ACAOM Accused of Professional and Ethical Misconduct
Three Commissioners "Removed" From Board
By Editorial Staff
As we go to press, Acupuncture Today has learned that three members of the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine's (ACAOM) Board of Commissioners - two public members and a practitioner member - were removed from the board on March 17th for unspecified reasons.
The removals appear to have been caused by inquiries made by the commissioners to other board members regarding certain business practices and procedures conducted by the ACAOM, and were carried out even after one of the commissioners submitted a letter of resignation on March 16th, claiming an "apparent unwillingness of the administration of this organization to act in a professional and ethical manner." The commissioner added in her resignation letter that she was "very disappointed" in the practices of ACAOM's current administration, and that any continuing affiliation with the organization would be a cause of "great concern."
On March 11, 2004, ACAOM Executive Director Dort Bigg sent a memorandum to the organization's commissioners that outlined an agenda for a March 17 conference call. Included on the agenda were three motions:
Motion to adopt resolution to amend bylaws re: requirements for commissioner removal
Possible removal of certain commissioners from the commission
Motion to adopt resolution to amend bylaws relative to the commission's vs. the executive director's authority relative to staffing issues.
Named as candidates for removal were Dr. Dean Uyeno, a public member and the commission's vice chair; Annelee Spano Lander, MS, a public member; and Virginia Hunkin, LAc, a practitioner member. While the motion to amend the bylaws to have commissioners removed was based in part on "recent actions on the part of certain commissioners pertaining to commission functioning [that] have created conflict and discord within the commission," no reasons were provided in the agenda as to why those particular commissioners would be removed.
On March 16, a day before the conference call, Ms. Lander sent an e-mail to Mr. Bigg and ACAOM President Terry Courtney, to express her concerns with the group's administrative policies. In her letter, Ms. Lander noted that she originally accepted a position as a public commissioner because "there seemed to be a strong need for my skill sets in ACAOM, and I wanted to offer my time and services to this organization and the schools that are served through its accreditation." While working for the commission, she noticed that her experience in postsecondary education and accreditation process were "put to good use through the assignments" ACAOM had given her, such as review processes, and noted she was "happy to be of service in those review processes."
Recent developments at the commission, however, including an "apparent unwillingness of the administration of this organization to act in a professional and ethical manner," had caused Ms. Lander to "question whether my efforts will continue to be useful to ACAOM." She then listed several accusations that led her to submit her resignation, including:
"Manipulation of commissioners through constant threats of resignations by the administrative members if votes do not meet the needs of the administration."
"There is a constant turnover in every level of female staff members, while the male executive director has remained in place. This key administrative staff member has refused commissioners access to cases brought by these former employees against the commission, and he is now on a campaign to remove the highest ranking and knowledgeable female employee."
"ACAOM administration has been unwilling to provide budgetary details either on an individual basis or in group communications. Following requests on the budget, the only efforts made by administrative staff was to silence the commissioner requesting information through humiliation. (Editor's note: The ACAOM is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and as such is required to make certain financial information available to any member of the public who requests to see it.)
"There is a continued need to refer commission decisions regarding institutional accreditation to outside council when an institution challenges the review process. This could be viewed as an indication of either doubts of this process and/or ACAOM's failure to meet industry standards in institutional accreditation."
"(The) ACAOM executive director reports to no one but the president, who is his only reviewer and (is) granted salary increases without the approval of the commissioners. A specific vote that was passed to have the executive director position reviewed by the entire commission has been manipulated and subverted."
"ACAOM administration has inflicted the commission with a hierarchical rather than collegial spirit by refusing to have written policies, and a constant change in communication and meeting processes to serve their own purposes."
Ms. Lander concluded her letter by offering her resignation effective March 30, 2004, but added that she would be willing to participate in a final meeting in May to help review several institutional reports.
Acupuncture Today contacted via telephone Ms. Lander on April 20. She verified that that she had sent the resignation letter to ACAOM, and that she sent it to let the commission know why she was no longer willing to participate in the organization.
