The past isn’t dead

The University remains at the center of a national debate about faculty, trustee governance

Like adults speaking with hushed voices at the dinner table, some University leaders have moved to bar what they euphemistically call “the summer’s unpleasantness” — the Board of Visitors’ attempted ouster of University President Teresa Sullivan — from polite conversation. In the Board’s first regular meeting following Sullivan’s reinstatement, William Goodwin — at that point a senior advisor to the Board; Gov. Bob McDonnell made him a full-fledged member in January — asked everyone to please, stop talking about it.

“It’s time to move on,” Goodwin said in the Sept. 13 meeting. “Whatever happened, and I do not know because I was not there, it happened probably because people were trying to do the best they knew how at the time…I would ask you to forget it and move on.”

Goodwin isn’t the only person who wishes June’s events would go away. The Board would probably like to blot the ouster from memory. The University’s Office of Public Affairs, tasked with responding to public-records requests, has probably not appreciated the spike in its workload. And it’s fair to conjecture that Sullivan, with her numerous obligations as the University’s president, would prefer to focus on keeping the school afloat rather than rehash a messy episode in her past.

But not talking about something doesn’t erase it from history: what we repress has a tendency to resurface. In this case, what leaders like Goodwin are trying to shove under the carpet never went away in the first place. Months later the ouster is still relevant. The professional relationship between Dragas and Sullivan is still tense, as last month’s release of emails between the two show.
The ouster remains pertinent on a broader scale as well, as issues of faculty and trustee governance emerge at colleges and universities across the country. The power dynamic between the two groups seems in flux.

At New York University, faculty are flexing muscle. Professors recently approved a vote of no confidence in famed president John Sexton. They oppose what they view as a top-down management style. In response, NYU’s board of trustees released a statement affirming their faith in Sexton’s “strategic direction” (whether this phrase was an homage to the summer’s much-lauded “strategic dynamism” is unlikely).

NYU is an exception to a rising trend of aggressive trustee governance. The board of trustees at Arcadia University, a small private school in the outskirts of Philadelphia, recently fired its president amid secrecy.

Higher-education pundits and academic professionals have painted the University as a metaphorical battleground between faculty autonomy and trustee governance. In Charlottesville, the Faculty Senate has faced off against Rector Helen Dragas, placing blows and jabs in the form of no-confidence votes and press statements. On a national level, the fight is pitched between two major higher-education organizations: The American Association of University Professors, an organization of more than 48,000 faculty members that aims to advance shared university governance; and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a higher-education advocacy group founded by Lynne Cheney in 1995.

The AAUP released a report last Thursday criticizing the Board for its failure to consult faculty in what was, to put it mildly, a major decision: the departure of the University’s president. On March 8, ACTA fired a shot of its own: the council sent a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan arguing that a decision by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) to place the University on warning fell outside the accreditation body’s authority and amounted to a violation of “the principle of federalism.”

It would be easy to politicize this debate. On one side we have the AAUP, made up largely of left-leaning professors. On the other is ACTA, with its right-wing roots. But it would be a mistake to make faculty governance a partisan issue. Faculty are more intimately involved than any other group (as the Board might say, they are “stakeholders”) with carrying out research, teaching and service at the University. The success of the institution’s mission depends on its faculty.

Though the Board was right to appoint faculty to its various committees last November, including a committee on governance and engagement, it remains unclear if the body values the University’s faculty as much as it should. Faculty compensation was not on the list of 65 goals Dragas gave Sullivan in February. And though the rector sent the AAUP a letter in response to its investigative report, she answered none of its questions: “The specific questions you posed will be best answered by the actions of the Board in the coming months and years,” Dragas wrote. If that is the case, we look forward to seeing the Board prove itself through more effective governance in which faculty consultation in major decision-making is common practice. Until then, the Faculty Senate is right not to rescind its no-confidence vote in the Board: the resolution, which has been in effect since last June, should not be buried under the carpet. Neither should the ouster itself.

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