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Another Way Out

March 23, 2006

Last fall, faculty leaders and top administrators at the State University of New York College of Technology at Alfred were on a collision course that is all too familiar on campuses these days.

President Uma G. Gupta and the chairman of the Faculty Senate hadn’t spoken in months, and the faculty, which widely viewed Gupta as a domineering leader who either ignored or punished dissenters, prepared to vote “no confidence” in her. Good rarely comes from such votes, as recent conflicts at Harvard and Case Western Reserve Universities show.

Today, Alfred State’s administrative and faculty leaders have stepped back from the brink, aided by an unusual process in which SUNY’s systemwide faculty group stepped into the fray to help resolve the dispute. A visiting team’s highly critical report offered both stinging criticism (for all parties) and a set of recommendations for improving campus governance, one of which called for a seasoned administrator to spend six months on the campus as a mediator.

While it’s far too early to say for sure that Alfred State is on the way to recovery -- the president and the faculty senate chair still aren’t speaking, after all -- officials at SUNY and experts on college governance agree that the faculty process there poses an intriguing alternative for resolving otherwise irreconcilable differences.
 
“A no confidence vote is not good for an institution – it’s bad publicity and it doesn’t actually help build the process,” says Elizabeth D (Betty) Capaldi, vice chancellor and chief of staff of the SUNY system, who describes such a vote as a “cry for attention” by often understandably frustrated professors. The University Faculty Senate’s visitation process gives campuses “another valuable option,“ she adds, that can keep the situation from deteriorating past the point of no return.

Alfred State was rapidly reaching that point last summer, all parties agree. The technical college is an institution in transition, a former two-year college that has added bachelor’s degrees to its offerings in stages since 1991. The transformation has required changes in curriculums, faculty credentials and expectations, and admissions, and in August 2003, Gupta arrived as president to help manage those changes.

Things unraveled quickly. Gupta fired several top administrators and developed a reputation -- among what the SUNY visitation team’s report would later describe as a “significant portion of the campus community” -- for an imperial and dismissive administrative style. Accusations swirled that the president had a “hit list” of employees she wanted to get rid of -- a charge she denied to the visitation team (Gupta declined to comment for this article). An underground campus blog that was a forum for unhappy employees became the dominant mode of communication. Critics proposed that the Faculty Senate take a no confidence vote.

In frustration last summer, after the two previous Faculty Senate leaders had stepped aside because of the pressure-filled situation, professors asked James J. Grillo, who had returned to the faculty after Gupta fired him as vice president for administration and enrollment management, to chair the Faculty Senate. (Grillo had, as vice president, asked officials in the SUNY chancellor's office to step in to mediate the dispute, but they demurred. He was fired soon after.)

Right before Grillo took over as the Senate’s chair, an Alfred State professor was at a meeting of the University Faculty Senate, SUNY’s systemwide governance group. Someone at the meeting described a provision in the systemwide senate’s bylaws about a little-used process by which a college president and the head of a campus faculty senate can jointly request intervention by a panel of SUNY professors and officials to help resolve a dispute. (The process had not previously been used at SUNY since 1992.)

Although Grillo says that Gupta “has not spoken two words to me in a year now,” in October, he and the president collaborated just long enough (through an aide to the president) to request such a visit. Colleen Brade, Alfred State’s vice president for institutional advancement, to whom Gupta referred requests for comment, says that any concerns administrators might have had about turning to a faculty governance group for help were eased when Carl P. Wiezalis, who heads the University Faculty Senate, “assured us that this was going to be a fair and neutral process, using the best team he could put together.”

Wiezalis, a professor of cardiorespiratory sciences at SUNY’s Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, drafted a committee of five professors from across SUNY, plus a member of the system’s central administrative team.

The committee visited Alfred State in December, where its members visited dozens of faculty and staff members and top administrators, and reviewed mounds of reports and other documents. In February, the panel issued its report, which described a campus governance system in disarray, “characterized by a high incidence of mutual suspicion, lack of civility and frequently hostile discourse, [and] loss of credibility of both the administration and the faculty leadership,” among other problems.

The report spared no one. It criticized “deficiencies” in Faculty Senate procedures in which the group frequently deviated from its written policies and engaged in “on-the-fly” substitution of members, for instance. And the visiting team's study aired significant concerns that Gupta managed by intimidation. “Many people who spoke to the team also expressed the opinion that the president does not listen, that is, she is attentive so long as t he view articulated is a position with which she agrees,” the report said. “But if the view represents a position not consonant with hers, the speaker is ignored or, in some cases, admonished.”

The “current campus climate” has hurt Alfred State, the report said, noting a revenue shortfall from an enrollment decline in 2005 that, it surmises, is probably attributable to “negative media coverage of the campus tensions.”

“Neither side can ‘win’ in this situation without inflicting damage on the college," the report said. "The administration needs the support and good will of the faculty and staff to succeed in addressing the enrollment and budget situation; it cannot earn that support and cooperation if it appears to act in an arbitrary or hostile manner.”

To look forward rather than merely back, the University Faculty Senate’s visitation team offered a set of recommendations for both the Alfred State senate and the administration. But its central theme was that Gupta, who had been a technology dean at the University of Houston before becoming Alfred State’s president, had put together a “relatively young and novice administration” that needed experience and stability.

It offered several options for fixing that problem, and last month, the chancellor of the SUNY system, John R. Ryan -- who until then had stayed on the sidelines of the process -- stepped in and chose one. He appointed Anne Huot, the SUNY system’s executive vice provost for academic affairs, to spend six months on the Alfred State campus as a mediator, to help administrators and faculty leaders work together. Since she arrived on the campus two weeks ago, Huot has sat in on meetings of the president’s cabinet and other staff meetings, and she will soon begin “making some recommendations and taking some actions,” says Brade, the Alfred State vice president.

Experts on college governance from outside SUNY are intrigued by the process there. William G. Tierney, Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education and director of its Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, says he is unaware of other faculty groups that have a formal mediation process in place, although he points out that colleges often call in outsiders -- including individuals like him -- to try to resolve conflicts. (Capaldi, the SUNY vice chancellor, notes that the central administrative office also sends its officials to campuses to resolve conflicts on occasion, though it did not do so in the Alfred State case.)

Tierney says he applauds any process that offers a way to avoid what he calls the “only nuclear bomb the faculty has” -- the no confidence vote. “For both sides to be able to step back and take a collective breath, with the help of an external individual or group, can be a useful step,” he says.

The process is “one other arrow in the quiver” for faculty leaders to avoid no confidence votes, which are “fatal to communication,” adds Wiezalis of SUNY’s University Faculty Senate. “It buys time, and provides for collegial reflection. In the ideal, it offers ways to improve faculty behavior and administrative behavior and the behavior of both parties toward each other. The ultimate goal is to preserve public university governance.”

Faculty leaders and administrators at Alfred State are hopeful that that breathing room will give them a chance to fix what ails the campus.

“If we are going to move this institution forward, both the Faculty Senate and the administration are going to have to work together,” says Grillo, the senate chairman. That was impossible before, he says, but with the recommendations of the SUNY visiting team and the help of the mediator, it just might work.

 

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