When beginning a teaching-focused academic position, the first few years require a rapid shift for new faculty from being subject-matter specialists to seeking ways to become effective and innovative teachers. As deans, many of us have shifted again from teaching to serving as administrators seeking to be effective leaders. While upper administration and our peers can aid us, in some areas we might still feel underprepared.
There are parts of academic administration that we might find challenging—budget, personnel, assessment, fundraising. However, in my recent experience I have found that conducting an investigation is one of the most difficult areas—one that carries substantial responsibility. These systematic examinations of an incident are followed by a decision or resolution and sometimes a set of proposed actions. Incidents under investigation can include common occurrences such as student complaints and grade disputes, plagiarism, and faculty grievances. Increasingly, colleges and universities have struggled to investigate and resolve Title IX issues that are high profile, highly volatile, and occur in a changing political and legal landscape. Some of these cases require evaluating faculty misconduct and the dean’s office can be the first institutional level involved.
For the past several years, I have investigated student-faculty, faculty-staff, and faculty-faculty issues considered with regard to institutional and national policy. While these are never easy, my experience has led to several realizations that I hope are worth sharing.
- Your normal support system may not be able to help in the investigation.
An investigation may preclude using existing resources in your office for administrative help, advice, or feedback. One person potentially excluded from your investigation is the provost or other immediate supervisor. If the provost is the next line of appeal, a boundary may be required to prevent sharing information prematurely. This allows your boss, or someone at a higher administrative level, to undertake an independent review of your decision and your supporting evidence. Nonetheless, it can lead to a feeling of isolation.
What about peers? Other deans can help you navigate common issues such as curriculum, staffing, budget, or fundraising. Unfortunately, restrictions necessitated by confidentiality may prevent sharing information or asking advice from these peers in an investigation. It is possible your investigation will be of another college, such as if you are assigned to a case in another academic unit.
Some of your office support structures may be unavailable during an investigation as well. Confidentiality rules and expectations require limiting access to information; your administrative assistant cannot help with routine tasks such as copying, note-taking, emails, or scanning documents. As a dean, this makes the process of compiling and cataloging information more difficult. Where files are stored and used also matters in an investigation. If your institution uses a shared drive accessible across your administrative unit, you may need to save documents on your local computer accessible only by you until the investigation is completed. Documents and files might need to remain locked in your office, as taking files offsite presents problems of confidentiality and potential risk of evidence being lost or damaged. Working remotely might need to be reconsidered for investigation-related tasks because it increases personal liability and the risk of a privacy breach.
- Get training before the need arises.
If you are investigating, you should have the appropriate training necessary to understand the policies and legal issues that surround the incidents or situations you will investigate. But when should that training take place?
Some might advocate for “just in time” training or learning, in which training is acquired through on-demand services to provide information only when and if it is needed. While this can be efficient, it might not be appropriate for many investigations you encounter. First, there may not be enough time to complete the training and ensure a timely resolution of the circumstances being investigated. Second, it may be more effective to process and assimilate policy information before it is utilized in a real case in your academic unit. Early training and awareness helps you preemptively employ processes that would reduce the likelihood of an incident occurring at all, thus reducing the need for a later investigation.
- Policy should form the foundation for your investigation.
In a typical day, you follow numerous policies that govern institutional operations. Do you know where all of your policies can be found? Many of them are in manuals that you already have on your shelf, including your employee, student, or faculty handbook, and your tenure and promotion policies. Others are state or federal laws applicable to higher education. As a dean you need sustained awareness of policies and any relevant changes.
Take the time now to become familiar with the actual policies: bookmark online locations and write them out in a flow chart form so they are accessible when needed. Policies should not reside only in the documents you save for a rainy day; instead, they should live and be available to your direct reports to inform their actions. Periodically provide policies to your chairs and faculty, summarize their meaning, and inform on the best practices in enforcing them. Policy sharing may take place at a regular meeting of your chairs or even of your full-time faculty. Remember to document the time, date, and content of policy review.
What should you not do regarding policies? First, ensure that you are able to differentiate policies from procedures. Policies are likely to have been vetted and approved by several levels, are less likely to change, and form the official foundation of your institution. Also, policies have a specific applicability to particular constituent groups and may be referenced in contracts and other agreements that your faculty, staff, and students agree to follow as a condition of employment or enrollment. Procedures may be more flexible, specific to particular circumstances, and prone to change. Avoid inadvertently creating or modifying policy when you lack the authorization to do so. Instead, consider how you may work through procedures and processes.
