustness of their arguments. So not surprisingly a number of analogies have been explored in discussions. Would the reaction have been the same if the activity was modelling, sport, or raising money for charity? In other words are people’s reactions based on the crossing of private into public, or is it the specific activity depicted. Is this merely a problem amongst faculty in dealing with sexuality when it becomes public? Or is it even more specific? If the women involved had acted in films or television that involved sexuality, would the reaction have been the same? Or was it homophobia – two women were involved in one photograph? Or is it a reaction to the whole world of sado-masochism, that those outside of it only indistinctly grasp.

Do people object to our activities off campus, or just certain activities that are not congruous with their own world vision? If so, is this an attack on freedom of expression or belief, or is there some sense that one’s off-campus activities, once brought by others onto campus, somehow undermine the purpose of the institution.

The second, and frequently repeated accusation is to question Chavez’ ethics. What does that mean? This is the dimension that her activities coincided with that of a number of post-graduate students, and therefore raised questions about faculty-student interactions and in particular abuse of power. Actually we know little about Chavez’ personal ethics, so is there actually any evidence of behaviour that is ethically problematic? Ethics is about how we treat our fellow human beings, and ethical behaviour is about treating others with respect and honesty, treating others as we would expect to be treated ourselves, and not using others as a means to an end or compromising their autonomy by undue influence. Was there evidence of this? In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we must conclude that this is not a question of ethics.

Therefore why has this become an issue? Is it because of traditional prohibitions on staff-student relations, designed to protect them from abuse? A relationship that becomes increasingly less clear as one moves up through the academic ranks. What degree of prohibitions should there be on activities between consenting adults? Should there be hard and fast rules or should we simply be aware that all relations involve power differentials and deal with that? One campus harassment officer I discussed this with agreed, particularly at this level in the campus hierarchy. We cannot always protect people from themselves or others, nor should we assume that people will always abuse power, but we can create a more respectful climate and we can provide people with ready access to remedies if they feel exploited.

A number of commentators have extended this argument further. If we all stopped for a moment and considered all of the situations where we have interacted with postgraduate students off campus, and considered a blanket prohibition on such interactions, we might think that political correctness had created a very strange and sterile world. In reality faculty and students often interact or perform tasks for each other, such as baby sitting. The case at bar involved a professor who found herself in a workplace with some students, who interacted, and posed for at least one photograph. The assumption of wrong doing presumes that we are defined by our campus roles wherever we are. What if the roles were reversed and the postgraduate student was a supervisor in the off campus workplace. Would this preclude such two individuals from being seen together on campus?

So what is making certain faculty uncomfortable? Is it sexuality, is it the presence of students, or is it the intersection? The arguments advanced so far for some sort of sanction fail in general to delineate these issues. To deal with one elephant in the room, there has been considerable comment on one photograph in which Derrington poses kneeling in front of Chavez. What exactly are people projecting onto this photograph? The question has already been asked as to whether it would be the same if one were male, and the same goes for reversing the roles, in which the professor is apparently submissive. It is quite possible that it is people’s specific reaction to one or more photographs, or even descriptions of them that is the real issue here, not what actually happened. There is also the assumption, contrary to the evidence, that nobody on campus is engaged in this or similar activities.

Moving from the micro to the meso level, the next issue is how to deal with conflict in the workplace and how to prevent it escalating. At present this appears to be confined to one department, and mainly within one programme (Creative Writing) but could easily spread. If departmental resources are insufficient to resolve the conflict, there is a responsibility of the College of Art and Science, or University administration to deal promptly with the matter, and in particular to prevent it spilling off campus and involving State agencies. Openness, constructive dialogue and leadership would be critical factors to success, as well as skilled dispute resolution staff.

At a more macro level, the silence of those charged with faculty relations, equity, harassment and academic freedom is surprising. UNM appears to have a Staff Council, a chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and a well defined faculty dispute resolution process and Office of Equal Opportunity.

An investigation was conducted by the Deputy Provost’s office (responsible for personnel and dispute resolution) and no wrong doing was identified, according to reports. This should have been the end of the matter if the report was conveyed to staff and students in a constructive and sensitive manner. Therefore why are there continuing reports of harassment of staff and students on campus over their views on this issue? One issue may be transparency. Neither the report nor the letter sent to some faculty on March 10th have been made public, although apparently leaked to he media. The Deputy Provost has stated that there is a mechanism of appeal to the Provost, but the mechanisms for this are not clear. Appeals are usually initiated by the parties on specific matters such as errors of fact or law, or apprehension of bias. The governance structure and in particular the relations between the Administration, the College and the Department need to be made clear. If there is dissent over the conclusions, the appropriate channels should be pursued rather than litigating through the media. Calls for punishment make no sense in this context, mob rule has no place on campus where procedures should follow due process and evidence.

It has been suggested that Elizabeth Wood and I have presented a one sided version of the story. That is purely because we have only been approached by the two people caught up in this. I would be delighted to receive comments and suggestions and any correction of matters of fact from the program director, department head, dean or provost’s office, or the various offices and entities charged with preserving a safe and encouraging environment on campus. In a survey conducted by the Women’s Resource Centre, only about 50% of female faculty felt positive about the atmosphere.

We are not seeking to allocate blame, but to understand, draw lessons to be learned, and if appropriate make recommendations and develop guidelines to assist faculty and students in the future.

Related stories:

Another important voice

Lisa Chavez speaks out

When is it okay for faculty and students to be sexual in the same place?