Sunday, February 20, 2011

Tyranny at Idaho State University?!

How much power should a president have?

If a president thinks there need to be reforms, but the faculty stand in his way, who is in the right? What should happen?

If you hadn't guessed, I'm not talking about national office here. I'm talking about the peculiar politics of American universities. In particular, a university in my home state of Idaho, ISU.

Idaho State University is a pretty big (15,500 students) public university centered in Pocatello, ID. And from that strange corner of the state, a far-reaching controversy brews:

The president, Mr. Arthur Valias, seems to be less than popular. I base this on the various articles that I've read about the controversy (this one is the best) as well as the stated opinion of the handful of people I know that attend the university.

This is also based on a recent no-confidence resolution passed by some 75% of the voting faculty in the ISU Faculty Senate (as well as a 55% vote of no confidence among all faculty at the university).

That is a big deal. Politics or no, you don't see 75% of a 30 member faculty senate representing all campuses, departments and levels vote no confidence because they're the problem. At that point, I think you begin to suspect the person in whom no one has confidence as being the problem.

Not the Idaho State Board of Education! At a meeting where the problems between the senate and the president were discussed (these are issues the faculty has with sweeping governance reform that the president is trying to enact), they discovered that an impasse existed between the faculty and the president, and that neither side was going to budge enough for compromise to be possible.

So it decided to suspend the Faculty Senate. And by "decided," I mean that Valias told them they should suspend the Senate because the faculty were being obstructive in matters beyond their purview.

The Chronicle of Higher Education (linked above) notes that this is an apparently unprecedented move in national higher education.

The next step? Valias apparently now gets to convene a new advisory committee of his own, consisting of faculty that were not in the senate. According to the SBOE, it remains to be "worked out whether, and to what degree" current members of the Faculty Senate will be allowed to participate in the new Senate, which will be designed by Valias and proposed to the SBOE in April (or eventually; they don't seem too concerned). To be fair, there are many other standing committees of faculty that will continue to function in the capacities they always have, so the faculty will continue to have a voice, supposedly.

This may seem all very one-sided to you, because it is. I've had a spectacularly hard time finding anything that paints Valias in anything close to a positive light. And it's no wonder, because all of his comments seem to indicate that he thinks the faculty should have a purely advisory role, and should have no actual power in determining anything about the school at all, even when the topic of discussion is organization of faculty governance roles (which is a part of Valias' reorganization plan).

I've read blog posts that compare Valias to Charles I, which may be extreme, but doesn't seem totally inappropriate. How on earth can this administration continue to function? Whether or not the reform passes or is abandoned, how will Valias continue to administrate a school where the majority of the faculty think he is terrible? How can he ask faculty to just forget the insult of having their democratic body summarily dismissed?

Really, I think the only good ending for this whole debacle is an ending where Valias isn't president anymore. Regardless of whether the reform is just or unjust, you simply cannot do that to your faculty and expect things to go well from there.

This would be like if an ED of a non-profit had a staff advisory committee that disagreed with a new, sweeping re-org, and in response the ED convinced the Board to not allow that staff board to convene again, and authorize a new board designed by the ED. In fact, that is what is happening now, because state schools are tax-exempt entities. Does this seem like a good way to run things to anyone, at all?

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