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Revolt at Case Western

Revolt at Case Western
March 2, 2006

If the Harvard University faculty can rise up, why not other faculties?

That was the idea that inspired a professor at Case Western Reserve University to send out an e-mail to his colleagues the day after Lawrence H. Summers announced that he would quit the presidency at Harvard. "Yesterday we learned from Harvard ... that faculty can ultimately take appropriate responsibility for responding to severe problems in university governance," wrote Lawrence Krauss, in calling for a vote of no confidence in Case's president, Edward M. Hundert.

Krauss was required to obtain backing from about 25 professors (10 percent of the total arts and sciences faculty) to schedule a vote. It took him only 12 hours to get 46 professors publicly on board, and the vote will take place today. The issues at Case are prompted by financial problems, including tens of millions of dollars in deficits and sharp drops in fund raising. As at Harvard, however, management style is also an issue, with professors complaining that Hundert is imposing his agenda upon them and operates in an environment of excessive secrecy. Many professors have complained in the past week that debate about Case's sagging finances has been squelched by frequent demands that they take vows of silence in return for getting access to budget documents they need to see to understand what's happening.

Krauss is a scholar respected by professors for his work in theoretical physics and by many members of the public for his books on the physics issues raised by Star Trek. Since he went public with his criticism, scathing e-mail messages about Hundert -- some signed by long-time faculty leaders -- have been circulating widely among the Case faculty members.

"A record of incompetence," "systematic control of information designed to marginalize all who might question the administration's actions," and  "financial disaster" are the kinds of phrases appearing in these e-mail messages. Hundert declined to comment, but he sent an e-mail message of his own to faculty members this week acknowledging some of the financial difficulties, taking responsibility for some decisions, and pledging to work closely with professors. He has also been having meetings with professors.

Case -- a member of the elite Association of American Universities -- is by many measures a highly successful institution, with plenty of faculty stars, a campus adjacent to celebrated arts institutions, and a bright student body. What it doesn't have of late is a history of successful presidents.

David Auston quit as president in 2001, not having lasted two years in office, amid reports of tensions with the board over an attempt to redefine the university's relationship with its teaching hospital. Hundert became president in 2002, having previously served as dean of the medical school at the University of Rochester.

Upon taking office, he has pushed hard to attract more top students (spending too much to do so, according to faculty critics) and emphasized a commitment to undergraduate education through a program called the Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship, or SAGES. The program replaces many general education lecture courses that students would normally take as freshmen or sophomores with interdisciplinary seminars, all led by faculty members. Professors have mixed views on the ideas behind SAGES, but many who like the concept say that the president didn't adequately involve them before he turned a pilot project into a full-scale, expensive commitment.

The bottom line, according to professors, is that the president's plans weren't designed or executed well and are leaving the university drowning in red ink. In his e-mail to faculty members this week, Hundert acknowledged a need to cut $17 million to balance this year's budget, as well as a $40 million "recurring deficit" at the university.

A detailed memo this week from three faculty leaders -- all of whom have held senior positions in faculty governance -- outlined the critics' perspective on management. The memo said that the president's plan "for repositioning the university has failed." It noted back-to-back declines of 12 percent in unrestricted giving by donors, a series of promised improvements in financial conditions that have not taken place, and the use of a $100 million line of credit, which has apparently been drawn down without being able to stop the deficits. The fund raising losses are particularly disappointing, this faculty memo said, because Hundert has invested considerably in the development office.

Adding to faculty frustration, the memo said, is an environment of "pervasive secrecy." Faculty committees that have been briefed on the university's finances in recent years have repeatedly warned administrators of budget shortfalls looming, but administrators have focused more on getting professors to promise to keep their comments confidential than on paying attention, the memo said. "Financial disasters rarely strike without warning," the memo said.

There has been little visible pro-Hundert activity on campus, although the student government passed a resolution calling for a delay in the faculty vote so that more information could be made public.

Frank Linsalata, chair of the Board of Trustees, sent a mass e-mail to the campus on Monday in which he said that board members "remain supportive of the direction the university is taking." But the e-mail message also said that trustees are "certainly aware of the concerns that have recently been expressed on the campus."

Krauss, the professor who organized today's vote, said he has received numerous supportive calls and e-mail messages from fellow professors. He said that he realizes that any outcome here will be "painful" for many at the university, but that it was time to be open about the problems.

He declined to predict the outcome of today's faculty vote, saying "one never knows what will happen with a meeting of the faculty."

Just ask Larry Summers.

 

 

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