- Know when and how your human resources office and staff get involved.
Your human resources office provides guidance for hiring, administration, and training of personnel. But under what circumstances are they relevant to an investigation? It depends on the situation. Is the interaction you are investigating between students or student employees? Is it within one employee category (faculty, staff) or is it between the two? Do the applicable policies fall under general employee policy or are they specific to faculty?
Investigations involving faculty are often detailed in the faculty handbook. While faculty are covered under employee policies, Human Resources might not be the relevant office for conducting or reporting the results of an investigation. For example, if there is an issue involving employee bullying in which a grievance is filed, it might be investigated under faculty policies. The role of human resources may be to retain records in a faculty investigation, but the actions and potential appeal or escalation could fall under academic reporting lines.
This is not to say that Human Resources should not be involved in a dean’s investigation. Rather, it is helpful to consult with staff in Human Resources to identify their authority on a specific investigation. As with training, asking this prior to an investigation—rather than during—is a valuable way to be proactive.
- Be aware of when, where, and how information is documented and shared.
As deans already know, documentation is important for assessing achievement of student learning outcomes, and we retain documentation to demonstrate to accreditors how we close the circle. These same principles of documentation should be applied to an investigation.
What should be documented? First, always acknowledge receipt of a complaint or a grievance. While this might mean documenting receipt of a letter or email, the complaint may have been shared in an oral conversation. In such cases, you might restate the problem conveyed verbally in a follow-up written communication to the complainant, citing the relevant policy being applied. Once the investigation commences, document your requests for more information or interviews as well as periodic updates you send while the investigation proceeds. Finally, once you have findings and a proposed resolution these should, of course, be documented.
Other documents may be collected during an investigation but not shared broadly at its conclusion. Take notes of interviews or informal discussions for later reference and for building the findings of your investigation and retain them as part of the investigation files. A complete interview with a witness, complainant, or respondent is useful for investigating an issue, and should become a part of the eventual record that is retained for future reference.
- Utilize your skills as a researcher and writer.
At the beginning of this article, I noted the challenge of coming into a deanship prepared to be an investigator. But most of us are equipped with skills acquired while pursuing our PhDs and conducting research, skills that can be applied to other tasks of our offices. The first skills to apply are those related to methodology. Our disciplines include specific methods for conducting research in a responsible and accurate way. Your methods should not be tacit, but instead articulated somewhere before the investigation commences. For the issues above (support, documenting information) articulate how and where you will utilize your various resources. Create a list for your own use so that when questions arise you can return to and follow your methods, and revise if needed.
Second, apply your skills in information compilation and citation. For an extensive investigation you may have a complaint, a response, numerous interviews, and perhaps external documents that all must be managed and referenced. One of my most important investigation-related realizations was that I could use my reference management software to assign each document a title, author, and date. This helped immensely when drafting a final report that referenced each specific piece of information in the investigation file. Reference software can also create an accurate bibliography that lists everything you cite in a single location.
Finally, leverage your skills as a writer. Your final report may include sections of introduction, methods, results, and conclusions, and this structure may already be familiar to the scientists among us. If you consider your report as the full paper, the abstract is your brief summary of findings that may be the only document you provide to the parties involved as the outcome of the investigation.
- Consider not only the details, but also the broader purpose.
I began by describing the faculty shift from content knowledge to effective teaching. This shift requires the realization that university teaching is not just about content delivery but about outcomes and student achievement. Once this realization occurs, faculty can actively seek a principled approach to teaching and appreciate the positive results of that effort.
For academic administrators, investigations are not just about policies and procedures. There is a more important outcome of the dean’s role of investigator: Justice. This justice rarely feels definitive but, rather, continues to challenge your empathy and personal beliefs long after the investigation is over. However, by interpreting policy fairly, providing an equitable approach to seeking information, and utilizing that information to reach a reasonable assessment of the truth, we hope to achieve more than just a dictatorial resolution. This requires us to gather tools early, be aware of our limitations, and approach the investigation honestly and accurately.
Related topics: Investigation