Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Purging Process

by Nina Moore
Associate Professor of Political Science

I feel somewhat out of place entering this fray, because two enormously respected individuals have already brilliantly articulated the reaction and concerns that many of us quietly share—and they have done so on very principled grounds. As well, I don’t have a dog in this fight, so to speak, as my "dependent" will remain eligible under the ACA until age 26. Nonetheless, I offer here what is mostly a footnote to this discussion and in public support of Michael Johnston and Barbara Regenspan. In sum and substance, I wonder: why not simply require each employee to submit a form declaring dependents anew, signed and notarized?

As to Michael Johnston’s queries, I anticipate the following types of responses from Mr. Hutzley or from another in his stead, though I hope for more:

Anticipated Response One: The University/Mr. Hutzley has a fiduciary responsibility to minimize the cost of premiums for all Colgate employees, and the authority to make such a demand derives from this responsibility.

Indeed, I anticipate the argument (and implicit threat) will be that purging the dependent list will keep premiums down for us all. However, the best information I have (from the website of one of the larger dependent eligibility verification service providers) is that this process, on average, usually removes only 7% of dependents. It is unclear just how many of the 7% are subsequently re-enrolled due to having been mistakenly identified as ineligible, or how many were to be phased out naturally anyway, or how much of the "bragging" data are reliable, etc. Once Colgate completes its purging process, it will be interesting to review a department-by-department breakdown of those properly declared ineligible, the cost of the purging process to the University, and the net savings.

Anticipated Response Two: This move constitutes "best practices," meaning everybody else is doing it—so we should join the bandwagon.

When this explanation is (again) tendered, hopefully, as Michael Johnston urges, employees will also be provided with the names of institutions within our peer group that have adopted this "best practice," the details of the removal process utilized by the institution, the firm contracted to purge the rolls, the net benefit to the University/College, and the related costs. At least with the names of the small liberal arts colleges within our peer group in hand, faculty and other University employees will be in a position to learn, independently, the benefits and potential pitfalls of this initiative. It is increasingly a common practice here at Colgate University for new policy proposals to be justified under the guise of "best practices," with scarce information on how it is either "best" or a "practice." Some have said it is simply code for "lack of originality," and I tend to agree.

Anticipated Response Three: This decision was cleared by the Benefits Committee, in full accord with the University’s governance structure.

It is my understanding, albeit second-hand, that the committee was presented this plan about eight calendar days prior to the letter being sent to all employees. Furthermore, and again to my understanding, committee members were assured this was altogether routine, hardly anything worth probing at length. One or more members, I am told, questioned the timing of this roll-out, chiefly out of concern for faculty summer travel schedules, more so than permitting a full airing at a faculty meeting. It is entirely possible that the search for a consulting firm took place in the eight days to follow the meeting, along with a request for competitive bids, fine-tuning of the firm’s prospectus, a follow-up review by all University administrators, then drafting of the letter, and so on. The tell-tale sign of whether the Benefits Committee was fully informed and shared fully in the decision process that yielded this initiative may be reflected by the actual date on which the Bonadio Group was first contacted by phone or in writing.

Anticipated Response Four: This particular approach is the standard industry approach to dependent eligibility verification.

If "industry" includes Colgate’s peer group, then, it will be helpful to know the who’s, what’s, when’s, and why’s of the relevant industry, as Michael has already indicated.

Anticipated Response Five: Faculty and staff need not worry about the possible repercussions of this routine process, as it will be closely monitored by University administrators and, perhaps too, the Benefits Committee.

In my opinion, whether this is true is at least partly a function of the following types of issues. As I understand it, these are some of the very same issues raised by labor unions and subsequently addressed when New York City embarked on its own dependent eligibility verification process for its thousands of employees. Among the issues that will determine how harmless this process is and how little-worried faculty and staff should be are:

* Whether the documentation required for each category of dependents is appropriate and non-intrusive, whether the deadlines set for each category stretch over months as opposed to weeks, whether the documentation is the same for all in the category (versus being developed and applied on an ad hoc basis), and how much of the documentation must be government-issued, among other things. To ask a longtime faculty member to supply proof of his nearly 40 year marriage—proof that goes beyond a marriage license—strikes me as altogether unreasonable. Federal government tax laws, New York State tax laws, and IRS policy and procedures all accept a sworn, signed statement on income tax returns as proof of marriage and dependent status, unless particularized (i.e., identified) circumstances warrant more. I am not a lawyer, but to demand (with the threat of the loss of health benefits) that employees turn over to their employer individual tax returns, credit account information, and so on is a gross intrusion on the right of privacy. Perhaps the University’s grand plan of documentation requirements could be posted on the University website for all to see. Then again, that could have been provided with Hutzley’s initial letter.

* Whether there is an appeals process available to those deemed ineligible via this process. What is the structure of the appeals process? Deadlines? Criteria for adjudicating? Who will be the ultimate arbiter of appeals?

