AHA Activities

From the 1994 Professional Division: Case Studies in Professional Ethics

AHA Staff, May 1994

The AHA's Professional Division has acted on twelve formal complaints and eight informal complaints or inquiries since the publication of its last report a year ago (Perspectives, May/June 1993, page 22). Three of these are summarized below in order to illustrate the kinds of issues that have come before the division and how they have been resolved through the review process established under the AHA's Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct. Through its annual reports, the division hopes to encourage more discussion of and attention to issues of ethical conduct.

Of the twelve formal complaints, two were dismissed—one complaint charging unprofessional conduct was dismissed as unmerited, and the division deemed the other as outside its jurisdiction, since it focused on a university administration's tenure decision rather than a dispute within the historical community. The division reached findings in the other eight cases. The division found for the complainants in two plagiarism cases and in the complaint of sexual harassment summarized below. Findings against the complainants were reached in four cases: one plagiarism complaint, one of unfair hiring practices, one of ethnic discrimination, and one of abridgment of academic freedom. In one case, summarized below, the division did not find for the complainant regarding age discrimination but did find evidence of inappropriate hiring practices.

The division also reviews informally other complaints and queries brought before it. This past year, it advised the parties to six such disputes: four concerning hiring practices, one involving charges of plagiarism, and the sixth alleging other charges of unprofessional conduct.

The three cases summarized below illustrate some of the difficulties and frustrations that the Professional Division faces in reviewing complaints. In the first case, the complaint focused on the wrong issue, and the review was complicated by the unwillingness of one of the parties to respond. In the second case, all parties responded, but the real issue was personality conflicts, not academic freedom and employment practices. The third case did not involve such problems, but the final dispensation of the complaint raised difficult issues within the division and the Council regarding the appropriate role for the AHA. As a consequence of these and other cases reviewed over the past two years, the division is now studying the policies and procedures under which it operates and expects to propose revisions within the year to clarify the responsibilities of the division and of the parties involved in complaints.

Case I: Hiring Practices

An unsuccessful candidate for a position charged the hiring department and its university with violation of fair employment practices. He had applied for what was advertised in Perspectives as a senior tenured position. He subsequently made the department's short list of top candidates, and he and two others were brought to campus for interviews. He was later informed that the department had decided to appoint an individual already within the department at the rank of assistant professor. The individual filed a complaint with the AHA, claiming the department's decision to hire a younger, less experienced candidate constituted age discrimination.

The department was unable to respond within the ninety-day period specified in the Association's "Policies and Procedures," but the division agreed to delay its review. However, when the department, citing time constraints on the university's legal counsel, asked for a second delay, the division concluded that it must move forward even without the department's response.

After careful review of the case file, the Professional Division concluded that there was no evidence of age discrimination against the complainant. Nevertheless, the division found that the department had violated fair practice in recruitment by changing the terms of appointment without readvertising the position. Once the decision was made to consider appointment at the assistant professor level, the position should have been readvertised to give all qualified persons the opportunity to apply. In not doing so, the department discriminated against a broad group of possible candidates who had not applied because of the terms originally advertised.

Case II: Academic Freedom and Fair Employment Practice

A historian charged seven colleagues from his department with unprofessional conduct, claiming that their actions subverted the majority vote of the department to renew his two-year contract. More specifically, he charged that they sent the university's promotion and tenure committee a "positively vicious" letter that discredited him and resulted in the committee's deciding to deny renewal of his contract. He claimed that the reason for their opposition was political ideology—that they wanted to get rid of him because of his insistence on more cultural sensitivity in course conceptualization and teaching within the department.

The individuals responded that the complainant was misrepresenting both himself and the facts of the situation. They charged that he was not the "enlightened" scholar that he claimed to be but rather an individual whose attitude toward colleagues and students was condescending and demeaning. While they admitted to sending the alleged letter criticizing the complainant, they insisted that they did so because the votes for his renewal within the department were cast by individuals unfamiliar with his work. They claimed that they did not intend to engage in a personal attack but only took those steps necessary to protect the best interests of the department and the university.

The Professional Division carefully reviewed over two hundred pages of material submitted by the various parties and concluded that what was at issue was personality and departmental relationships, not flawed employment procedures. Absent clear-cut evidence of discriminatory behavior, the division found no grounds for finding in the complainant's favor.

Case III: Sexual Harassment

A female historian filed a complaint of sexual harassment against a male colleague at another institution. She charged that at the annual meetings of the AHA and of other professional organizations he had made sexual advances through not only oral comments but also written notes that made "blatantly obscene references." She informed him by restricted delivery letter that his behavior constituted harassment and that she wanted it to stop. He responded that he would stop, but at their next meeting again indicated that he found her sexually attractive. The situation was all the more stressful for the complainant because she had considered him a mentor and was concerned that he might use his considerable influence to undermine her upcoming tenure review and impede her scholarly career.

The historian against whom she made the complaint responded by acknowledging the accuracy of her account and apologizing for any personal distress and professional anxiety he had caused. He stated his intention to treat her in a fully professional manner in the future and to recuse himself from any decisions or actions regarding the complainant and her work.

This was the first complaint of sexual harassment received by the division under the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, and the division approached it with much trepidation, recognizing that this is a matter normally handled through other means. Nevertheless, the division concluded that it must review the complaint, since the complainant had no institutional means through which to pursue her grievance. As a consequence of the admission of guilt by the other party, the division was saved from a contested review process and from having to grapple with the complexities inherent in cases such as this. Instead, the division's discussion focused on whether the other party's employer should be notified. While the division normally restricts its communication to the immediate parties to a complaint, the members concluded that the particular seriousness of this incident required more. The division then initiated the procedures required for public disclosure, including notification of the parties involved and review by the AHA Council. With the concurrence of the latter and review by the Association's legal counsel, the division then wrote to the other party's employer, stating that the purpose was not punitive or to initiate disciplinary action but as a measure to prevent recurrence.