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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

UAB, Bloggers, and Double Standards, Part II

How did my old buddy Doug Gillett get in hot water at UAB?

My memory is fuzzy on some details, but here is how I think it went down:

Doug had not been at UAB long when he became a volunteer with John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign. That's one difference between Doug and me. I vote Democrat; Doug is a Democrat, through and through. He puts shoe leather to pavement on behalf of the Democratic Party, and I admire that.

Doug also wrote a blog, with the not-so-subtle title "George W. Bush, Will You Please Go Now."

In the course of volunteering for Kerry, writing his blog, and participating in various online political forums, Doug must have somehow made a Republican enemy. (Imagine that!)

It seems that said enemy alerted a reporter at The Birmingham News about Doug's online activities during work hours, and our local right-wing rag was delighted to write a story that portrayed Doug as a thief of Alabama's treasure. The story got picked up by the wire services and wound up being run in newspapers all over creation.

I don't believe the original Birmingham News story is online anymore. But a blog post about the whole brouhaha is available here. And the blog Practically Harmless (written by Doug's sister, Ann) had a good post about the whole affair, with links to several articles.

Doug's case was clear cut. He was blogging at work. He was engaging in political activity (defined as involving political candidates, organizations, or campaigns). He almost certainly violated state law.

But he kept his job. In fact, I see no evidence that his job was ever seriously in danger. (Doug, by the way, is still in the blogging business, although Hey, Jenny Slater is more about sports and babes, less about politics and elections.)

Why did UAB not fire Doug? I wasn't involved in any meetings, but I can only guess. One, I think UAB kept its head and realized that Doug did not have any improper intent. He was an enthusiastic young guy who was getting his work done, and in his spare time on the job, made the mistake of doing something he shouldn't have been doing.

Also, I suspect that UAB realized that while it has policies regarding the use of university equipment for improper reasons, it has no clear-cut policy (at least one that I've been able to find) regarding the use of computers and the Web. For example, UAB has a policy titled "Safeguarding UAB Equipment." (See page 69, You & UAB Handbook.) Within that policy is this sentence: "You are not to use UAB Equipment for personal reasons." But the overall policy says nothing about computers. I've been around UAB a long time, and I'm pretty sure this policy predates the use of personal computers in the work environment, and it certainly predates the widespread use of the Internet. This policy seems aimed at equipment that can be moved and taken outside the work environment for personal use. And its title suggests that it is concerned primarily with taking care of UAB equipment, not damaging it. In other words, don't take a UAB vacuum cleaner home to clean your house; don't check out a UAB vehicle and take the family to Disney World. And whenever and wherever you use UAB equipment, take care of it. But this policy makes no clear statement regarding computers or the Web, and I suspect that's one reason Doug kept his job.

Why does UAB not have a clear policy regarding use of computers and the Web? I suspect it's because, as an institution of higher learning, UAB does not want to establish a policy that would inhibit academic inquiry and make it more difficult to recruit faculty members. If word got around that a university was run by a bunch of "computer Nazis," I suspect potential teachers and researchers would avoid joining the faculty.

The only other policy issue that could be applied to Doug's case--or my case--is "Political Activities of UAB Employees." (See page 48, You & UAB Handbook.) This one is pretty clear: No UAB employee is permitted to use university resources, time, or property for political activities, which are defined as activities "on behalf of any political candidate, campaign, or organization."

Doug probably violated this one. He was, as I understand it, blogging and conducting other political activity on UAB time, with UAB equipment. Even the title of his blog had a clearly partisan, political tone. But I suspect UAB realized that Doug had no malicious intent--and he pretty clearly was the victim of political backstabbing by someone who alerted the local newspaper--so it did not fire him. And I wholeheartedly supported that decision.

But what about me and Legal Schnauzer? UAB's own investigation showed that I was not blogging at work. I was not engaged in political activity. I didn't write about political candidates or tout a certain political organization or campaign. Evidence suggests that UAB was concerned that my blog covered the Don Siegelman case, but Siegelman was a federal prisoner, not a political candidate, for most of the time I've written the blog. And I didn't write about Siegelman, or anyone else, on UAB time or with UAB resources.

I didn't violate any UAB policies or state laws or engage in any form of misconduct.

So why am I out of a job? Three reasons, I think:

* The age difference--My situation is about far more than age discrimination, but that certainly is present. I enjoyed most of my 12 years working for Pam Powell, but as I've noted before, she clearly has shown a preference for younger people, especially in the positions closest to her. This has been apparent for a long time, but Powell's superiors (Dale Turnbough and Shirly Salloway Kahn) have turned a blind eye to it. The fact that Doug was, and still is, in his 20s has a lot to do with why he still works at UAB. Pam went to bat for him; she stabbed me right between the shoulder blades--repeatedly, like the shower scene from Psycho (with a reversal of gender roles).

