Academic Council: A Message About Community Health This Semester

It’s unusual for a chair to open an Academic Council meeting talking about how difficult the semester has been.

But this isn’t a usual semester.

So political science professor Kerry Haynie began Thursday’s meeting asking about the wellness of the faculty and that of their students.

“I know everyone is tired and in much need of a break,” Haynie said. “Hang in there. We are about one month away from the end of classes. The students are tired, too. The lack of a break is really taking its toll. A good number of our students are experiencing fatigue and mental stress. They are living and studying under conditions that add to the normal end-of-semester stress.

“I encourage each of you to be mindful of this and reach out to the students. Please provide whatever relief to them you feel necessary. The students are really feeling it.”

To reinforce the message, Haynie restated the concern at the end of the council meeting.

The semester, which recently passed the halfway point, has been marked by a strong silence of reliance by faculty, staff and students alike. But with exams coming and no break during the semester, Haynie’s words were just one of several messages sent out over the past weeks by university leadership acknowledging the semester’s challenges.

Furthermore, during the council’s discussion, the two university faculty ombuds presented anecdotal evidence of increased anxiety on campus during the pandemic.

The ombuds offices provide a good feel for the temperature of the campus community. Their role is to help a faculty member with a grievance navigate the multitude of dispute resolution channels at Duke. They get involved early in conflicts involving faculty members and attempt to guide the parties to an office that can best help solve the dispute.

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This year, both law professor Tom Metzloff and Dr. Laura Svetkey said they’ve seen increases in cases being forwarded to them for conflict resolution. Svetkey, who is in the first year as an ombud specifically for the School of Medicine, said she believes the number of cases doubled during the pandemic.

“I also think cases have increased under COVID,” said Metzloff, who has been in the role since 2017 and handles cases for all schools except medicine. “Some of the cases show a great deal of anxiety, others involve basic financial issues.”

The two also expressed concerns that the office wasn’t hearing from faculty members from underrepresented groups such as women and people of color, and said they wanted to make sure all faculty knew that the office was available to help with grievances.

Metzloff also noted the rising numbers of faculty members put on administration suspension while a complaint was investigated. He said it was too early to identify this as a trend, and the suspensions might be justified. However, “traditionally this sanction has been rarely used and it’s not clear what the standard is used” in making the suspension.

The faculty also heard about changes to the Title IX process on sexual harassment grievances. Kim Hewitt, vice president of institutional equity, underscored that the changes, which brought the university in line with new federal guidelines, affect only a narrow range of situations that are covered by Duke’s wider policies.

Within this narrow subset of cases defined by the new federal rules, there are changes that will affect faculty members. For one, the new policy means that complaints involving faculty that are covered by the new federal definition will not immediately go before a Faculty Hearing Committee but rather a mini-trial before an independent hearing officer. Advisers to both sides in the cases can cross-examine witnesses.  

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The new umbrella policy and procedures is posted on the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) website.


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