* Whether there are repercussions to faculty and staff whose dependent benefits—unbeknownst to them— exceeded their eligibility time-windows. Will they owe the University for back premiums or any other costs borne by the University on behalf of the ineligible beneficiaries? What assurances are there that there will be no retroactive application or penalties in connection with this process?

* Whether the University will exercise any right it may have to pursue fraud charges or to report individuals to government officials, such as the IRS or others? The New York City police union, as I understand it, pressed this issue and obtained a written guarantee this would not occur. Perhaps the University could provide the same written assurances to its employees.

* Whether the University will assume liability for any damages resulting from the loss or misuse of confidential information supplied to the Bonadio Group. One need only think of the recent Target data breach to appreciate the very real likelihood of such an occurrence. Target took steps to correct the impact of the massive breach, by providing consumer credit monitoring services, among other things. What has the University put in place to protect its employees in this process? What assurances will/can it offer should the Bonadio Group be as vulnerable to cyber attacks on personal credit information, as the multi-national corporation that is Target?
Anticipated Response Six: The terms of the contract with the consulting firm are set in stone, and God himself could not change any of its terms at this point.

This, to me, would be the most worrisome response. It would signal, one, the University has already conceded or lost control of the purging process. And, two, it has turned over control to what I would deem an inflexible firm little interested in accommodating its approach to what is best for the Colgate community.

It is my hope that Mr. Hutzley responds to Michael Johnston’s queries or, at the very least, provide more concrete, helpful information to the University community at large as we embark on what has to be one of the most intrusive processes in Colgate University history. In addition, perhaps Mr. Hutzley and the administration will consider voluntarily staying the dependent eligibility verification process or extending the deadline for submissions to December 31, 2014. This would allow the decision makers to develop appropriate safeguards and offer reassurances to faculty and staff regarding the impending purging process.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hutzley's Letter for the Next Two Posts

To Colgate Employees:

Colgate University will be engaging in a Dependent Eligibility Verification Review of our medical and dental insurance plans, as a measure to ensure only those eligible for coverage are on our plans.  In January 2014, the University moved to a self-insured model for our health plan, with dental having been self-insured for many years. Being self-insured means all claims are funded by the university. The funding source for claims includes premiums collected from employees, as well as Colgate’s designated contributions. Future premiums for these plans are determined based on the claims utilization of our employees and their dependents.  We have retained the services of The Bonadio Group, an independent CPA Consulting firm, to conduct this review.     

In the next two weeks, a letter will be sent to the home address of employees and retirees with dependents on the Colgate medical and/or dental plan. Employees with single coverage will not be contacted.  The letter will request documentation in support of each of the dependents listed on your policy.  Included will be a detailed description of the requirements to be an eligible dependent under our health/dental plan and the type of documentation required to support their eligibility.  Employees will submit all documentation in a confidential and secure manner.  All documents will be destroyed six months following the completion of the verification review.  Employees will be required to respond to the request for information with the appropriate documentation as outlined in the letter. 

This type of review is a common practice that helps an organization verify plan compliance regarding applicable regulations.  We are looking to identify situations where employees have dependents covered through their healthcare plans that may not be aware they are no longer eligible under our plan or did not realize they needed to contact Human Resources with the change of status.  The end goal is to contain costs for all employees and retirees on future healthcare premiums and coverage, something that is increasingly important, as healthcare costs continue to rise in today’s economy. 

We appreciate your cooperation in this important initiative.  Please feel free to contact Amy Ryan, Director of Benefits in the Human Resources Department, if you have any questions.

Brian Hutzley
Vice President for Finance and Administration

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On Brian Hutzley's Letter to Colgate Employees

By Barbara Regenspan
Chair, Department of Educational Studies

I write to applaud Michael Johnston’s response to the recent letter by Brian Hutzley, which makes a cynically timed and outrageous demand of Colgate employees.  Those of us who wish to claim dependent benefits will be required to provide sensitive (and troubling) personal documentation to one of the new, and highly profitable corporations making money, literally, out of the erosion of the very qualities that make any community possible.  

Such a practice will damage our specific “Colgate community” through loss of feelings of mutual trust between faculty/staff and administrators.   This practice will also lower the bar related to the intellectual standards on which institutions of higher education win our credibility.  Mr. Hutzley tells us that we must comply because such practices are increasingly “common.”   My reply: So is the practice of living on quarter-pounders. 

As a faculty member whose second (and younger) child has already become ineligible for inclusion on our health insurance policy, and who has since found a good alternative for herself, I could take the attitude that this issue does not concern me.  But on account of the scholarship I do, and my feelings of loyalty to what I do continue to experience as a positive Colgate community, I cannot avoid voicing my concern.   

I have been asked on other occasions what I and other faculty mean by "the increasing corporatization and neo-liberalization of the university."  This letter from Mr. Hutzley represents an excellent example.  Market relations take the place of human relations.  Indeed, "human nature" becomes defined as the quality of taking what one can get away with in any circumstance.  From this newly defined “human nature”  comes the expectation of abuse of all hard-won provisions towards the public or community good, like health benefits, for instance.   Although the big banks can no longer be regulated (against amassing a greater and greater percentage of public wealth) because they are “too big to fail” we are little enough to regulate…we are little enough to be forced to waste increasing percentages of our time and energy accounting for everything we do…for everything we are. 