Acupuncture Today has also obtained a copy of an e-mail memo sent by Dr. Uyeno on March 17th, just prior to the conference call, which repeats many of Ms. Lander's accusations. In the memo, titled "List of ACAOM Problems for the March 17th Teleconference," Dr. Uyeno listed his own accusations of the commission.
"Over the last few months, I have asked questions of the chair of ACAOM and of its executive director. I have been refused information. I am alarmed how many problems I have unearthed in so short a time," Dr. Uyeno wrote.
According to the memo, one of the motions on the agenda for the March 17th conference was for the commission to remove not only Dr. Uyeno, but also Ms. Lander and Virginia Hunkin, a practitioner member from Virginia, "based on perceived disruption, not on the accuracy of our statements or on the appropriateness of the questions asked." To accomplish this, the board would change the bylaws to make it easier to remove a commissioner. "Given the importance of the vote to remove a commissioner and the effect on the reputation of ACAOM if this were done, the bylaw should not be changed," Dr. Uyeno cautioned. Another motion considered at the meeting would give the commission's executive director the right to hire or terminate any employee without the board's advice or consent.
In a section of the memo titled "Problems in Governance and in Management," Dr. Uyeno conveyed some of his own concerns about recent situations that had occurred in the organization, including the termination of a female staff member and an attempt to terminate Penelope Ward, ACAOM's director of professional services. "It is highly embarrassing that ACAOM does not appear to conduct itself in accordance with professional standards remotely similar to the standards which it asks accredited schools to maintain. ACAOM needs an overhaul," Dr. Uyeno stated. He then alleged 15 perceived problems with the organizations governance and management structure, including the following:
"Failure to hold elections for officers in April 2003 as prescribed by the bylaws."
"Chiropractic short courses: Chiropractic schools are offering short courses as a means for chiropractors to learn acupuncture. This may be a significant threat to the AOM field. Commissioner Howard Simmons sits as a member of both ACAOM and the chiropractic accreditation board. This is an obvious apparent conflict interest."
"Consideration at a recent meeting of a strong suggestion by Commissioner Howard Simmons to remove practitioners from the commission, leaving the commission without the expertise of practitioners just as the doctoral task force has voted to move to consideration of a curriculum-based approach to accreditation."
"The commission chair, Terry Courtney, continues to pursue the termination of Penny Ward without allowing Penny to hear the complaints against her, to defend herself, or to have people speak about her many strengths. This does not give her due process and is a cruel way to treat the founder of the commission, a former commissioner, and its longest-standing employee."
"The formal management control system, the review tracking system, does not work well, leading to long delays in processing of applications from schools. ... These delays are costly and have been deeply frustrating to some of our most progressive institutions."
"Failure of the executive director to provide effective backup for computer files, especially e-mail files. The loss of e-mail files has been a frequent excuse for lack of action. It is not an acceptable excuse."
"Budgeting. There is no formal written budgeting procedure. There are odd aspects of the budget itself, such as the provision of all staff as a single member, or such as the lack of provision for future merit increases for staff. Commissioner Hunkin has asked many questions at meetings and through e-mail. Few answers have been forthcoming."
Dr. Uyeno concluded his memo by asking, "I wonder what else is wrong and will need to be corrected before ACAOM undergoes accreditation. In closing, I can only repeat statements made earlier: The motions on the agenda are part of a tawdry political act to turn off the spotlight on commission performance, eliminate dissent and then to terminate the commission's most experienced employee. Instead, ACAOM should have an overhaul.
"I understand that a threat of resignations by several commissioners and the executive director may lie behind the support of commissioners Fred Jennes and Yi Qiao for those motions. Some of the people who made the threats are the ones who created most of the governance and management problems listed in this memo in the first place! If they resigned, it would be easier to solve those problems before ACAOM is itself reviewed for accreditation."
