Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A University, A Giant Corporation, or a Cheap Roadside Motel?

By Michael Johnston
Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science

Soon we will all receive a letter that, I am told, informs us we must produce documentation of all our dependents’ status. To prove you’re married — to cite the example that applies to me — you’ll need to supply a copy of a marriage license (huh??) and either a copy of the first page of your federal tax return or of some recent bill showing your names and current address. What they’ll require for other dependents, I do not yet know.

Speaking only for myself, for now – but hoping others share my outlook – I find those demands an outrageous invasion of privacy and an insult to the entire Colgate community.

Some will not share that view, and I will admit that the recent email announcement from someone named Brian Hutzley came at a time when I was feeling even more old and cranky than usual. But there are two big things that are wrong with this picture.

One is a principle that has stayed with me since the late 1960s, back when I was young and cranky: if you expect me to produce personal information and documents you had better have a damned good reason for doing so, and you had better have clear-cut authority to make such a demand. I haven’t seen evidence of either in this case.

My wife and I have been married thirty-eight years as of next month, raising a family and now enjoying four grandchildren (who seemingly are of uncertain ancestry in the eyes of our administrators). Neither Betsy nor I have ever been asked to produce a marriage license for any reason. Now, apparently, a consulting firm and some jumped-up bean-counters have decided that the benefits we have earned for twenty-eight years now might have been fraudulently claimed, and that the burden of proving the contrary rests upon us.

Really happy to know you trust us, folks.

In the wake of the announcement I sent the following questions to Mr. Hutzley and President Jeff Herbst, via a pair of emails:

What language in the University's Human Resources policies, Faculty Handbook, or other documents empowers you to request the verification data and documents you propose to collect from us?

How many cases of falsely-claimed benefits has the University experienced over the past one, five, and ten years?

With respect to change-of-status documents' not having been filed, have you sent out a general request and reminder that employees update that information? If not, why not?

When, and by whom, was the decision made to roll out this demand for documentation after the end of the academic year, after the final faculty meeting, and during the run-up to a long holiday weekend -- that is, after the time when community discussions might readily be held, and administrators subjected to questions?

My understanding is that Colgate already offers benefits to domestic partnerships. In that light, by what authority and with what justification do you propose to request a marriage license from anyone else?

With respect to those domestic partnerships, what documentation will be required of those people? What provisions have you made for those who have arrived here from jurisdictions where same-sex marriage is still illegal, or who have not lived in New York long enough to take advantage of our laws, or who for reasons of their own choosing have decided to remain at the domestic partnership stage?

What provisions have you made for people whose marriages, and whose dependents' births, have taken place in other countries where documentation practices may differ greatly from ours?

Can you please inform me of any financial ties the Bonadio Group (the consulting firm mentioned above) might have with Colgate Trustees or administrators? Are any of those people shareholders or otherwise invested in the Bonadio Group?

Will Colgate administrators, including yourself, be subject to the same requests for documentation of dependents?

Not long after, I sent an additional four questions to President Herbst:

Where, how, and with whom did the dependent validation exercise originate, and -- this is important -- on what precise date was the decision made to go ahead with the process?

Will you please identify some of the other institutions -- perhaps from our reference group -- that you say have implemented this "best practice"?

Will you be producing your own marriage license and other documentation of dependent relationships?

Will you undertake to ensure that Mr. Hutzley will answer the nine factual questions I have sent him, and will you tell me the date by which I can expect a full and truthful response?

Lots of questions there, and I understand that answering some of them might take time. And yes, as I write we are still in a long holiday weekend period (more on that point in a moment). Still, I am not encouraged by the fact that no one in the administration has acknowledged receiving these questions, which were submitted last week, much less responded to them in any way.

Ultimately, the reasoning here is precisely that of those who advocate making voters show photo identification at the polls: We are going to hassle you about your civil status, and shift the burden of proof of your right to vote/your bona fide qualification for dependent benefits, over to you — and we are doing that to prevent some sort of fraud that we have not even shown exists.

The second deeply objectionable aspect of these events is what they tell us about University governance. The documentation proposal was given a pro forma airing before the faculty Benefits Committee, but only during the White Eagle process — after the end of the term, when faculty and staff have begun to scatter, and (how convenient for the administration) after the last faculty meeting. Mr. Hutzley’s email came out during the runup to the long Memorial Day weekend, when many people are away from campus. As I understand it, the deadline for producing your papers will fall before the start of the Fall term, unless some exception is specifically requested.

As it happened I sent President Herbst another email, protesting the policy itself in pointed terms. He did respond to that one, with the punchline being "The direct answer to your question is that you will have to provide the documentation we requested". So much for collegial shared governance: your only choice is to obey, or risk losing basic dependent benefits. Why? Because we say so, that’s why.

Resistance is futile.

Well, maybe not yet: a member of the Benefits Committee has agreed to bring my questions to the attention of Human Resources; maybe some answers will be forthcoming. As for a more fundamental justification of the new policy, I doubt we will receive very much beyond vague claims that somehow we will be saving the University some money.

When I came to Colgate in 1986 after a decade at a public institution ten times as large, I found it refreshing to be part of a small academic community that seemed to do its business in an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect. Those days are long gone: we are now apparently subject to the whims of a gang in the Ministry of Truth who seem to enjoy pretending they are running a huge corporation (with, now, fantasies about being desk clerks at a cheap roadside motel). Our administration, by now, is considerably more cumbersome and less responsive than ever was the case  in my ten years at a megaversity. In place of shared governance and meaningful accountability we now have mountains of management, precious little leadership, and zero vision or institutional ambition. This is, after all, an administration that responded to faculty proposals to enhance our academic profile with…wait for it…zippy new typefaces and letterheads!

Set aside everything that bothers me about the documentation demand – I recognize not everyone will share my views. Those bigger and deeper governance issues remain, and seem (on the strength of recent events) to be becoming more acute. 

It didn’t have to be this way, and we are not becoming a stronger institution as a result.

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