The Gustavian Weekly

Bringing the Campus Vision into Focus | The Gustavian Weekly

By Danielle Harms Features Editor | April 24, 2009 | Features

The realm of campus politics is abuzz with activity after last month’s faculty meeting, which catalyzed a campus wide conversation about principles of shared governance, transparency and President Jack Ohle’s leadership style. “I’m very impressed with how thoughtful everyone seems to be on the topic,” Academic Dean Mariangela Maguire said. Thoughtful reflection has also accompanied action.

The first call for action came at the Wednesday, March 18 faculty meeting, at which two motions passed with tremendous support. The faculty first endorsed a resolution forwarded by the Faculty Senate that rejected Provost Mary Morton’s resignation, called for an investigation into its circumstances and expressed its support for the provost description as originally construed. The second resolution called for an immediate performance review of President Jack Ohle, who was announced as the new president at the spring Board meeting last year.

Since that meeting, the Student Senate adopted similar resolutions in addition to another requesting that independent parties conduct the presidential review and allow all campus constituencies to offer their input in a confidential venue.

In response to the faculty resolution, the Board of Trustees released a letter unanimously approved during a special meeting held on April 8 over the telephone. The letter rejected a call to investigate Morton’s resignation, stating that it would “neither be productive nor in the best interests of the College.” The Board also declined the Faculty Senate’s request for an immediate presidential performance review and chose to “follow its established review process … [as] an additional evaluation would not be beneficial.” The Board customarily conducts an annual review of the president.

While the Board’s letter made no reference to the resolutions passed by Student Senate, it did concede that the response might not be received well by some faculty members. “We understand that some among the faculty may wish the Board in some way had responded differently,” the letter said.

Professor of History Sujay Rao is one dissatisfied faculty member. “It was disappointing [because] concerns we raised [about] losing or weakening one of the principle strengths of the college will not be looked at more closely,” Rao said. “I was under no illusions that we would dictate [the Board’s decision], but I did hope the Board would decide … [to] honor the concerns of the faculty and the students.”

Rao is not alone in this opinion. Professor of Political Science Alisa Rosenthal said, “It didn’t convey to me that the Board understood the depth of the concern that was shared by the overwhelming majority of the faculty. I have no questions whatsoever about the Board’s commitment to the best interests of the institution, but an overwhelming majority of the faculty said pretty eloquently that there were some serious questions, and the president welcomed an immediate performance review. To have the Board respond to the faculty and president like that was disappointing.”

While addressing Student Senate, Ohle stated that he would have moved forward with the review had he made the decision.

Shared governance

What drew from the deep concern from faculty referred to by Rosenthal? Many faculty members, Professor of Physics Paul Saulnier included, agree that the college’s commitment to shared governance lies at the heart of the matter. “[It] is an integral part of who we are as a community,” Saulnier said. If anyone should find themselves unclear about the meaning of shared governance, they are not alone; many feel confused as the phrase increasingly appears in community conversations. “It’s a [phrase] a lot of people use and they don’t all use it in the same way,” Academic Dean Eric Eliason said. “Shared governance is … a term that can be used to talk about the organization of decision-making within an enterprise [like a college].”
“The shared governance regime is a little bit different at each institution,” Board of Trustees Chairman Jim Gale said. “There are probably no two places where it’s precisely the same.” “In a nutshell, the idea is that while individual portions of a college or university may be hierarchically organized, the overall governance structure is not hierarchical, but rather is a confederation between interdependent bodies,” Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Max Hailperin said.

On a daily basis, Saulnier says this simply means that in the “operations of governing the institution, the administration and faculty work together. Rao points out that this requires conscious effort and does not simply occur naaturally. “Careful thought needs to be taken to get these groups to collaborate,” Rao said. Saulnier believes that the focus should not stop at shared governance but also include shared vision. “[It’s] not only shared governance, it’s beyond that,” Saulnier said. “It’s that we’re all in this together, we’re all working towards a shared vision.” Rao takes pride in what he sees as the school’s exemplary adherence in practice to the principles of shared governance.

What does the provost have to do with it anyway?

