Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: WVU’s proposed rule change may have chilling effect on faculty’s, staff’s service to community

by John A. Bolt

West Virginia University would make a serious mistake by adopting a proposed rule change that could chill a mainstay of the benefits of having a land-grant, R1 research university in this state.

The proposed rule asserts its purpose is to “ensure that all University Employees and Officials, including Faculty and Staff, are responsible for sustaining the highest ethical standards through values of integrity, honesty, and fairness in their teaching, research, service, and business practices.”

But the devil hidden in the details is language likely to limit university scholars from work described as “Engagements Adverse to the University or State.”

It says, “No Employee, including Faculty Members, may count as Institutional Duties the engagement in activities that result in the Employee being adverse to West Virginia University or the State of West Virginia, including any of its Agencies, Units, or Departments in a Formal Legal Proceeding.”

(It’s probably germane to note here that what’s “adverse” to WVU or the state this year may be supportive in the next year, or administration.)

The three pillars of a land-grant institution are “teaching, research and service.” One of those pillars would definitely be weakened by this new rule and another could be.

For example, law school faculty frequently provide free legal advice and representation to organizations that are engaged in public policy advocacy. By its very nature, such advocacy is often “adverse to the … State of West Virginia.”

The originally proposed rule has been somewhat clarified as to certain of these activities — primarily involving the law school clinics — and says that outside of those, any “adverse” activity cannot count toward the service component of a faculty member’s work. (Faculty members are required to work on all three of the land-grant pillars for advancement and tenure. However, there is only so much time they can devote to service, for example.)

In other words, they can’t do it on university time. While that may seem a reasonable restriction, I submit that in actuality it would create a chilling effect. (If that seems like an overreaction, take a look at what has happened after the Dobbs decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has chilled medical providers to the point they are reluctant to provide even permitted services for fear of retaliation.)

Why is the university even considering such a rule? It did not answer that question when posed by The Dominion Post. One is left to conclude, then, that this is intended to squelch often effective representation by one law school faculty member that has frequently been a thorn in the state’s side. We don’t know, however, because the university obviously can’t say that publicly.

While on the surface, this seems to be a solution in search of a problem, anyone aware of the university’s understandable sensitivity to political winds will probably conclude that some extremely powerful politician, perhaps someone who can hold the university’s budget hostage, is angry that a faculty member is helping “the other side,” especially if they’ve been successful.

While the law faculty is the most obvious target, it is not the only program that could be injured by this rule. Another could be the Reed College of Media, where a faculty member, or even a class project, assists an advertising and/or a public relations campaign that advocates something “adverse to the State.”

And there’s always the danger of unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Influential individuals from politics and business are often angered by particular findings of some legitimate research projects, especially in the area of fossil fuel. Could that research be hampered or discouraged by the philosophy underpinning this rule? The university will say, “No.” I am not so sure.

As one who cares about the reputation and integrity of West Virginia University, I hope this proposed rule will be rejected out-of-hand.

John A. Bolt was a West Virginia University employee from 2009 to 2020.