* The timing difference--Doug's "issue" arose in 2004. GOPers, I'm sure, were sensitive to criticism at that point. But that was before much of the blatant corruption in the Bush administration began to surface. It definitely was before the U.S. attorneys scandal broke, followed by stories about the politicization of the Justice Department. My "issue" arose with the Justice Department scandal in full swing, and I think things really started to boil when Don Siegelman's story appeared on 60 Minutes and then when he was released from federal prison pending appeal. As the actions of U.S. attorneys began to receive scrutiny--particularly in Alabama--I suspect GOP honchos in our state became more than a little agitated. They also might have begun to have visions of seeing themselves in federal prison someday. It appears that folks connected to a particular U.S. attorney decided to lash out by costing me my job. Doug might have gotten fired, too, if his "issue" had arisen in 2008, rather than 2004.

* The nature of the blogs--Doug's political blog was filled with opinion, and apparently that peeved some minor GOP politico. But most of the big dogs, on either side of the political aisle, can handle folks who disagree with them or even poke fun at them. But my blog, Legal Schnauzer, is a different animal. It presents plenty of opinion--and like Doug, I view things through a liberal or progressive prism. But a major chunk of my blog involves "citizen journalism." I'm reporting facts, about events that have taken place in the public arena--and the facts reveal that certain folks with Republican leanings have committed federal crimes. That makes certain powerful people nervous, particularly when it's clear that I've done my homework, and I know what I'm talking about. Plus, much of the wrongdoing I've written about isn't being covered anywhere else.

Even political big dogs get worried, and more than a little agitated, when a blogger is exposing them, or their brethren, as corrupt reptiles. (An apology to reptiles; they don't deserve to be compared with the lowlifes at the heart of Legal Schnauzer.)

Doug has written about uncomfortable opinions. I've written about uncomfortable truths. There is a big difference between the two. That difference, to a large extent, explains why Doug still has a job at UAB--and why I do not.

How has that difference manifested itself?

In Doug's case, the university actually followed its own policy. UAB has a progressive discipline process, and its stated goal is "to retain employees and to improve an employee's performance while at the same time documenting the efforts of the employer in the event of discharge." (See page 57, You & UAB Handbook.) Doug's actions probably merited some level of progressive discipline, and the university applied the policy the way it should have. Best I can tell, the university was honest with Doug, and his coworkers, every step of the way.

What about my case? Well, UAB has butchered its own policy in almost every respect. UAB's own employee grievance hearing, which I sat through in its entirety, showed that I shouldn't have been disciplined at all, much less terminated. But the university seemingly couldn't wait to rid itself of a 19-year employee, apparently because I had used my university computer to keep up with Alabama-related news, as I was required to do by my job description. In other words, I got fired for doing my job. Is that Rovian or what?

How badly did UAB fail to achieve the goals of its own policy? Let's go step by step:

* The goal is to retain employees--I wasn't retained; I was fired. UAB's grade: F.

* The goal is to improve an employee's performance--UAB's own investigation showed there was nothing wrong with my performance. The annual review I had received in September 2007 showed my performance was good. Anyone's performance can improve, including mine. But did UAB accomplish that stated goal? Not exactly. Research has shown that wrongfully terminating an employee is not a good way to improve performance. UAB's grade: F.

* The goal is to document the employer's effort in the event of discharge--This might be the biggest joke of the whole affair. At my grievance hearing, my supervisor Pam Powell repeatedly was asked to provide documentation regarding her allegations that my performance had declined. She didn't turn over one document--unless she did it while my back was turned. Why no documentation from my supervisor? Because my performance hadn't declined, and UAB management knows it. And I had violated any policies either, and UAB management knows that, too.

Clearly, something is amiss with my firing. And the evidence shows that could only be caused by improper, and probably unlawful, external pressure applied to UAB for political reasons.

As I noted above, the university appeared to deal honestly with Doug Gillett. Have they dealt honestly with me? Consider President Carol Garrison's recent "statement" issued to several folks who had voiced concern about my termination. Garrison says my firing had nothing to do with politics and was based solely on work performance.

Let's take the "work performance" statement first. Garrison's own grievance committee has found I shouldn't have been terminated at all. So in addition to being defamatory, Garrison's statement is boldly dishonest.

And what about the "politics" statement? Heck, Garrison's own employees don't believe that. In an unguarded moment, Employee Relations director Anita Bonasera spilled the beans about what was really behind my termination. You can listen to that conversation between Bonasera and me, and judge for yourself:

UAB, Siegelman, and Blogs

So you have a large institution engaged in a coverup, with the president right in the middle of it. Richard Nixon would be proud.

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