Last week faculty at Mount St. Mary’s University voted overwhelmingly to request that president Simon Newman resign. We’re now past the deadline they set, and I haven’t seen any such announcement. Frankly, I don’t expect one. Not only do 75% of students support his leadership (according to a survey conducted by the student government over the weekend), but more importantly, Newman seems to have the backing of his board of trustees. At the meeting on Friday that saw the faculty vote 87-3 against their president, board member Rev. Kevin Farmer issued a statement: “The board continues to support President Newman. We embrace his vision for the future of the university and believe he is the best person to carry it out. We have every desire to resolve the tension on campus and move forward together.”
However it ends, I fear that trustees at colleges and universities around the country will be tempted to take the wrong lesson away from this situation. Writing on behalf of the Mount St. Mary’s board in January, chairman John Coyne promised to hold “accountable” professors who were “working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman… out of a real resistance to positive change at Mount St. Mary’s.” The theme of change closed the letter:
We are moving a 200 plus-year-old institution into a new era, with a dynamic and bright future. In higher education, change is hard.
As much as what this situation says about the precarious nature of academic freedom, this rhetoric is what worries me.
A board composed primarily of business leaders (Coyne helps lead an investment firm) chose as president a business leader with zero experience in educational administration, hoping to shake things up in a type of institution — we’ve been told many times — badly in need of “disruptive innovation.” So rather than listening to the legitimate concerns being expressed by long-serving professors and administrators, it sounds like Coyne, Farmer, et al. are simply interpreting the criticism as evidence of “resistance to positive change.”
Perversely, the worse such a president behaves, the more confidence he might instill in such a board.
So on the off chance that any trustee from any college or university board is reading this, let me say this:
I’m a history professor who believes that shared governance produces better outcomes than rigid hierarchy, and that the value of a liberal arts model of education (especially when it’s coupled to a religious mission) is both hardest and most essential to articulate in times of urgency and scarcity. But I also serve on the board of a PreK-12 private school and spent the better part of 2013-2014 participating in a strategic planning initiative at Bethel with members of our own board. I have a pretty good feel for the job of a governing board, and I even have sympathy for the idea that educational institutions need to be less conservative in their decision making.
So I think I might have some wisdom to offer to board members, some lessons from the Mount St. Mary’s situation that run counter to the “change is hard” narrative:
• The faculty at your institution are not infallible; they’re as likely as any other flawed human beings to fear change and seek to protect turf. But at any small college or university, they’re also the constituents who have the most to do with shaping the ethos or culture of institutions that run, to a significant degree, on the goodwill of employees whose work is primarily motivated by commitment to the institutional mission.
• Your job is to support the president, but more importantly, to support that mission. A president who regularly questions the relevance of the liberal arts and Catholicism for a Catholic liberal arts university is not likely to be the best guarantor of its future health.
• There can be value in choosing an educational leader from a non-educational background. But if he attempts to implement decisions from the top-down and responds to criticism with angry defensiveness, he’s not much of a leader of any sort. At least, not one who belongs in the economy of the 21st century, which clearly favors leaders who combine self-confidence with self-awareness, entrepreneurial instincts with long-term vision, and, most importantly, a belief that innovation arises from decentralized collaboration.
• There is change, and then there is change for the sake of change. If your institution is in such dire straits that it can only survive by abandoning its mission and values and dismissing or alienating its longest-serving, most devoted servants, then you’ve got a much bigger decision on your hands than whether or not to dismiss the president.