'I Abstain': A Failure of Academic Citizenship?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

December 20, 2011

Faculty members seem to believe they have three possible votes in any department proceeding: "yes," "no," or "I abstain." But if you're voting on a tenure or promotion case, you have an obligation to cast a yes or no vote. In some instances, abstaining on a case may well kill it.

"An abstention in a P&T case is a failure of academic citizenship," says Barbara Mack, a lawyer and past chair of the tenure committee at the communication school I head at Iowa State University. "There are no abstentions in the voting booth or jury box. If you haven't looked at a candidate's dossier, don't show up to vote."

Parliamentary procedure includes the right of abstention—the option of not voting—which should have the same effect as not showing up for a vote. The problems arise when abstentions are counted in official vote tallies and then used against the tenure candidate without the abstainers taking any responsibility for their "vote."

That issue arises so often that it's covered on the Frequently Asked Questions section of the Roberts' Rules of Order Web site, which states that the phrase "abstention votes" is an oxymoron. "To abstain," it says, "means to refrain from voting, and, as a consequence, there can be no such thing as an 'abstention vote.'"

After a department's faculty votes on a tenure or promotion, the chair typically writes a letter of support or rejection on the candidate's behalf, independent of the faculty vote. The dean sees both the faculty vote and the chair's recommendation and decides whether to advance the case to the provost who, in turn, decides whether to send it up the ladder to the president for eventual approval by the regents.

There are two basic types of promotion-and-tenure committees. The "inclusive" model allows all associate and full professors to vote on a promotion or tenure bid of assistant professors. (Usually only full professors vote on promotion of associate professors.) The rationale for that model is that the more faculty members who vote, the less likely the case will be biased by internal politics or feuds. The second type of committee is the "representative model," in which a department's faculty elects members to a smaller committee. There the idea is that those chosen will be more prudent, experienced, and impartial. Abstentions can be problematic in both models. In an inclusive committee, if 10 professors in a department cast votes with seven yeses, one no, and two abstentions, the official tally can be 7-1 or 7-1-2, depending on whether abstentions are counted. But counting the abstentions implies that nearly a third of a department's professors do not support the candidate. Abstentions in the representative model rarely occur, but when they do, are more ominous. One or two abstentions in a small, elected tenure committee can doom a candidacy.

Michael Owen, an agronomy professor at Iowa State and past president of the Faculty Senate, sees "more abstentions now than in the past, and it appears to be a trend upward." He offers two explanations for that: "Certain faculty are unwilling to make the hard call, and certain faculty are concerned about speaking their conscience due to concerns about confidentiality of the discussion or fear of retaliation."

Failure to maintain confidentially is the more serious problem, Owen adds. "If faculty are concerned that votes and discussions will be made available to candidates, the whole peer-review system falls apart."

Tenure procedures usually require abstentions if a voter has a personal interest in the outcome. The only time it makes sense to abstain is when you have a conflict of interest with the candidate. For example, a trailing partner in the same department as the candidate may not cast a vote in personnel matters.

In most instances, governance documents contain rules concerning conflicts of interest. At my own school, our document prohibits from voting "any member of the Promotion and Tenure Committee who has a conflict of interest with respect to a candidate being reviewed." Likewise, any faculty member concerned about a possible conflict of interest within the committee "should discuss it with the School Director," who decides the issue.

However, our governance document, like those found on many campuses, does not include a section on whether abstentions in promotion-and-tenure decisions should be counted in the official vote tally of a case.

At Iowa State, we are focusing on the issue of abstentions in P&T votes, with new guidelines stating that chairs and deans "should offer clarifications on abstentions." That may prove difficult to do when voting is by secret ballot. However, a remedy for that is a change in the departmental governance document addressing the issue of abstentions with the goal of defining reasons for them.

In truth, no one can force faculty members to cast only yes or no votes on a tenure case when governance documents lack rules on abstentions. If they are excluded from tallies, the dean may not understand the true level of support a particular candidate has in his or her department. A 7-1 vote, rather than a 7-1-2 vote, is biased the other way, in favor of the candidate.

Another option would be to allow abstentions with explanations. "At the University of South Carolina, for the unit vote, all tenured faculty are required to vote and have to provide a written explanation of their votes," said Carol J. Pardun, professor and director of the university's School of Journalism and Mass Communications. "This becomes part of the record. Abstention is permitted, but it has to be justified with a written explanation." The department, she added, "is allowed to decide in its own document whether an abstention counts against the yes votes when determining a majority."

Eric Abbott, head of the P&T Committee in the Greenlee School, favors this kind of system. "Abstentions can be valid as long as there is an explanation."

Moreover, Abbott favors written explanations for each yes and no vote because that provides a more detailed record and rationale in P&T decisions. "This prevents a dean from imagining why people voted a certain way," Abbott said.

Not all yes votes are equal. Some are no-brainers because the candidate is exceptional. Others might have been made reluctantly, Abbott said. Administrators need to know "not how a faculty voted, but why."

Written explanations also help resolve another voting irregularity: the professor who votes no on nearly every tenure case. The unrelenting "nay" voter is usually found within the large committee model that includes every tenured professor rather than in an elected committee.

In the end, abstentions in P&T proceedings need to be covered in governance documents, explaining whether they will count in official tallies and requiring written explanations if they do. Perhaps, then, the failure in academic citizenship is not the abstention but the failure to deal with it adequately in campus procedures.

Michael J. Bugeja, who directs the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, is chair of the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.