Membership in the “No Confidence” club is hardly exclusive. Oakland U., Idaho State, Sonoma State, Kutztown U., Kean U., Urbana U., New Mexico State, Plattsburgh State, Northeastern Illinois U., St. Louis U., South Carolina State, and Texas A&M are recent members, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. (Googling “university no-confidence vote” yields nearly two million hits.)
So what are faculty members so upset about? There is a smorgasbord of complaints – lavish presidential spending, favoritism in hiring, too many administrative appointments, excessive construction (on sports facilities, mostly), and inappropriate relationships with subordinates. If true, such allegations reflect either poor presidential judgment or an abuse of the office, and as such merit careful scrutiny by trustees.
However, the complaint running through most no-confidence votes is that the targeted administrator is unwilling to share power. Often, this allegation is a response to a president’s or provost’s efforts to reorganize an academic unit, phase out a department, eliminate a lightly enrolled degree program, or push back against a faculty union. Such actions typically draw hostile criticism from faculty legislative bodies, as in this charge by a Texas A& M faculty senator: “Our president missed that part in kindergarten where they talked about sharing.”
Typically, those at the receiving end of no-confidence votes are described as authoritarian, arrogant, and contemptuous of shared governance. Their alleged aloof, high-handed, disrespectful and undemocratic behavior is seen as an ingrained “management style” that harms the institution by marginalizing its faculty. From the sheer number of such complaints, it seems that American universities and colleges must surely be headed by ruthless and uncaring despots.
And yet outside the campus gates one hears a very different voice. Colleges, say legislators and taxpayers, are too often headed by weak-kneed, buck-passing marshmallows who cannot rein in campus spending, curtail tuition increases, and respond to changing circumstances.
So which is it, marshmallow or despot? One way to resolve the paradox is to consider what faculty no-confidence votes do not allege. Here is a no-confidence petition I guarantee trustees will never see:
Be it resolved: We the undersigned members of the Faculty Senate no longer have confidence in the president’s ability to lead the university. Specifically, we find that the president:
- has not acted forcefully against incompetent teachers and scholars.
- has not merged or eliminated weak academic programs and departments.
- has failed to raise promotion and tenure standards.
- has appointed too many large committees and commissions.
- has not increased efficiency, sped up decision-making, and lowered costs.
The innate resistance to change is the Achilles heel of shared governance, and during hard times this weakness can morph into a ruinous paralysis. Shared governance ensures that many voices are heard but does not ensure closure, and to those whose ox stands to be gored, there is never enough consultation, never enough dialogue, never enough exploring of options.
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe in shared governance, and in most respects – particularly at the department level – it generally works well. The University of Michigan Faculty Handbook sums up the strengths:
Faculty participation in governance promotes and encourages diversity of ideas, a sense of shared responsibility, collaboration, collegiality and institutional excellence, and is essential to the well-being of the university.
But there is another side to the coin, mostly talked about behind closed doors in administrators’ offices (and which appears in no faculty handbook):
Faculty participation in governance promotes the rule of mediocrity, perpetuates the status quo, and leads to a wasteful use of time and resources that is detrimental to the well-being of the university.
Thus, like any form of government, shared governance has its pluses and minuses. As is often said about democracy, it may be superior only in comparison to the alternatives. But to the extent shared governance has become a sacred cow, immune from criticism, and a weapon wielded by those who oppose change, it can do great harm to an institution.
America’s colleges and universities are under unprecedented stress, with no easy solutions in sight. To survive this century’s harsh realities, they must find a balance point between administrative efficiency and the protection of core academic values. Doing so will require honest and open conversations about a governance mode that is increasingly dysfunctional.