If adherence shared governance is a tradition with such deep roots in the campus, what is the source of the controversy? Debate first began following Provost Mary Morton’s resignation. “I think it’s clear the reason Provost Morton resigned is because the responsibilities that make [it] a provost position have been shifted [to the president’s office] and what’s left is in many ways no longer a provost position but a dean’s position,” Saulnier said. The shift to a provost structure was the result of the academic administration’s restructuring following recommendations made by a subcommittee of the Faculty Senate and agreed to by the Board of Trustees. In the past the Academic Affairs Office was led by the Dean of Faculty, who was supported by one Associate Dean, an Assistant to the Dean and administrative staff.

While this met the needs of the college at one point, Maguire explained that the college outgrew the old model. “There was a concern that [with] the volume of work that was generated through this office. … The dean, who was also the chief academic officer, didn’t have the time to work … on the big-picture, long-term plan,” Maguire said. Supported by two academic deans with expanded authority to address the daily needs of faculty, the provost could “work at that higher collaborative partnership level.”

A document explaining the college’s administrative structure entitled “Transitions” describes that the provost should “ensure that the academic vision of the college leads the overall strategic work and decision-making.” Since so much of the president’s fundraising responsibilities take he or she away from campus, the provost was also meant to serve as a “second in command–as the person who oversees the work of the college when the president is not on campus,” the report said. “The core of what we do here is academics, so that should be part of the conversation whether you’re talking about facilities or advancement work,” Maguire said.

Under Ohle’s leadership the position of the provost has undergone what he called “a re-orienting of responsibilities” and no longer includes strategic planning responsibilities. “That strategic plan that she was so instrumental in has become the foundation for the board’s work now in Gustavus [Commission] 150,” Ohle said. For Hailperin, the nature in which the position was altered is worrisome. “The position description for the provost was created through a consultative process engaging all bodies within the college.  If it is to be changed, it ought to be through a similar process,” Hailperin said, “But instead, it was changed not only without consultation, but moreover without even so much as notice. ”

Ohle said discussions, even heated ones, are to be expected. “This is normal at an academic institution,” Ohle said. Controversy over decision-making is, “the symptom of [being in a] living, growing, evolving organization,” Eliason said. However, Saulnier pointed out how rare an occasion it is for faculty to stand together behind such a unified statement. “For something of substance to pass the faculty at that level is unprecedented,” Saulnier said, “If we had a motion to support motherhood and apple pie we would have faculty object saying, ‘I actually like cherry pie better.’ Someone else would say, ‘I prefer my dad to my mom.’ You wouldn’t get that level of support.”

Rao believes the frustration some community members feel comes from a lack of transparency in decision-making resulting in unanswered questions. “What I … don’t think has been articulated is why [the change to the provost’s position] was made, other than the fact that the president has some experience in this regard and wants it to be in his portfolio of responsibilities.”

However, Rosenthal points out that the issue now goes beyond the provost’s office. “I don’t know that it was ever just the provost,” Rosenthal said. “Anytime there is an administrative change there are going to be adjustments, I think that’s expected. What people are responding to now are… a set of moments that suggest that the kind of mutuality, respect and trust that have characterized recent relations between the faculty and the administration don’t seem to be as present,” Rosenthal said. Saulnier also worries that this change may be just one manifestation of a trend away from transparency and communal decision-making that began with Ohle’s arrival at Gustavus. “If [our commitment to shared vision] goes away, … the college will still be here, classes will still be taught, but I think the community will be poorer for it. I think the students will be poorer for it.”

“I want to see a return to consultation of the kind that has not been clearly implemented in the last couple of months,” Rosenthal said. “What the faculty is asking for is a return to those principles and we’re frustrated by what seems like a refusal to do that.”Rao shares similar concerns. He has enjoyed working collaborataively with community members from all levels on projects in the past. “For a really long time that work was really exciting and successful,” Rao said. “When I went to things like the [Association of American Colleges and Universities], I saw that other places are trying to get where we are. Whenever we talk about the strengths of Gustavus we talk about the fact that there was this trust, that we work together and respect each other so much.”