The procedure of requiring such new verifications is made normal, as Michael points out, in the same way that those politicians (typically on the political right who wish to discourage poor people and people of color from voting), enact onerous rules related to voter registration.  Related, and similarly more broadly significant, they shape a political reality in which our students, for instance, do not know that things can be otherwise.   A philosopher significant in my own research charges that they shape a “suffocating reality principle whose distillate is the economy.” 

Related, and again, back to intellectual standards:  Highly paid college administrators are supposed to be intelligent and informed people.  Surely they know that there is plenty of research on the subject of how eroded trust literally engenders fraud because it threatens respect for the unwritten social contract.   

Ramped up demands for verification are not unrelated to increasing numbers of students engaging in plagiarism, and even more commonly, not doing the readings.  These young people view their college education as a ticket to an ever narrower conception of getting what they want, supported by that suffocating reality principle in which knowledge primarily fuels cocktail party chatter for those who have been competitive enough to win entre to cocktail parties.  The social contract that morally binds our students to us is eroded.  Indeed the sickening increase in testing and standards, and related draconian teacher “accountability” mechanisms in the public schools, have already significantly eroded trust and belief in the enlivening possibilities of public education. 

Finally, and returning to the cynical nature of the timing of this letter from the administration, (with the community dispersed, and no faculty   meetings for three months):  Did our administrators not consider how it would feel to receive such an e-mail communication after having completed the extra-demanding work of ending the term, all of which calls up, for faculty and staff, issues of allegiance to others, community-building and trust between ourselves and our students, and personal self-reflection about the worth of our work?   

Like many of my colleagues, I experience the most meaningful aspect of graduation as the opportunity to express gratitude towards one another for making possible the integrity inherent in our highest conceptions of an educational community.  I participate in graduation and related events and host a party in my home for beloved students and their families.  Some of the meetings with parents represent the most touching moments of my academic career.  This year’s party was especially moving because my successful Challenges of Modernity FSEM of four years ago was graduating and because we currently have a wonderful group of both majors and certification students, including particularly gifted MAT’s, in my Department of Educational Studies. 

And a few days after these events, I find that had our Sarah been one year younger, I would have been required to provide a copy of my marriage license and more documentation to Colgate, in relation to which I have been a loyal worker for nine years, in order to prove that I had not committed fraud against it.   And wait…I would not even be providing the documentation to Colgate…I’d be providing it to The Bonadio Group, (which appears to need to disguise its corporate nature, including its ties to those same banks that are “too big to fail” in “Group-ness”), costing Colgate resources I want us to spend on achieving the goal of need-blind admissions.  

In my vision of funding need-blind admissions (and as important, a four-course teaching load) instead of the Bonadio Group, at future graduation parties I could express and experience gratitude in relation to more parents for whom a Colgate education for their child was once unimaginable.  And perhaps gradually, through these, and similar acts of community-building, we might reclaim the genuine struggle to face “The Challenges of Modernity” as the point of education. 

Thanks again to my colleague Michael Johnston for providing a wonderfully cogent response to the letter in question, a response uniquely situated in his scholarship, most recently made accessible in Corruption, Contention, and Reform: The Power of Deep Democratization. 

Senior faculty who have the slack to invest in this issue: It’s an important one because it is concrete and all the data is available to us, unlike neoliberal “reforms” on which it’s harder to get a handle.   Please air your views on the AAUP website and let’s demand a public answer to all of Michael’s questions and an end to this demeaning new requirement of Colgate employees.

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.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Summary of the Colgate AAUP Faculty Meeting

April 14, 2014

An AAUP faculty meeting was held on Monday, April 14 and attended by 20 faculty.  The meeting began at 4:22 pm with opening remarks by the chapter President.  This afternoon’s meeting had two agenda items:  (1) a discussion of what our local AAUP chapter should be doing in the coming year(s), and how we should be doing it; and (2) election of a subset of AAUP officer positions with terms that expire at the end of the 2014 calendar year. 

The session began with a discussion of what our local AAUP chapter should be doing, and how we should be doing it.  This discussion was intended to provide guidance to our AAUP chapter.

The meeting then shifted to the matter of the election of officers.  The slate of candidates for the six open positions had been circulated by email to AAUP members on April 11, and was re-distributed at this meeting in hard copy.  The slate of candidates was as follows:

President    Jill Harsin    one year term 2015
Vice President    Bob Turner    one year term 2015,
   succeeding to President 2016
Treasurer    Nina Moore    one year term 2015
Secretary    Rick Geier    two year term 2015, 2016
At-large    Lenora Warren    one year term 2015
At-large    Eddie Watkins    two year term 2015, 2016

Additional nominations were solicited from the floor, and none were made.  The slate of candidates was approved unanimously by voice vote.  The terms will begin on January 1, 2015.

The meeting concluded at 5:35 pm.

Prepared by Rick Geier, Secretary of the Colgate University Chapter of the AAUP