Concerns about use and privacy of FARS data

Last year, we brought concerns to the administration about the then-new online faculty activity reporting system (FARS). These concerns had to do with a private vendor mediating the internal transmission of faculty data, including our personal information and intellectual property; the privacy and security of our data in the hands of this vendor; the (required) participation of faculty in a private, for-profit venture without our informed consent; and the vendor’s published policy that our use of their platform to enter our data constitutes our consent for them to track our activities online and to share information about us with “third-party services.”

We noted also that Article 42.§12 codifies the purpose for professional-activities data collection as “to enable Western and the Chapter to assess the workload activities of faculty” and that the WMU Office for Institutional Research (OIR) FARS FAQs page cites applications and audiences for FARS data that appear to go beyond the agreed-upon contractual intent.

For example, one FAQ, “What will be done with the information that is reported?” is answered thusly: “Information collected through FARS will be used to apply for accreditation, for program review, for faculty tenure/promotion, and for other reporting purposes.”

Leaving aside for the moment that there is no reference here to the contractual uses of this data (i.e., “to assess the workload activities of faculty,” per 42.§12), along with our (as yet) unsatisfied curiosity about what these “other reporting purposes” might involve, the uses listed here clearly go beyond what is codified in the Agreement. Because the collection and use of FARS data are explicitly contractual, decisions about other uses for these data should not be made unilaterally. The WMU-AAUP Chapter would have been open to a conversation about the application of FARS data as a way to streamline the work of accreditation reviews and reports and for other legitimate purposes, had we been approached to participate in one. The Chapter’s participation was limited to an August 2017 invitation for an officer to beta test the new system, by which time it was already a done deal.

More concerning is the inclusion of “faculty tenure/promotion” on the OIR list of intended uses for FARS data. Tenure and promotion review processes are of course governed by negotiated language in Articles17 and 18 of the Agreement. That means if the administration wants to propose changes to how tenure and promotion reviews are conducted, they are obliged to bring those proposals to the bargaining table for negotiation. Further, in addition to being contractual, decisions about how we conduct tenure and promotion reviews are central to the faculty’s right to participation in shared governance.

Further, the answer to another FAQ, “Who has access to the FARS system?” raises additional concerns about intended uses for faculty data that go beyond what’s in the contract: “A FARS governance committee will oversee all access to the system. Generally speaking, faculty will have access to the system and can update and use their data at any time during the year. Chairs will have access to the PAR data for their departments and deans will have access to their college’s PAR data. Other access (some broad and some narrow) will be available to Institutional Research, OVPR, Institutional Effectiveness, HIGE, and University Relations (i.e., publication and creative activity).”

We requested last fall that the administration provide the faculty with the University’s policies regarding privacy and use of FARS data so that we could evaluate whether these policies comport with the WMU/WMU-AAUP Agreement. The administration declined to provide this information, directing us instead to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which we did, with our request including but not limited to “all privacy, use-of-data, and disclosure policies and agreements (and drafts thereof).” The approximately 50 pages of materials we received in response, for which the WMU-AAUP Chapter was charged $246 by the administration, did not answer our questions or assuage faculty concerns. (These materials can be viewed here.)

We are working to open a dialogue with the administration again this year, in the hope that new senior leadership on campus will help us get answers and resolve these issues. We will keep you informed about how that goes. Obviously there is not going to be a resolution before our FARs are due next week, but given the gravity of faculty concerns, this is going to be a longer-term conversation. For now, faculty can review the FARS project charterthe WMU-AAUP’s 2017 inquiry to OIR, our FOIA request, the documents we received in response, and the OIR’s online information about FARS

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