Professors in arts and sciences at Case Western Reserve University voted "no confidence" in President Edward M. Hundert Thursday by a wide margin -- 131 to 44. Faculty members also voted that they lacked confidence in Provost John L. Anderson, but by a smaller margin, 97-68.
Within hours of the vote, Hundert was working the phones, vowing to learn from the experience and also to carry out his agenda. But while the discussions at Case Western have been quite civilized, the magnitude of the margin against Hundert surprised even some of his critics, raising questions about whether he could effectively manage the university.
"This was an overwhelming recognition by the faculty that there are very serious problems to be addressed," said Lawrence Krauss, a physics professor who organized the vote -- starting just last week, after faculty opposition led to the resignation of Lawrence H. Summers at Harvard University. While the vote vindicated Krauss and others who have said that opposition to Hundert was widespread, Krauss said the vote was "not a cause for celebration," but was "a tragic and difficult event."
For his part, Hundert said in an interview after the vote that he took the faculty concerns "very seriously" but believed he could work with professors to solve the university's problems. Asked what he has learned from the vote, Hundert said, "the main lesson learned for me is that I would have spent more time sitting with the people saying the things that are hard to hear."
Faculty members -- who have been quietly critical of Hundert from shortly after he arrived in 2002 -- have been galvanized this year by reports of serious financial problems facing the university. While Hundert has increased spending on development, the university has seen declines in giving, unexpectedly large deficits, and reports of a $40 million "recurring deficit." Many professors also said that these worsening problems were identified by faculty panels, but that administrators required them to keep the information quiet and ignored the professors' warnings.
Hundert said that he did not think of himself as a secretive person, but vowed to release much more information. He said that he is already posting more information about Case's budget situation on the university's intranet. Fundamentally, he said that the financial problems were caused by the university adopting a "bold plan" for improvement in 2003, knowing that it would create some deficits, and then seeing those deficits exceed expectations. While the original plan assumed that deficits would continue through 2008, Hundert said that the board has now agreed to end the deficits by 2007.
"It's going to be a big challenge for the campus, to close the gap a year earlier, but it's the right thing to do," he said.
Votes of no confidence are not binding on boards and Hundert said that he continued to have the support of his board, which issued a statement backing him earlier in the week. "I am completely committed to leading the university through this to come out even stronger," he said, adding that he also would lead with "more humility."
Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that in the wake of a vote of no confidence as lopsided as the one at Case, the university's board should be meeting with faculty leaders immediately -- without the president -- to find out if "the presidency is salvageable." Hundert said that he knew of no plans for such a meeting.
Bowen stressed that a vote of no confidence in a president can be "a warning" to a board that could prevent far worse problems -- if trustees pay attention. He also said that the complaints of Case professors about secrecy were important for the trustees to hear.
"Confidentiality is important on certain sensitive matters," he said. "But there also has to be an understanding that for the good of the institution, transparency is a value that everyone supports, and at some point, deliberations are over and we can share information. By definition, if you don't share information, people are left in the dark and when they are left in the dark, they assume the worst."
Trustees and presidents also need to understand that professors don't vote no confidence to hurt institutions, but generally because they feel that problems are so severe that attention is needed. "Every faculty has a vested interest in seeing the president succeed. If the president succeeds, the institution succeeds," Bowen said.
Krauss, who organized the opposition, said he believed that "a change is called for" in Case's leadership, but said he would work loyally with whoever is in charge. "I will send a message to the president that I will work with whoever is leading this institution," he said.