In subsequent conversations with the ex-commissioners, Acupuncture Today has also learned that ACAOM changed its bylaws so that Dr. Uyeno, Ms. Lander and Ms. Hunkin could be removed from the board. Previously, Article VI, Section 5 of ACAOM's Bylaws stated that "A Commissioner may be removed by the Commission if the Commissioner is chronically absent or derelict in the performance of his or her duties. Such removal shall be made by a two-thirds vote of the Commission." However, Article XII of the Bylaws stated that the bylaws could be amended "by a majority vote of the Commission in a meeting duly called."
As a result, at the March 17th conference call, the commission passed a motion to change part of Article VI, Section 5 to read: "A Commissioner may be removed by the Commission if the Commission determines that such removal is in the Commission's best interests" - in other words, the two-thirds vote would no longer be required to remove a commissioner. Once that change was approved, the board then proceeded with the motion to remove Ms. Lander, Ms. Hunkin and Dr. Uyeno as commissioners, even though Ms. Lander had submitted her resignation the previous day. The motion passed, and Lander, Hunkin and Uyeno were summarily removed during the conference call.
The third motion on the agenda would have revised Article VII, Section 7 of the bylaws to give ACAOM's executive director responsibility for the hiring, training, performance and termination of any ACAOM staff - removing the previously required advice or consent of the commission. Such a change would effectively give the executive director complete control over several elements vital to the commission's day-to-day operations. It is not known if the third motion was passed.
Based on the seriousness of the claims levied against it by Ms. Lander and Dr. Uyeno, Acupuncture Today submitted copies of the accusations to ACAOM on April 13, and asked the organization to comment on the issue. On April 20, the following response was sent to Michael Devitt, AT's managing editor:
ACAOM has been informed that Acupuncture Today has decided to publish unsubstantiated, grossly inaccurate and inflammatory comments from disgruntled, recently removed ex-commissioners concerning ACAOM's internal processes.
In the opinions of all current commissioners and senior staff, the public dissemination of these statements by these ex-commissioners represents a small sample of their actions and behaviors which prompted the Commission to seek their removal in the first place.
Suffice it to say that ACAOM's internal administrative and governance processes are consistent with the procedures followed by non-profit organizations. In addition, ACAOM's adherence to its mission, its role in protecting public health and safety through developing and enforcing accreditation standards designed to ensure quality education and training, and the actual accreditation services provided by ACAOM to applicant, candidate and accredited programs and schools are competently monitored by the United States Department of Education ("USDE"). In this regard, it is noteworthy that the USDE has found no issues or problems whatsoever with respect to ACAOM's compliance with USDE's rigorous standards for accrediting agencies.
We appreciate Acupuncture Today's offer to ACAOM to allow us to respond to these statements, but must decline to do so in specifics as ACAOM Commissioners and staff are bound by policies and procedures pertaining to confidentiality and integrity related to ACAOM's internal processes, and particularly relative to ACAOM's relationships with its applicant, candidate and accredited schools and programs. Many of the statements put forth by these personally dissatisfied ex-commissioners appear to violate those requirements, and we are not prepared to do the same by dignifying their inaccurate allegations with a detailed response.
Again, it is for these and many similar reasons that the entire balance of the Commission, both its Executive Committee and all current commissioners elected to ask these former commissioners to leave the Commission. We regret that these former commissioners have elected to publicly air their grievances in such an inappropriate manner, but again restate that this very action and behavior characterizes the nature of the rationale for their departure from the Commission.
The accreditation commission's refusal to address the allegations made by Ms. Lander and Dr. Uyeno leaves many questions unanswered, including:
Why were these three commissioners removed? Why were the bylaws changed to make it easier to remove these commissioners? Were they really "disruptive," or did they just ask potentially embarrassing questions that the administration preferred not to answer?
What is the purpose behind the motion to give Executive Director Dort Bigg seemingly unlimited power over the staff? If a staff member has a problem or a difficult situation arises, who can they turn to?
Look for an update on the developments at ACAOM in upcoming issues of Acupuncture Today.