What's a Board to Do?
If Lawrence H. Summers needs a support group, he could easily find other presidents who watched their faculties vote "no confidence" in them -- and survived.
However humiliating and damaging Tuesday's vote may have been to Harvard's president -- and experts agree that it was both of those things -- he may well keep his job for years to come. The Harvard Corporation, the university's board, issued a statement backing Summers. And many think that board backing is the norm after such a vote.
That's not always the case, of course. Baylor University's president, Robert B. Sloan Jr., announced in January that he would step down, amid growing faculty distrust of his plans for the university. Sloan made his announcement after 85 percent of faculty members voted No to this question in a faculty referendum: "Do you want Robert B. Sloan to remain as President of Baylor University?"
But plenty of other presidents don't lose sleep or jobs over such votes. In February, faculty members at Washington's Shoreline Community College voted no confidence in President Holly Moore. The board announced that it was backing Moore, and she appealed to professors to work with her. Omero Suarez, president at California's Grossmont College, lost a similar vote this month -- and he has board backing to stay on. (California community colleges have numerous such votes -- a study by the Community College League of California found 35 of them from 1994 to 2003.)
At the Community College of Rhode Island, Thomas Sepe is still serving as president -- despite losing a vote last month. But the higher education commissioner is bringing in a consultant to examine the conflict on campus.
These various conflicts raise the question of what a board should do when a faculty votes no confidence.
Raymond D. Cotton, a consultant who advises college boards on their contracts with presidents, said that trustees need to start by thinking of their own goals for the president, who may well be unpopular because of his or her agenda. If a president was hired with the idea of "shaking the place up," Cotton said, "the board should expect some stormy weather, including no confidence votes from those whose oxen are being gored."
In such cases, he said, "the board owes it to the person they brought in as a change agent to publicly support him when the 'sticks in the mud' resist change."
While trustees have "an overriding responsibility" to "monitor what's going on at their campus," Cotton said, "they must not panic" and need to "take the long view of things" in which a president who is unpopular today may be considered a success in a few years.
Ray Taylor, president of the Association of Community College Trustees, agreed that it was important to take the long view. He said that board members should explore the source of faculty anger after any such vote.
But he stressed that faculty members were but one constituency for his trustees -- and that for community college trustees, they are not the most important one.
"When we are talking about a community college board member, we're talking about somebody whose ultimate responsibility is to the citizens of the community, and not to the faculty or the students," Taylor said. "If you were going to weight the issues and interests, it wouldn't be the president vs. the faculty. It would be the community."
Others argue that trustees must repond to a vote of no confidence by immediately reaching out to the faculty.
Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said he understood why the Harvard Corporation issued support for Summers right after the vote. "If they had waited even a day or two, it would have caused enormous speculation," he said.
But once a board has made sure that there is some stability on a campus, it needs to focus on the faculty. "A board would be derelict not to talk with faculty members about the reasons for the vote," he said.
While faculty members respect the right of boards to hire and fire presidents, Bowen said, "that doesn't diminish the faculty's right and obligation to periodically assess the president's performance."
Robert Birnbaum, a professor emeritus of education policy at the University of Maryland at College Park, said that trustees shouldn't lose sight of the power of a no confidence vote, even if a board keeps a president on.
Birnbaum, author of How Academic Leadership Works: Understanding Success and Failure in the College Presidency, said that too many trustees don't take these votes seriously enough. "The initial reaction of the board is to tough it out, to think, 'We spent a lot of time recruiting this person, we think he's done a good job and he's ruffled some feathers, and maybe they needed to be ruffled, that maybe it's about time a president stood up to the faculty.' "
In reality, Birnbaum said, "once you have lost the confidence of the faculty, you have to either restore the confidence -- or leave."
That's because presidents need the power of being taken seriously by professors if presidents are to accomplish important goals, he said. Successful presidents, he said, "have enough credit in reserve" with professors that when a president stumbles, or pushes an issue that isn't high on professors' priority list, they will still give him appropriate respect.
"You need faculty support to get things done in a way that sticks," Birnbaum said. The real damager to Summers and other presidents who lose votes, he said, "is that they are saying, 'we are not going to pay too much attention to what the president wants us to do."