Skip to main content

Academic Council Begins Discussion of Faculty Conduct

Don Taylor When he became the Academic Council chair in July 2017, Professor Don Taylor never expected to spend much time on issues of university values and campus culture. But after a year of the #MeToo movement and heightened interest nationally in addressing harassing or inappropriate behavior, Taylor and the Executive Committee of the Academic Council (ECAC) say it’s time for the faculty to hold a difficult but crucial discussion about their own conduct.

In a letter sent to members of the Academic Council earlier this semester, Taylor explained that the council will set aside a portion of many of their monthly meetings this academic year talking about expectations about faculty conduct and how to hold colleagues accountable. The first step was a discussion about the faculty role in adjudicating harassment complaints on campus, held at the October council meeting. 

Taylor, a professor of public policy, said there is no indication that the Duke faculty is unusual or that the problem is worse here than elsewhere. Comparisons, he said, really don’t matter: “I’m much more concerned with what we are doing ourselves rather than what is happening at Princeton and Columbia and other universities,” he said. “We need to figure out what the Duke is that we want to be, and go out and make that happen.”

Taylor discussed the effort in a recent interview held in the Academic Council offices in Flowers Building.


Q: What prompted you (and ECAC) to feel this discussion was necessary?

TAYLOR: This summer I was on a university-wide committee looking at various conduct statements across the university and how we communicate these values to create a culture of respect. What disturbed me were the stories I heard that made it clear that when it comes to bad behavior, we hold lower level administrators and staff accountable, but we often don’t hold faculty accountable. There’s a different set of standards, in practice. And I realized, and ECAC realized, that this needs to stop. We [the faculty] need to own the behavior and be responsible for changing our own behavior. A top-down effort won’t work. The faculty need to agree that this is important if we are going to have true culture change. 


Q: And why is it important?

TAYLOR: Three reasons.  One, most basically, human beings are being hurt in our midst.  Two, in ECAC’s work on related issues, we’ve become aware of how much energy is spent dealing with misbehavior. The time spent on dealing with the harm just decreases the energy we have to spend on our core issues of teaching, research and service. Third, in American culture, the modern research university has lost a lot of standing and respect. People wonder if the country is putting resources to best uses in supporting us. Now, I believe some of these criticisms are unfair, but some are reasonable. One thing we should take seriously is that we all be held accountable for our behavior. Being a brilliant scholar is not a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card. The fact that some of the criticisms are untrue doesn’t mean you get to turn away from the true ones. We have a responsibility to take care of business and fix the things that legitimately need fixing. 


Q: At the October Academic Council meeting, you held a discussion on the faculty role in adjudicating harassment claims on campus. And that tied in interesting ways to another discussion you had on faculty rank and numbers of non-tenure track faculty. What did you learn from those conversations?

TAYLOR: On faculty adjudication of harm, let me distinguish the university’s processes as an employer from the student conduct process. After the October council meeting, I think that faculty need to have some role in helping to improve and develop our employment-based rules, standards and procedures. The retirement of Dr. Ben Reese (vice president for institutional equity) next summer and the arrival of new institutional equity leadership makes this a natural time to have this discussion, and it will continue next semester with faculty input. 

“I want to make sure we don’t drift into the next decade on this. ECAC wants to work with the provost, the president, deans, chairs and others to ensure we are moving toward the faculty we want at Duke in a purposeful manner.”

With respect to student conduct, it is clear that faculty should have a central role in adjudicating academic dishonesty cases. And we need to have a broader swath of faculty involved in these cases, as right now, the burden is too narrowly distributed to a few faculty. In particular, we need tenured professors to be more involved, rather than it falling upon junior faculty members, or those with less secure status who currently carry a disproportionate load.  They’re doing a fine job, but we just believe that if we are going to own this, more faculty need to be part of it.

With respect to the student conduct process as it relates to sexual misconduct, I came away from the discussion less sure that faculty have any comparative advantage in being involved in such processes. During the council’s discussion, Larry Moneta (vice president for student affairs) made it clear that he wanted faculty members to be part of the judicial process on student-based sexual misconduct claims because faculty bring some gravitas to the task.  However, I think we need to think carefully about who should hear student sexual misconduct cases and what training they need. This remains an open question that is actively being discussed, and Larry Moneta’s retirement next summer provides an obvious window to consider changes that may be warranted. Stay tuned.  

