Open Season on College Presidents As Faculty ‘Mobs’ Wield Power

The no-confidence season for college presidents got off to an early start this spring with a nay vote from the Michigan State faculty for the university’s interim president and the entire Board of Trustees in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal. Starting with the angry rebellion against Harvard president Lawrence Summers in 2005, faculties have been increasingly willing to mobilize to bring down senior-level administrators. Summers was targeted after he suggested at an academic conference that innate male-female differences might possibly provide a partial explanation why mathematics and engineering faculties remain so heavily male.

While there was no evidence of discrimination in hiring, Harvard’s hastily formed Caucus for Gender Equality charged Summers with failing to hire enough female professors, and Summers retracted his suggestion and issued what The Atlantic’s Stuart Taylor, Jr. called a “groveling Soviet show trial style apology.” A short time later Summers resigned.

Sometimes faculty-led protests, what social scientists call “mobbings,” can have deadly consequences. In 2006, UC Santa Cruz chancellor Denise Denton leaped to her death from a 42-story San Francisco high rise in the wake of a well-orchestrated attack by the Santa Cruz faculty that included death threats, harassment, vandalism and a hostile media campaign. At the height of the protests, someone threw a large metal pole through a window in Denton’s home, shattering glass throughout her living room. The San Francisco Chronicle noted that Denton, who had received a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT and won a prestigious national award for encouraging women and girls in science had “very high standards…she expected people to perform.”

Before it was applied to academia, the term “mobbing” was used almost exclusively in zoology, characterizing the behavior of small birds ganging up aggressively on a larger predator bird.” Emboldened by the Summers success, faculty at the New School mobilized in 2008 to remove their President, Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam war hero, winner of the Medal of Honor, and 2-term Senator (D-NE). Faculty complaints focused—as they nearly always do—on faculty perceptions of Kerry’s lack of commitment to shared governance. Professor Jim Miller, the public face of what New York Magazine called “the New School faculty’s discontents,” complained that Kerry never understood “what was special” about the New School. Miller believed that Kerrey “doesn’t get its special anarchy and founding moments. He just sees it as an economic puzzle to be solved.”

The faculty had a special contempt for Kerrey’s war service—leading the interviewer to write: it was hard not to look around and think: “These are the kinds of people who’ve given Kerrey grief from the moment he came home from Vietnam.” Although Kerrey survived for a short while after the faculty no-confidence vote, he told a New York Magazine interviewer: “I was sitting with my 7-year old with a bunch of screaming maniacs outside my building, thinking, who needs this?”

No-confidence votes are almost always about shared governance—usually focusing on how university funds are allocated to faculty-favored programs. Similar complaints emerged at Mount St. Mary’s in 2016 when the faculty voted “overwhelmingly” to ask President Simon Newman to resign. That vote drew national media attention when angry faculty members forwarded confidential emails to the campus newspaper. Newman, a Los Angeles private equity manager and strategic planner, was hired in 2014 amid serious budget concerns at Mount St. Mary’s. In 2013, Forbes ranked it one of the “least financially fit schools in America.” In the Forbes financial rankings of 927 colleges, Mount St. Mary’s was one of 107 colleges to receive the D grade—ranking 888th out of 927 in terms of the balance sheets and operational strength.

Newman was hired to help turn the ailing University around. A year later he found himself at the center of a faculty-led firestorm over some intemperate remarks he made about retention. According to media sources, Newman was talking privately with some faculty members about retention strategies when he jokingly said: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but sometimes you just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.” The faculty did not appreciate the joke.

But, the truth is that the intemperate remark was not the real cause of faculty anger. Rather, Newman was suggesting curricular changes to reduce the number of required philosophy and humanities courses in the Core. The Core is often “sacred ground” for humanities professors on Liberal Arts campuses like Mount St. Mary’s—a kind of “third rail” that administrators know can never be touched. It is not a coincidence that most “no-confidence votes” emerge from Arts and Sciences faculty.

Newman paid a high price for even suggesting that it would benefit students to have the flexibility to take more science and math courses by reducing—slightly—the required humanities courses. In an 87 to 3 vote on February 12, 2016, the faculty released an open letter saying, “we appeal to your generosity of spirit and ask that you resign your position for the good of our community by 9 am on February 15, 2016.”  The Board eventually demanded that Newman step down.

There is often a critical incident—like Newman’s bunny joke—that provide a rationale for the overt mobbing to begin. Researchers know that these incidents are just the “struck match…the kindling’s been stacking up for years, dry and brittle and some of it drenched in gasoline.” This is the real cause of the conflagration.Issues surrounding shared governance almost always precede the incident—and then, the rumors begin. At Mount St. Mary’s there were rumors that President Newman, a former private equity chief executive, was going to “dilute” the college’s Catholic identity.

Jesuit Universities have been especially hard hit as Fordham University, Creighton, and the University of St. Louis have all experienced “no-confidence” votes in their Presidents in the past few years. On April 7, 2017, faculty members at Fordham voted no confidence in the University’s President, the Rev. Joseph M. McShane in response to a recent salary and benefits package offered by university administrators.  The Jesuit Creighton University faculty issued a no-confidence vote in 2015 against the strategic plan that had been crafted under the former Creighton President, the Rev. Timothy R. Lannon, S. J.—claiming that it was drafted and enacted without allowing for thoughtful criticism and feedback from students, faculty and staff and tended to “import aims, goals, reward systems, and methods of social engineering suited more to corporate America than to an institution of higher education.”

