Friday, February 02, 2007

Updates on the Grievance Procedure

The grad employees who filed a grievance last year in response to being fired by the administration in order to test the workings of the current NYU grievance procedure have received responses from the administration (you can read more about the grievance procedure etc in Nerds coverage from last March).

Below is a copy of the letter one grievant received. The highlights:
  1. The letter claims that using the student disciplinary procedure would have resulted in expulsion and a permanent disciplinary record, therefore the fact that the university did not follow its own official disciplinary policies was an act of kindness. Of course, had the university followed its own disciplinary procedures, it is not at all clear that the grad employees would have been disciplined, as there were individuals sympathetic to the strike on the disciplinary committee.
  2. The letter also admits that the grievants are correct in noting that their behavior does not seem to have violated anything in the student disciplinary procedure, further suggesting that the disciplinary procedure would not have resulted in any discipline.
  3. While the letter does admit that not all striking teaching assistants were fired (unfortunately using the vague "several," which would suggest something like 3-5, when it was much more than that), the letter claims that no one could find any reason other than the desire to be sure that all fired workers were in fact not working for which workers were fired and which were not. Nevermind that the bulk of workers fired were in English and other fired workers were among the most vocal in the press.
  4. Finally, the letter claims that the grievant herself did not accept her teaching assignment, and that this act of non-acceptance was "an appropriate action on the part of the University." This makes no sense. If the grievant chose not to accept her assignment, than it is not the University who took an action. If it is the University's action, than it is not the grievant who made the choice. The signatory on this letter is a psychology and neural science professor--you'd think he'd be more familiar with basic logic!

I am writing in response to your name being listed on a formal grievance submitted in August, 2006. As per the Interim Grievance Procedure for Graduate Assistants, a hearing was convened on December 1, 2006 and I have subsequently investigated and evaluated the positions taken in your grievance.

You argued that in responding to the agreed upon fact that you did not fulfill assignments that were part of your financial aid award, the University failed to abide by the prescribed School and University disciplinary procedures. The reasons that I have uncovered for the University’s decision not to use the student discipline procedure are as follows. Firstly, the School and University disciplinary procedures allow that students may be expelled from the University as a possible penalty action. In President Sexton's letter of November 28, 2005, he explicitly stated that no student "will have the ability to continue their own studies affected". Accordingly, the use of the student disciplinary procedure would have introduced unacceptable risks to the students. Secondly, and as was stated in your grievance, it was not at all clear that the behavior in question violated any of the proscriptions articulated in the disciplinary procedure. Finally, a disciplinary penalty would have resulted in a permanent disciplinary record. In all, it is my judgment that the use of the student disciplinary procedure would not have been appropriate.

It was also asserted in the grievance that the “process” that was used was not based on any other process prescribed in University or School rules and that the process used was not adequately communicated to the affected students. It is my finding that in the absence of a prescribed procedure for responding to a University-wide concern, responsibility falls to the President as the chief academic officer. Consistent with the fact that President Sexton was the sole signatory to his letter of November 28 that identified the proscribed behavior and its consequences, President Sexton has indeed taken full responsibility for structuring the procedure according to which the matter was handled. He has consulted with a group of high level administrators including academic deans as well as have consulted with a council of all Deans and Vice Presidents. The explanations of the procedure provided by President Sexton's November 28 letter and the subsequent letter from Vice Provost Frank Hoppensteadt, who represented the President and his consultation group to the students, have not omitted any important aspect of the procedure. As an alternative to the preexisting disciplinary procedure, the process implemented offered the same protections to the students as the disciplinary procedure, though the ordering of steps was somewhat different. As in the disciplinary process, the students were apprised of the possible administrative responses and the behavior that would produce them. As in the disciplinary procedure, the administrative actions were established by the proper authority, in this case, the President. And as in disciplinary procedure, students were given an opportunity through the grievance procedure to challenge any action involved. Additionally, the students were afforded an appeal of the finding in the case. Finally, students were informed about the authority, the proscribed behavior and the contingent University response well before any such behavior could have been committed. It does not appear that any protection offered by the disciplinary procedure was denied. The process was developed in accordance with proper University governance and was consistent with a standard of fairness provided by comparable preexisting process.

The grievance also challenged the implementation of President Sexton's procedure, claiming that the actions announced by Vice Provost Hoppensteadt were inconsistent with the principles laid down in President Sexton's letter. It is my finding that indeed the language of the Hoppensteadt letter in which the loss of stipend was reduced from two semesters to one was ambiguous. The letter states that because it was determined that you had not accepted your spring teaching assignment, that "the loss of one semester applies". On discussing this with Vice Provost Hoppensteadt, it became clear that the intention was to say that you would not receive your stipend for the spring semester because you had not accepted your assignment. While it is unfortunate that the letter did not more clearly articulate the reasoning behind this action, it seems on the face of it to have been a fair and reasonable response to your refusal to teach. You have further argued that withholding of the entire Spring semester's stipend on the basis of an initial failure to accept a teaching assignment, it must also be said that the unit of work in a University teaching environment is a semester, not a day. One could not fairly expect the University to deny instruction to the enrolled students until your return to your assignment.

Finally, you have argued that the actions taken were applied arbitrarily and that no such actions were taken against some who may have elected not to meet their teaching assignments. I have investigated this claim carefully and found a complex answer. On the one hand, there was some evidence that several more than twenty teaching assistants had absented themselves at least once from their Spring assignments. On the other hand, it became clear that the University insisted upon a high level of confidence in its determination of which students were, in fact, fully withholding their participation as teachers. In general, the complaints from enrolled students, their parents, and classroom checks by university staff were most readily confirmed for students teaching "stand-alone" sections. Further, stand-alone sections were not uniformly distributed across departments and, thus, the students whose stipends were withheld were also not uniformly distributed across departments. I can find no evidence that the department itself or any other factor unrelated to compliance with teaching assignments played a role in the identification of students to receive administrative action.

In sum, it was my finding that the procedure on which the grieved action against you was taken was administratively appropriate and reasonable. That you did not accept a teaching assignment for the Spring semester of 2006 is, given the semester based calendar of the University, an appropriate action on the part of the University. Accordingly, I can find no basis for your grievance and it is denied.


T. James Matthews
Vice Dean, GSAS
Professor of Psychology and Neural Science