At the same meeting, we also discussed a report on changes in the distribution of faculty ranks across time. Tenured and tenure-track numbers have flattened over recent years, while regular rank non-tenure track faculty as well as non-regular rank faculty have increased. That report put out a set of facts, and in just the past couple of weeks since, it’s sparked a discussion about the future of the faculty that needs to be had. It’s related to the previous question because in both cases we’re talking about who should be on the faculty and what role faculty should play in the university. These are crucial questions.  I want to make sure we don’t drift into the next decade on this. ECAC wants to work with the provost, the president, deans, chairs and others to ensure we are moving toward the faculty we want at Duke in a purposeful manner.


Q: And what are the next steps?

TAYLOR: During some council meetings this academic year, we will have smallish groups of faculty with expertise in a given area providing experience and information as a means of encouraging open discussions in the AC.  On Nov. 15 we will hear from Dr. Ann Brown (School of Medicine vice dean for faculty) who will talk about their Dean’s Advisory Council on Faculty Conduct—why they developed it several years ago and how it has worked to change the culture and faculty behavior. Their council initially came out of concerns for scientific misconduct, but has taken on broader efforts related to culture change among the faculty. Their approach might not be the best fit for other schools, but we’ll talk about how we might be able to use their experience and adapt some of what they’re doing Duke-wide.

“If we want culture change, it will mean each of us as faculty will have to help our friends and colleagues do better. We are the only ones who can do that.”

In addition, Mark Anthony Neal, member of ECAC, and chair of African and African American Studies, will then lead a conversation in the AC in response to Ann Brown’s presentation. Mark Anthony is a particularly skilled communicator and also brings the view of a department chair on this issue. I think that’s important because chairs spend a lot of time working on these issues. They are on the front lines.


Q: What kinds of changes are you looking for? What might come out of this?

TAYLOR: I’m really talking about behavior that falls below the legal definition of harassment but nevertheless harms the culture. If I observe conduct I think is inappropriate [such as] punitive criticism of a junior faculty member in a faculty meeting, I, as a full professor, need to go to my colleague and say, ‘You have to stop doing this. Remember when you were a junior professor? You’d probably feel very uncomfortable in being criticized in that way.’

Only a faculty member who is in a faculty meeting can observe what goes on in there. Only people on a hall can hear if there is a faculty member slamming the door and yelling at people.  So, if we want culture change, it will mean each of us as faculty will have to help our friends and colleagues do better. We are the only ones who can do that, and the first step is for the faculty to agree that there are problems that we need to fix. The November 15 AC meeting is the next step in what will be an ongoing conversation.


Q: I suspect when you became chair of the Academic Council one year ago, you didn’t expect to be talking about this. Why are you and ECAC taking this on?

TAYLOR: When the #MeToo movement started, sexual harassment was the specific topic, but the issue really was power.  You saw examples of people with power harming people without power. The university is about as hierarchical an institution as there is in the U.S. Senior faculty have a lot of power with respect to the junior faculty, who they judge; to the graduate students, who have come expecting to learn from us; and to the staff. ECAC believes we have been granted great power and deference by both university and society, and much good has come from that.  But I think we need to do a better job of policing our own behavior, because I’m just hearing too many stories in which that power has been misused.

It became clear to me this summer that we need broad-based culture change among the faculty and that we need to stop tolerating misbehavior. This won’t be done from the top down, each of us will have to own it. And the most important thing we faculty can do on this broad cultural discussion of #MeToo and abuse of power that we see in many institutions is fix our own problems that are right in front of us. We as faculty rightly view ourselves as the heart of the university, so we need to model the behavior that we expect of others. It’s an honor to be chair of the Academic Council and to serve the faculty, and this is not the most enjoyable topic to discuss. I’m not perfect, of course, nor do I know exactly what we should do to bring about culture change, but as chair, my role is to correctly define reality and say that all of us can and need to do better.