Frann Michel reports on faculty votes of no confidence at the University of Wisconsin and many other places, and some of the issues to which these votes are responding.
Just as workers have risen up to demand fifteen dollars an hour and a union, just as residents of many areas have risen up to demand an end to dangerous and polluting practices like fracking and the transmission of oil and coal trains and pipelines, just as renters have risen up to demand rent freezes and an end to no cause evictions, so too have students, teachers, and faculty members risen up to demand control over the conditions of their learning and working lives.
One of the tools faculty members at colleges and universities have used is the vote of no confidence. In 2015, presidents and other administrators were the object of faculty votes of no confidence at Cal State University Chico, Ithaka College, University of Alabama Birmingham, Phoenix College, Bermuda College, San Bernadino Community College, Connecticut State Colleges and University, Northwest Nazarene University, University of Missouri, Yeshiva University, University of South Carolina Upstate, Sweet Briar College, Green River College, West Liberty University, and Broward College. And faculty of the University of Iowa voted no confidence in their Board of Regents.
The vote of no confidence is typically a statement to a university's Board of Regents, Governors, or Trustees, calling for a change in the administration, usually the firing of the president.
As law professor Mae Kuykendall of Michigan State University has described it,
The phrase arose in the British Parliament [in 1782, in response to the British surrender to the Americans at Yorktown]. The vote has come to express the loss of support by a group whose cooperation is necessary for a leader's exercise of her duties. Libraries, police departments, public schools, fire departments, universities and their subunits, and various nonprofit groups use the vote of no confidence.
A vote of no confidence undermines a leader's claim to legitimacy....
In authoritarian groups, regular members cannot demand a change. At the other end of the spectrum, democratic structures have clear, weighty procedures–impeachment and recall–for ousting their leaders. Universities and other nonprofit institutions sit in the middle of this spectrum. There is consultation to select leaders and to make decisions.
This year, in January, faculty at Loyola University and at University Hawaii Manoa voted no confidence in, respectively, their President and in their Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.
In February, it was faculty at Grambling State University, the College of Saint Rose, the University of Akron, and the City Colleges of Chicago.
Last month, faculty at Hartwick College voted no confidence in their president, and this month, faculty at campuses across the University of Wisconsin system have been voting no confidence in their President and Board of Regents.
Although each of these cases differs from the others, some patterns emerge. In some cases the votes are precipitated at least in part by administrative mishandling of incidents of racism, as at University of Missouri and Ithaca College, where the faculty vote of no confidence was actually preceded by one held by the students. Often, the votes come in response to administrative cuts to programs or firing of tenured faculty, as at the College of Saint Rose or Northwest Nazarene University. Occasionally the complaints involve financial irregularities, or worse. At the University of Louisville, where some of the senior administrators have been convicted of financial crimes, the trustees themselves contemplated voting no confidence in the scandal-plagued president. But often there there are multiple grievances, and frequently they reflect a sense that the institution has moved further from the democratic end of Kuykendall's spectrum and closer to the authoritarian end.
As the American Association of University Professors puts it, this is a time when "governing board members are increasingly drawn from the business community," and "some critics of the tradition of shared governance have encouraged boards to adopt top-down decision-making strategies and to intrude into decision-making areas in which the faculty traditionally has exercised primary responsibility." Most of the recent entries in Sean McKinniss's No-Confidence Vote Database cite violations of "shared governance."
My guess is that in many cases, at public as well as private universities, the underlying problems relate to the wider crisis of capitalism and some typical neoliberal responses to these crises. As the rate of profit has tended to decline, capital has turned toward wage repression, cutting of social services, and financialization of the economy. And since 2008 we've seen even more upward redistribution of resources, offshoring or no-shoring of jobs, military and carceral controls. Pending international trade deals are likely to make all this worse. College education costs more, and the financial advantage it once seemed to offer diminishes. Funding for public education is cut, and teachers are blamed for the failure of every child to be above average, beating the odds in a world of diminishing returns. As Diane Ravitch was quoted recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "We’re projecting economic insufficiencies onto the education system" and "The college-for-all talk is like fairy dust sprinkled over the conversation."