According to media reports, St. Louis University’s Fr. Lawrence Biondi devoted 26 years to leading the Jesuit university to prominence—increasing both the number and the quality of the students, doubling the acreage of the school, and stabilizing a huge swath of the city, making the Grand Center arts district, and extending SLU’s influence throughout the city and the world.” St. Louis’s mayor Francis Slay called him “one of America’s greatest college presidents.” But it could not save him from a faculty mobbing action apparently focused on a tenure dispute and an unpopular academic vice president.

Of course, some of these no-confidence votes are the result of self-inflicted wounds. Last month, Beverlee J. McClure, the beleaguered former president of Adams State University drew national media attention because of allegations that she bullied faculty and retaliated against her critics—and wore an unfortunate “overweight plumber” costume to a faculty Halloween party.

In yet another offensive choice in a Halloween costume appears to have contributed to derailing the career of University of Louisville President James Ramsey when a 2015 photo surfaced showing Ramsey and his staff dressed as Mexican stereotypes with fake mustaches, sombreros, and maracas. While the costume was offensive to some, the critical incident brought attention to serious financial concerns. A 2017 audit revealed that the university suffered more than $100 million losses from mismanagement and excessive spending during his tenure. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported on July 14, 2017, that “the university is poised to go after (his) personal assets.”

An increasing number of college presidents are becoming swept up in the fallout from the #metoo movement. Bates Technical College President Ron Langrell was placed on paid administrative leave last month over allegations that he has been intimidating and demeaning employees, and that he engages in “unwanted hugging.” And, last March, University of Texas, San Antonio’s longtime President, Ricardo Romo, announced that he would retire after he was placed on administrative leave during an investigation of his “improper hugging” of faculty and staff members.

Last year, Briar Cliff University President Hamid Shirvani announced his resignation after only 14 months on the job. Citing a “combination of family, personal and professional considerations,” Briar Cliff’s Board dismissed local media reports that he was investigated for sexual harassment claiming that it “inaccurately and inappropriately cast a cloud over his leadership.” The Sioux City Journal reported that Shirvani lasted just 11 months as chancellor of the North Dakota University System and received a buyout of $925,000 over concerns about his management style and treatment of staff. In a prior presidency at California State University, Stanislaus received a “no confidence” vote in his leadership by 91 percent of the 264 professors on campus.

In October 2017, a total of 56 faculty members out of 120 full-time faculty at Assumption College voted “no confidence” in Assumption’s President Francesco Cesareo because of declining enrollments and layoffs since 2016. Last year, the Catholic University of St. Thomas in Houston voted “no confidence” in President Robert Ivany’s leadership after he sent an email to faculty members in philosophy and English advising them that their contracts had been delayed because the departments were “under review for potential reorganization and/or program elimination.”

Jeanine Stewart, professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University, thinks that the very design of academia fosters these kinds of counterproductive behaviors. She suggests that when large numbers of faculty members report to a single dean or provost, informal pecking orders emerge. She calls these virtual power structures “soft hierarchies” in contrast to the kind of hard hierarchies that you see on an organizational chart. It is within the highest tiers of the soft hierarchies that power is concentrated—often in the humanities. Summers, Newman, Kerrey and other victims of mobbing behavior likely never understood the power of a soft hierarchy. Their lack of understanding of the soft hierarchical power dynamic undermined their ability to work cooperatively with faculty leaders.

Faculty have been empowered by their successes, but their victories may have come at a cost higher than most schools can afford to bear as financial pressures have already begun to take a toll. An article published in Insidehighered.com titled, “The Culling of Higher Education Begins,” reveals that the number of colleges and universities eligible to award federal financial aid fell by 5.6% from 2016 to 2017—the fourth straight year of declines. No-confidence votes create instability and uncertainty for everyone, leading potential students and their parents to lose confidence also. Perhaps it is time to re-think what is becoming a self-defeating strategy.

4 thoughts on “Open Season on College Presidents As Faculty ‘Mobs’ Wield Power”

  1. This “article” is a joke. Of course administrators want to put an end to what little recourse faculty and staff members have against authoritarian dictatorial leadership styles. This is a sad attempt to try to justify poor leadership tactics, and a further example of using fear based tactics and threats to rule over the faculty. What a disgusting position this author takes for someone involved in education. It’s a perfect example of votes of no confidence are a necessary option.

  2. The missing characters in this narrative are the trustees, who might for once do something sensible like fire the contumacious twits who instigate this nonsense. Are there any non-useless trustees?

  3. Q: What’s the difference between university faculty senates and the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly?

    A: The North Korean assembly features more open, reasoned, civilized, and robust debate.

  4. Most of this is about faculty votes against the administration. This is ‘mobbing’? (I do not condone violent actions or threats. These are criminal acts which should be handled by the police, from whatever source they come.)

    If the Board of Trustees or equivalent body backs the president, they should tell the faculty so, when the latter exercise their right to make a vote of no confidence. In other words, show a little backbone.

    I did not like what happened to Summers at Harvard — he was just saying what a lot of people really think, as I can attest from talking with a lot of math professors — but the Board there exercised their right not to back him.

    That’s where the problem lies. Whining about the faculty makes little sense, and no difference.

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