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Power Play

March 10, 2006
Outwardly, Clifford Brunk, elected chair of the University of California Academic Senate and a biology professor at the university's Los Angeles campus, seems to do his job of representing faculty members'  concerns to the university's regents, the California system’s Office of the President, and the public. Internally, though, some senators take issue with his leadership and appear ready to impeach him on Monday -- though no existing bylaw permits them to do so.

For academic senators to successfully impeach Brunk, they would first have to approve new rules that would allow for his removal, and ultimately a majority would have to vote to oust him.

John A. Douglass, a senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at California's Berkeley campus and former chief policy analyst for the Academic Senate, said that the circumstances are highly unusual.  “As far as I know, this is the first time that the senate faculty has tried to remove a council chair from office,” he said. “It’s pretty weird that the senate is going forward with all of this in one session. Some people might not have a good understanding of the issues they are voting on -- and their ramifications.”

Those leading the impeachment effort have lost faith in Brunk’s leadership because, they say, he has not accurately represented their views on hot-button issues like executive compensation and he has blocked items from being placed on the senate’s agenda. In addition, interactions with a senate employee that prompted “personnel action” has led the university's interim provost, Rory Hume, to order Brunk to stop communicating directly with Academic Senate staffers, unless he’s in the presence of others. According to his detractors, this development has also prevented him from being able to lead effectively.

In recent months, issues surrounding executive compensation -- and Brunk’s public response to them -- have weighed most heavily on many academic senators’ minds. In February, California's Senate held hearings on salaries and bonuses provided to U.C. faculty members and administrators.  Brunk testified during the hearings and argued that a substantial share of pricey bonuses to top officials were made in accordance with regent guidelines and academic senate policy. He said, too, that faculty members wanted to work toward correcting any irregularities.

Brunk said this week that it was difficult to make this nuanced argument because many faculty members feel undercompensated as it is, and do not want to lose any of their autonomy. “How the hell do you represent a bunch of faculty that are really ticked off?” he asked.

“The concern, even ‘outrage,’ on the part of the faculty about indefensible specific [instances] of inappropriate compensation provided by the UC administration is clear,” Brunk wrote in a letter to the Academic Senate last week, defending his position. “However, there was also a deep concern that while expressing this ‘outrage,’ that I in no way provide testimony that would lead to permanent damage to the University of California. As upset as the faculty are, they are not ready for the legislature to intrude more directly into the operation of the University. Attempting to craft testimony and comments to the press and legislative assistances that capture these two strongly held opinions is challenging.”

Earlier this week, Alice Agogino, an academic senator and professor of mechanical engineering at Berkeley, sent an e-mail to the senate indicating that the senate’s administrative board had voted to initiate action to remove Brunk. In her letter, she criticized a March 4 San Francisco Chronicle article that she said had incorrectly blamed the move against Brunk on his statements about executive salaries.

“I would like to emphasize that I very much respect anyone’s right to free speech and would not vote to remove a standing chair for this reason,” wrote Agogino in her e-mail, “although I do believe that it is important for senate leadership to be sure to make it clear when they are expressing their own opinion versus that of the faculty constituency they represent.”

Agogino said that “over 50 pages” will be provided to the academic senate on Monday that will offer details supporting his removal. She also said that Brunk “doesn’t have some inherent right to be chair.”  “He is elected,” she said. “It’s not a privilege, it’s an honor. It’s our right, not his right.”

Another current senator, who requested anonymity “due to the sensitive nature of the situation,” said that the council has tried to “bend over backwards” to accommodate Brunk. He said that Brunk was given the opportunity to resign on multiple occasions, and is now “fighting a losing battle.” “We shouldn’t have to throw a shit fit to get him to back down,” said the senator. “He’s not a king, he’s a steward.”  

Brunk says that the desire to remove him may have more to do with allegations of harassment by an Academic Senate staffer than with his leadership performance. He says that after an “intense conversation” with a female staff member, he was accused of “badgering” and calling her “sweetheart.”  He has hired a lawyer to defend himself in case the matter goes to court. 

Agogino would not say whether the allegations Brunk alluded to were the main motivation for the removal effort. She also said that a legal investigation of the personnel issue “could take years.”

While the senate currently doesn’t have bylaws in place that would allow for his removal, those who wish to impeach Brunk will vote to create them on Monday. A vote for Brunk’s removal would come if the change in the bylaws passes.

Douglass said that this is an especially difficult time to be a leading face of a body with so many different power alliances. “There’s a delicacy of balance there,” he said. “You have to be able to negotiate and work through complicated relationships. Collegiality is an important function of shared governance.

“This probably all relates to the pressures of this period,” he added.  “The senate is not so great at operating in periods of conflict because its power is very dispersed.”

If Brunk is removed, John Oakley, the current vice chair and a professor of law at the University of California at Davis, would become chair. Oakley declined to comment for this article, saying that he did not want to influence the outcome of Monday's proceedings.

 

 

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