He worries that the forward momentum he felt while working on collaborative projects could be compromised in the future by a movement away from that kind of decision-making. “There is a sense that something dramatic has changed and my own feeling is that one of our principle strengths, our ability to work as a team to put in this extra effort, … [something] other institutions are aiming to do, is in danger.”Eliason has heard similar sentiments expressing a concern that there has been a shift in the way decisions are made away from the tradition of shared governance. “I certainly hear people raising those concerns,” he said. “I would ask … what you mean by shared governance. Are you really simply saying that you think that you should have had a vote?” Eliason said.

Student Reaction

The student reaction to these events has been varied. Some students, like Senior International Management and Political Science Major Chris Edelbrock, have serious concerns about the leadership direction Ohle has taken. “I think there was a good deal of progress [has been] made,” Edelbrock said, “However, there is a lot more that needs to be done to ensure transparency in the president’s office.” Edelbrock in involved with a group of concerned students on campus that met with Ohle, proposed the Student Senate resolutions and recently distributed a petition affirming the student body’s commitment to principles of shared governance.

Senior Psychology Major Kaleb Rumicho supported the  statements in the petition but feels he is uninformed about the details of the issue. “I don’t know where to stand. I don’t have enough information on this topic to make any judgments,” he said.  Other students share Edelbrock’s concern but to a lesser degree. “There’s a few things that I am concerned about,” First-year Stephanie Eberhart said, “like the college that he used to be at, I heard some crazy rumors about getting a new water park rather than a new social science center and that concerns me.”

Junior Biology Major Sarah Ellefson knows little about the recent occurences. “I haven’t heard anything,” she said. First-year student Alicia Edstrom is in the same boat. “I really haven’t heard that much about it,” she said.

Senior Political Science Kelly Hobson questions the student reaction. “I think it’s interesting that the Student Senate sent out a letter that was almost identical to [Faculty Senate’s],” she said, “so to me it seems like it is the faculty’s opinion and not the student’s.”

“I disagree,” Rumicho said. “I think that a lot of older students especially feel very passionately about this.” Rosenthal takes exception to the claim that students are blindly following the faculty in their reaction. “Frankly, I think it deeply disrespectful to suggest that the concern of students is the product of faculty manipulation,” Rosenthal said, “If they are expressing concern I think that’s because they see things to be concerned about, but I find it profoundly disrespectful to insult students and their capacity to think independently.”

As to whether students should actively engage in this debate, Eliason said, “To the extent that it is seen as a campus soap opera is a distraction to students. As a change to ask some fundamental questions … it is worthwhile.”

“There is a fundamental reason why students ought to care how well the various bodies constituting the college are getting along,” Hailperin said. “Students will be the ones who benefit or suffer depending on the quality of decisions that are made. Not all of the decisions that need to be made on this campus are easy ones where the right answer is clear. Because we make our best decisions when we think together, you should want us to jointly engage in deliberative discourse. Friction isn’t good. But silence is worse.”

Moving Forward

Despite the difficult nature of discussing these topics, Maguire is encouraged that the campus is simply having such challenging conversations. Many faculty members are hopeful that this issue will reach resolution but believe the process could be more effective. “Who knows, maybe this is all just miscommunication, misunderstandings, and a review would show that. Or if there is something more substantive a review would show that and perhaps … President Ohle … could then respond to it if he knew what the community was feeling clearly. It would help him. I think this is in his best interest,” Saulnier said.

“Though I am not happy with the … way that some of these discussions are taking place, I am willing to respect that and willing to see if it produces a resolution,” Rao said. “If the president can convince the faculty that there are no concerns, or that the concerns are being addressed, that would be a happy result in my book.” “I think it’s about citizenship. We’re citizens in a community and should care how that community functions,” Maguire said. Gale also believes that the work of a college campus never ends. “I think that there is always work to be done. The President has stated his intention that he will look for ways to be in effective dialogue with others on campus, including, in particular the faculty leadership on campus,” the Board letter said.

All members of the campus will have an opportunity to engage these topics in an academic manner this Friday from noon to two in the Johns Family Courtyard during a teach-in on community hosted by students. As the year comes to a close, Rao simply urges the campus to remain strong in its dedication to shared governance and transparency. “Shared governance is not perfect, it is painful sometimes, but it is something worth working for.”