Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Loyalty, Obedience, and Cults of Personality in University Administration: Should a Tenured Faculty Member be Terminated Because She is Not Loyal to the Person of the President Even if She Serves the Institution?

It is a commonplace that most enterprises--economic, religious, social or educational--demand a certain basic level of loyalty from their employees.  This "loyalty" is of a substantially different kind than that demanded of directors--who owe a duty to act only in the best interests of the enterprise in their decision making.  As the great scholar of American corporations, Philip Blumberg, noted as long ago as1971, the American corporation has come to be understood as much as a social institution as economic one (e.g. here).  In a similar respect, the American university has also come to be understood as a social institution (with obligations to society and especially its wage labor markets) as an institution with the objective of creating and disseminating knowledge.  

Within that context duties of loyalty and obedience have featured more prominently in the discourse and expectations of institutions, especially of their employees.   But as recent events suggest, this move  has revealed an important issue that must be addressed--and addressed in accordance with American values.  That issue touches on the objects of loyalty and obedience: is an employee expected to serve the institution or is she expected to serve the whim of individuals who happen to serve an office within that institution?

This post considers the issue of employee loyalty, and the erroneous effort by university senior administrators to conflate loyalty to their persons with loyalty to the institution.  It suggests that such a conflation is both erroneous (and a breach of basic academic freedom rules when the issue of loyalty is not accompanied by disobedience) and opens a university board of trustees to charges of breaches of its own fiduciary duty. 

It was only recently that the notion of cults of personality--the idea that an individual ought to be merged with the office she serves and to be treated as if she were the incarnation of the very office for which she was hired to serve the institution--have come to be understood as fundamentally at odds with the fiduciary obligation of directors to act solely in the best interests of the institution. Cults of personality, the merger of senior administrators with their office, constitutes an act of fundamental disloyalty to the institution which the administrator, like the board member, is obligated to serve.  It privileges the personal desires, interests, views and peculiarities of an individual, for the needs and objectives of the institution.  It constitutes an abdication of the oversight roles of a board.  In the United States, one used to think that we had come a long way form the time when a man could say, with utter conviction l'etat, c'est mois--that "I am the institution." Applied to the relationships between the institution and its employees, such cults of personality also substantially interfere with the ability of employees to serve the institution, hijacked by the re-institution of a medieval political theology that was swept aside int his country after the1780s (e.g. here). 

The issue has come to a head in the recent terminations of tenured faculty at a small private religious institution in Maryland. (See here, here and here). Here for discussion about how the story first broke.  Links to story about how the university responded by blaming faculty critics.  Links to story about how the president fired the provost and then fired two professors (all links from here).

Here is the story as related by Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Education:

Provost Loses Job After Opposing 'Bunny-Drowning' Plan

Highest official at Mount St. Mary's of Maryland who opposed president's plan to cull students loses his job. Appointee as interim provost received no-confidence vote at another institution.

February 8, 2016
Scott Jaschik

Many in academe were shocked last month when it was revealed that the new president of Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland had told faculty members they needed to view struggling students as bunnies to be drowned. The exact quote: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

The president, Simon Newman, originally wouldn't confirm the quote. But the board has now said the president used an "inappropriate metaphor." The board, however, also has defended Newman's plan, which involves identifying new students who might not succeed and encouraging them to leave the university in the first few weeks of their initial semester.

Many have wondered if Newman's presidency could survive the controversy. Now it appears the person losing his job is the provost, David Rehm, who leaked emails reveal is the senior official at the university who told Newman to hold off on his approach to retention, and that the system might not be fair to students. The system relied on giving freshmen a survey, telling them there were no wrong answers and then using the results to help identify those who might not succeed.

On Friday, Newman sent an email to faculty members -- obtained by Inside Higher Ed -- telling them he had asked for and received Rehm's resignation, effective immediately.

"When a new president is elected in any higher education institution, it is a common practice for him or her to change some of the senior leadership team. It’s all a part of moving forward, bringing in new ideas and continuously improving. I have effected such a change today by requesting and accepting the resignation of Mount St. Mary’s University Provost David Rehm."

As faculty members have noted, while it is indeed common for new presidents to change provosts, this is not typically done in a single day, particularly in replacing a provost who is well respected by faculty members.

Several professors, seeking anonymity as they fear for their jobs, said they viewed the sudden change as a sign not to oppose the president's plan. Adding to the concern, one faculty member said, at a faculty meeting on Wednesday, the provost indicated he planned to volunteer to the president to take over management of the retention program so that it could avoid the problems many see with the effort. The provost told professors he would discuss this idea with the president on Friday, the day it turned out he was fired from his position. (He retains a faculty position.)

* * *

Adding to the concern about the provost's ouster is the person whom President Newman named as interim provost.