In Wisconsin, under an overhaul signed by Gov. Scott Walker last summer, the Wisconsin Legislature stripped tenure and shared-governance protections from state law, leaving it to the regents to set new policies for the system on both fronts. The board enacted those policies in March over the objection of faculty leaders, who argued that the new protections would leave professors vulnerable to arbitrary dismissal and would hamstring the system’s faculty-recruitment efforts.
One Wisconsin legislator commented that "It’s a clear example of the complete disconnect between UW Madison faculty who seem to expect their job to come with a forever guarantee and the average Wisconsin family struggling just to make ends meet.” And… “I think it shows that they’re a little out of touch with the average Wisconsin citizen who doesn’t have the job protections they have through tenure.”
Wisconsin Professor Chuck Ryback points out that the important points in those comments are not the attitude of Madison faculty but that average Wisconsin families struggle to make ends meet and don’t have job protections. "If the argument is that UW faculty should have less job protections and salary, then we’re moving the needle the wrong way," he observes. "I mean, what legislator would argue that what the state of Wisconsin needs right now is even more people with limited to no job protections? Who wants a race to the bottom?"
The protections that tenure affords for the increasingly small section of the professoriate that has access to it are not a "forever guarantee," but the right to free speech on the job and entitlement to due process before dismissal, and those should be the right of every worker.
But the business orientation of many boards may support their tendency in the aftermath of a no confidence vote to declare their support for an unpopular president. And if the goal of a no confidence vote is to change the leadership and direction of a college or university, a vote of no confidence may fail even if it succeeds in ousting a president. If it leads to withdrawal of donor funding and loss of students and the tuition that keeps some universities afloat, it may exacerbate financial problems and negatively impact some of the very issues faculty and students are often seeking to address: it may make it even more difficult to hire diverse (or any new) faculty, for instance.
In the lead up to the vote at University of Wisconsin Madison, Dave VanNess in an open letter to his colleagues, observed that
many of us are afraid that expressing ... lack of confidence could bring harm to the university. State legislators have already publicly threatened us with further cuts and reforms after simply announcing the upcoming vote. [And yet.] If nearly all of us conclude that our leadership is failing, but we allow fear of reprisal to suppress our expression of that finding, then haven’t we already lost our academic freedom? If fear of the Board of Regents, the Legislature and the Governor stops us from exercising our responsibility in governance, then I am afraid we really have lost. What’s next? Will we allow fear to change what we teach or research or say in public?
Continuation of a corporate style of governance, in which front-line workers are reduced and ignored while management is given princely rewards, is not a solution. Reflecting on the situation at Ithaca College, Maura Stephens suggests reconfiguring the Board of Trustees, changing it from one in which the majority of current trustees have ties to corporate industry, and are appointed to the board by obscure methods. A board that was predominantly composed of elected figures from educational, religious, social service, and nonprofit backgrounds might have very different ideas about the direction of the university. An administrative pay scale that was linked to the pay of all employees and capped at a reasonable multiple of the lowest paid employees might encourage raising the pay of the lowest paid employees, as well as encouraging the hiring of administrators more interested in serving the public good of education.
Those sorts of changes require a broader vision that is not yet on offer, and ultimately require changes beyond higher education alone.
In a reflection after the Wisconsin Madison vote, another faculty blogger observed
Like many of my colleagues, I have had no confidence in the current regime for over a year . . . But we are used to the slow process of shared governance. So we have been patient, assessing the situation, trying to actively participate in improving it: waiting it out. . . .
The terrible math of austerity is accompanied by a moral language that . . . elevates supposed fiscal values like the much-vaunted “flexibility” over non-market based, educational calculations. . . .
By voting no confidence, faculty lift up an alternative moral language to the one imposed by fiscal austerity....
Over the long course of the past year and a half, we have seen countless examples of democracy in action, in defense of the UW system and of public education in our state.
By voting no confidence, we side with the students, who know that austerity limits their futures.
A vote of no confidence is a vote for a democratic future.... It is at once a small, symbolic act and the beginning of a sea change: a hope for unity and vision against the regime of cynicism and cruelty.