University of Michigan
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June 17, 2019

Senate Assembly seeks to challenge confidentiality restrictions

January 27, 2015

Senate Assembly seeks to challenge confidentiality restrictions

Topic: Campus News

Faculty members appointed to university committees or advisory boards are being asked to push back against broadly applied efforts to automatically keep those panels' discussions confidential.

The Senate Assembly on Monday approved a resolution discouraging faculty members "from signing agreements or agreeing orally not to disclose committee activities as a whole."

The resolution also said that when asked to accept broad confidentiality restrictions as a condition for serving on committees or advisory boards, faculty members should share such requests with the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, the U-M faculty governance system's executive panel.

The measure, which passed 35-1 with one abstention, acknowledges there are valid reasons for boards and committees to meet in private to discuss certain topics, such as personnel matters. The concern by faculty governance is that too often confidentiality is the default rule, rather than the exception, said Scott Masten, SACUA and Senate Assembly chair. 

"The aim of the proposal is to make sure that confidentiality is not used so broadly that it avoids accountability," said Masten, professor of business economics and public policy. "It's just too easy to say, 'Everything here is confidential,' and not really think through does it need to be."

The resolution refers to panels "that develop and review policies and procedures or that render professional judgments." That includes committees or boards formed by faculty governance, central administration or the Board of Regents bylaws, Masten said. And it covers any member of the Faculty Senate, no matter how they are appointed — whether that is at SACUA's suggestion or directly by the administration.

The Faculty Senate consists of all professors, executive officers, deans and certain members of the research and library staff. The Senate Assembly is a 74-member body of elected faculty representatives from the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses.

The resolution grew out of a concern involving the Advisory Board on Intercollegiate Athletics, which asks its members to sign a confidentiality agreement. Masten, who serves on the ABIA by virtue of his SACUA office, has refused to sign the agreement, and so far has been allowed to continue to participate in meetings.

David Ablauf, associate athletic director for media and public relations, said the current agreement has been in place since 2010, when members determined it was a good idea.

"Members of the ABIA sign confidentiality and fiduciary agreements because there often is confidential information shared. It's important that ABIA members understand how seriously the university takes the protection of that information," he said.

Masten said similar concerns over restrictions on outside discussion have been voiced regarding other administrative committees, such as those formed by Human Resources to gather input on benefits changes.

The resolution does not specifically say faculty members should not serve on committees or boards that keep discussions private, but Masten said he hopes it will prompt them to raise the issue and urge panels to consider confidentiality on a topic-by-topic basis.

"It's a balancing act," he said. "How do you balance getting that candor on those things versus the accountability and transparency that we value so much."