The saga of the survey at Saint Louis U



This is another chapter in the unfolding story of Saint Louis University, the struggle between the President and the faculty.

When last we’d left our intrepid crew in November, the Faculty Senate had voted near-unanimously No Confidence in the VP for Academic Affairs (for multitudinous reasons of running academic affairs with total disregard for faculty input, most notably proposing to end tenure) following up by doing the same for the President (for a history of deprecating and disrespecting the faculty and academics generally, but most particularly for fully supporting the VPAA against the will of just about the entire faculty).

Since then, the Board of Trustees, which had initially released a letter in support of the VPAA, has turned around to the extent of firing the VPAA at the Board’s December meeting and instituting a “revolutionary” program of actual communication between the Board and the faculty–which consists of inviting the Faculty Senate president to address the Board once a year, having the Board Chairman attend the Faculty Senate once a year, and having the Board institute a yearly survey of the climate of opinion on campus.

Fast action, as the SLU Board goes. But since then? At the February Board meeting, the Board did nothing it was willing to speak to publicly, aside from announcing a Senate/Board committee to get the yearly climate survey going. The University President–still in the Board’s confidence? Or on his last legs? No hint. The next Board meeting is May, and the clear intention is that the Board/University survey return results well in advance of that meeting.

Except a funny thing happened on the way to that survey: Issued on March 25, it ended up being 20-some questions, with none about the University President (save one–is he “effective in leading”?). Instead, the questions are framed in terms of the University: Agree or disagree to “The University responds to faculty concerns,” “The University appreciates the contributions of faculty,” “The University fosters an atmosphere of trust”, and so on. Is this about the President’s creation of an atmosphere? Or the now-departed VPAA? Is this about the governance structures being responsive? Or what?

I am president of the SLU AAUP Chapter. I asked my members what they made of the adequacy of the University survey, and whether they thought it might be efficacious to supplement it with a survey of our own. The consensus was for the Chapter to issue a supplemental survey, designed to elicit faculty attitudes specifically about the President, in hopes of putting more specific information before the Board. I proposed writing a survey largely inspired by the University’s, but with focus on the President, and I included this in my AAUP report to the Faculty Senate on March 26.

On March 28, as I was about to email a survey of some dozen questions to the faculty, I received an email from the University General Counsel, cautioning me against issuing a survey infringing on the University’s copyright–indeed, advising me that anything even derivative of the University’s survey would be a copyright infringement, and that “any infringement will be addressed by the University and could result in legal action,” including injunctive relief and monetary damages.

This rather set me back on my heels. Saint Louis University has a recent history of vigorously pursuing copyright infringement as a means of retaliation; a few years ago, a professor of journalism was forced to defend himself against a University suit in which he ultimately prevailed in all aspects save a minor misuse of the University logo, and it cost him in six figures.

So I went to see the General Counsel the next day, taking with me eight questions I felt were not infringing on University rights, hoping that the Counsel was honestly just concerned about my duplication of the University questions. But no: The Counsel was willing to look at my questions and give a cursory opinion that while three were perhaps too similar (“Faculty feel safe in trusting to the President’s good intentions in dealing with faculty” was too similar to “The University fosters an atmosphere of trust”), the remaining five didn’t so appear–good news, I thought, I’d just run with those five–but I was not free to take that judgement at face value. For, the Counsel explained, were any suit to be brought, he would not be the one making a judgement of what was too close; and the only way I could be certain of not having produced a derivative work would be to hire an outside firm who had never seen the University’s survey, to write my questions for me.

Given both the time element (wanting to have survey results within two weeks) and the state of Chapter funds (nonexistent–we just restarted the chapter in August, having not even thought of dues), this legal theory of the University Counsel makes it impossible for me to submit anything like the survey I intended.

And clearly, that is the intent of the General Counsel. Asserting a copyright on the University’s artisitc design of the survey instrument, the use of its logo, and so on, to prevent anyone’s mistaking the SLU-AAUP Supplemental Survey for the SLU Official Survey–that makes good sense. But trying to assert a right in the questions themselves? And not in their exact wording, but anything “derivative” of them? And not even in any normal sense of the word “derivative”, but meaning anything at all that I might write, on the theory that having already seen the University’s questions, I am thereby presumed to be under the nebulous influence of those questions?

This is absurdity heaped upon ludicrousness. Its only possibly purpose can be to frighten me from producing a survey, for fear of exhausting my pocket in defending against a suit, no matter how doomed it might be at law.

What purpose does this legal threat serve? I can only presume the idea is to prevent the spread of publicity that reflects badly on the University president. Well, that train has already left the station: there is now far more publicity, both local and national, about this deliberate act of censorship, than ever might have come through the dissemination of the survey itself–not to mention how this will just intensify the results of the University’s own survey.

In the end, I issued a survey anyway, on April 2–one question, “Is it time for SLU to choose a new president?” (with a single demographic question and one box for comments). I defy the University to accuse me of deriving that from their survey.

The Saint Louis University Faculty Manual–a legal part of our contracts–is amazingly forthright about academic freedom, enshrining it in clarion tones that is better anything I’ve seen in AAUP recommendations:

“Essential to the purpose of a university is the free and unhampered pursuit and communication of knowledge and truth. All members of the University, especially students and faculty members, have not only the right but also the duty to participate in this task of freely seeking after and sharing truth. Every student and every faculty member, therefore, has the freedoms of thought, of discussion, and of action that are required by the common pursuit of truth.”

A shame the General Counsel didn’t advise someone about this paragraph.

Author Bio: Steve Harris, is a Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science who has taught at Saint Louis University for twenty years and is president of the SLU AAUP chapter.