His email announced the choice: "We are fortunate to have secured the services of Jennie Hunter-Cevera as our interim provost, effective immediately. Jennie is the former president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and most recently served as the state of Maryland’s acting secretary of higher education and member of Governor Hogan’s cabinet. In addition to her strong credentials as a higher education administrator, she also has deep academic, research and private sector experience as an applied microbiologist. I look forward to her ideas and contributions as a senior member of the administration, and her advice, taking into account the input of the faculty, on the choice of our next provost."

Newman's email did not note that legislators in Maryland blocked Hunter-Cevera's nomination to lead the higher education commission in the state by first delaying votes on her nomination and then refusing to schedule a vote. (Democrats control the General Assembly in Maryland, while the governor is a Republican.)

Professors fear Newman is shifting the university away from its traditional strength as a rigorous liberal arts institution, devoted to a traditional curriculum. Rehm is a philosophy professor. The institute Hunter-Cevera led at Maryland was designed to promote biotechnology research and had close ties to industry.

Further, legislators blocked her nomination after receiving word from faculty members about a 2009 vote of no confidence in her by the faculty of the institute. Professors said she made decisions without consulting them and that efforts were hurt by high turnover among administrators, The Washington Post reported. Hunter-Cevera at the time blamed "disgruntled" employees who disagreed with her decisions.

Faculty members at Mount St. Mary's said they didn't know the details of what happened at the biotechnology center. But they said they wondered why a president would bring in an interim provost -- at a time when many faculty members are frustrated by a lack of say in the direction of the institution -- who was in the past criticized for not giving faculty members an appropriate role at that institution.

"This is the person you are bringing in? Someone who had problems with shared governance?" said one faculty member.

In that instance the terminations were justified on the grounds that the employees were disloyal to the president.  That must be understood as terribly wrong.  To the extent that an employee owes a duty, it must be to the institution and not to the individual.  And that utmost duty may sometimes require the employee to be critical of the 9ndividual holding high office, especially where the high office holder is himself engaging in action that may themselves be deemed disloyal to the institution.  Thus while an institution ought to expect obedience to rules and policies; it cannot expect to protect administrators form criticism (even as the rules and policies are obeyed) without undermining the even more important duty of loyalty that an employee owes the institution.   An institution that cultivates cults of personality among its senior administrators may itself expose its board of trustees to liability for breaches of director duty of loyalty to the institution.

And , indeed, the situation at Mount St Mary's appears to be a classic example of an individual whose own sense of himself created a presumption that loyalty to the institution must necessarily mean loyalty to himself. Here the President lashed out because he was embarrassed by his own words, and because his subordinates had the temerity to criticize a policy he put forward.  There is no indication that anyone refused to obey the rules or that the policy was being disregarded--the policy was merely being questioned, and on grounds that it was detrimental to the long term benefit of the institution.   Again, from Scott Joschik ('We Are All Bunnies', Inside Higher Education, Nov. 10, 2016):
As they read about how the president there had fired two faculty members, outrage spread. One professor, who had tenure, was fired for insufficient loyalty, according to the letter he was given, signed by President Simon Newman. The other faculty member was the adviser to the student newspaper that revealed the Newman had told faculty members unhappy with his retention plans, "This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads."
* * *
Many faculty members have criticized the president's plans, saying it is unethical for a college to admit students and not do everything possible to encourage success. These faculty members have said it would be completely legitimate for the university to raise its admissions standards, but that the obligation to all new students is to assume they will succeed with the right support. 
 The University, in its defense, agreed that termination for criticizing policy would have violated both the substance of academic freedom, but insisted that other unidentified violations of university policy were the catalyst for the terminations.  Few, if any outsiders were prepared to consider this position by the university with any degree of seriousness.

The actions have generated substantial interest from faculty at other institutions as well as from civil society actors concerned about issues of speech on campus and academic freedom.  A faculty group circulated a petition demanding the reinstatement of the fired faculty members to which several thousand signatures were added in a short time (petition here).  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a statement condemning the actions.  The Elizabethtown College Faculty Assembly denounced the decision and urged action to help the terminated faculty. 

But while there is some attention being paid to the President with ambitions to become the incarnation of the university as a whole, not enough attention is being drawn to the members of the university board whose own neglect of duty has produced a situation in which the university president could amass this sort of unchecked and unaccountable power. One can hope that they do not remain passive for much longer, if only to avoid the embarrassment of questions about their own loyalty--to president or to university. And, indeed, the fact that, without substantial investigation, board members might express approval of the president and his actions suggest ought to cause one to worry about the accountability structures of the university.  If Mt St. Mary's has become the personal fiefdom of its president, if its president now can equate personal loyalty with institutional loyalty, then shared governance becomes an illusion and protection of the best interests of the institution may well be weakened as obedience and loyalty to the President is substituted for loyalty to the institution itself.

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