SACUA approves DPS Oversight Committee election process

By Stephanie Steinberg, Daily News Editor
Published February 8, 2010

The process of electing faculty members to the Department of Public Safety Oversight Committee caused a heated debate at yesterday’s meeting of the Senate Assembly Committee on University Affairs.

While some present at the meeting were not immediately satisfied with the proposed election procedures, SACUA — the leading faculty governance body on campus — passed a resolution outlining how faculty members would be elected to the DPS Oversight Committee — a policy that will take effect immediately.

The oversight committee is an organization that is meant to act as a check on University Police and investigate grievances filed against the Department of Public Safety.

The election procedures passed by SACUA will accommodate a decision to split faculty elections between tenured faculty and non-tenured faculty, so that each votes only for the representative within their respective group.

SACUA will be charged with overseeing the election of a representative for members of the Senate Assembly — a body of more than 4,000 tenured faculty, researchers and librarians — while Human Resources will head the election for more than 2,300 non-tenured faculty.

Approval of the revised faculty election procedures will set the faculty election process in motion for the first time since 2001, when the last election of a faculty member to the oversight committee took place. Michigan statute Public Act 120 requires the election of student, staff and faculty representatives to the committee — with each member nominated and elected by its respective constituency.

While the decision to hold a faculty election will bring elections to the committee more in line with legal requirements, no action was taken to address other procedural concerns raised by independent attorneys in a Nov. 16 article in The Michigan Daily, who stated that elections appear to violate state law because not every person is allowed to vote for a representative to the committee.

Instead the newly passed election procedures will limit tenured faculty to voting only for themselves and the same will be true of non-tenured faculty.

SACUA Secretary John Lehman, who has been charged with overseeing the tenured faculty election and drafted the new procedure approved by SACUA yesterday, explained that members of the tenured faculty will be able to nominate one of their peers. The nominees will be posted on a website with their biography and election statements so that voters can learn about the candidates.

Voting will be open online for one week. To keep the election confidential, tellers will be able to see which faculty members voted, but not who they voted for. This will enable tellers to make sure nobody votes twice, Lehman said.

The candidate who receives the highest number of votes will win the election.

Lehman, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said he hopes to finish the election process by the end of the month.

“I want to do it as fast as I can— as soon as we’ve got all our procedures set up,” he said.

However, SACUA members at yesterday’s meeting did not say when the winner’s term would begin.

Lehman said one option is for the term to begin April 1 — the same time as the non-tenure track faculty position — while the other is for it to start as soon as the election results are announced.

However, the process approved at yesterday’s meeting had some concerned over how representative and independent the oversight committee would actually be.

Former Pathology Prof. Douglas Smith explained to SACUA members his belief that the new election procedures will make it difficult for a non-tenured faculty member to rule in a case “where there is likely to be opposition from the administration.” Smith is not a member of SACUA.

“You need four out of six votes for this committee to sustain a grievance. You’re going to have two votes that will be very difficult to vote against the wishes of the administration,” Smith said, explaining that the non-union staff member who sits on the committee may be pressured to vote one way or another by administrators.

SACUA Chair Michael Thouless, a professor of material science and engineering, told Smith and SACUA members that he had originally proposed to the University’s Human Resources to have SACUA pick the two faculty members who would sit on the committee.

However, Thouless said Smith had approached him during the summer and explained that it would not be fair for SACUA to pick faculty committee members exclusively from the faculty senate, because non-tenured faculty members would be excluded from the eligible pool of candidates.

As a result of the discussion, Thouless said he decided to revise his recommendation to the University’s HR office.

“This is not part of an HR conspiracy,” Thouless said, referring to why the elections were separated. “This came about because a valid point had been raised.”

However, at yesterday’s meeting, Smith said his concern about the election was misinterpreted.

In an interview last week, Lehman said he didn’t believe the two seats needed to be split up, but that SACUA could handle the election for both positions.

“I think SACUA feels it could run the entire election and have all these people in one pool, but they weren’t given that choice,” Lehman said.

In an interview yesterday, Kathleen Donohoe, associate director of policy for Human Resources, said Human Resources worked with both the Office of the Provost and SACUA to come up with a procedure that would give “everyone the opportunity to be considered for nomination and elect their representative.”

Human Resources will open nominations for the non-tenured position on Monday. Donohoe said clinical faculty members and lecturers will receive an e-mail asking them to nominate themselves or another non-tenured faculty member.

Nominations will be open for two weeks. Immediately afterward, non-tenured members will receive another e-mail asking them to vote using an online ballot that will be posted for one week.

The term for the non-tenured faculty position will begin April 1.

Though faculty will not be able to vote for both positions, Donohoe said she believes the new procedures comply with the state statute that mandates committee members to be nominated and elected by students, staff and faculty.

“We’re comfortable that by being able to nominate and elect a faculty member to the seat that we’re meeting whatever the requirements are of Act 120,” Donohoe said.

She added that Human Resources has been using a similar voting procedure for staff members to the committee for several years.

Staff members in unions are allowed to nominate and elect a union member, while non-union staff members nominate and elect a non-union candidate. Independent lawyers who talked to the Daily in November said the practice seemed to violate the law, since not all staff members were allowed to vote for both staff representatives.

When asked about the recent concerns about the legality of election procedures to the committee, Timothy Slottow, executive vice president and CFO for the University, said in an interview last month that he was aware of the issues but that he wasn’t qualified to comment about it.

“I’m not a lawyer,” he said. “If I was a lawyer, and I had expertise then I would be able to tell you my opinion and it would actually mean something.”

Because HR reports to him, Slottow is responsible for ensuring staff elections for the oversight committee are run properly.

And despite legal concerns of excluding voters each year, Slottow said the staff elections are run in accordance with the law.

“I believe that that is occurring appropriately and adequately and in a way that meets our needs,” he said.

While he is not responsible for student or faculty elections for the committee, Slottow said last month he wanted to help SACUA “tighten up” its election procedures.

“It’s my belief that currently the committee is serving its purpose, and if there’s anything we need to do to clarify the policies and procedures, then we need to do it,” Slottow said.

But at the end of yesterday’s meeting, Thouless admitted that in addition to election procedures, there are still other issues with the committee that need to be addressed.

“One of the things we should do is get these elections going to get this committee back functioning again and then think about, more broadly, the issues of the committee,” Thouless said. “That should be done once we have a properly elected committee.”

—Daily News Editor Kyle Swanson contributed to this report.