The Buck Stops Where?

Professors at West Virginia U., outraged by scandal, demand president's ouster. Will anyone listen?
May 6, 2008

The West Virginia University Faculty Senate voted 77 to 19 Monday, with one abstention, to voice no confidence in President Mike Garrison and call for his resignation.

The university’s provost and business school dean both have announced their resignations in the aftermath of an April report finding that the university wrongly awarded an unearned executive master of business administration degree to the West Virginia governor’s daughter. The independent committee's report found failures of academic leadership stemming from the senior levels of the institution. Garrison, who was appointed amid faculty concerns that he lacked enough of an academic background, has repeatedly said that he accepts responsibility for the scandal, but that there is no need for him to quit.

“This is a very clear message from faculty,” said Sherman D. Riemenschneider, a professor and outgoing chair of the mathematics department and a cosponsor of the no-confidence motion, which is not binding.

The motion states that, “The award of an unearned eMBA degree to Heather Bresch has called the academic integrity of West Virginia University into serious question and has led to unprecedented public outrage and embarrassment to WVU.”

“As President of WVU, Mike Garrison bears a unique responsibility to act in the best interests of the university. Regardless of the extent of his direct involvement, the highly publicized award of an unearned eMBA under his watch has damaged his effectiveness and his credibility as president. We doubt that WVU will be able to restore its reputation and its academic integrity under his leadership.”

For his part Monday, Garrison indicated he'd be staying on -- and that he read another "clear message" from the faculty's deliberations. "The essence of all the motions presented in the Senate today contains a clear message: we at WVU must work to create an environment that assures everyone that this will never happen again," he said in a written statement.

“The Board of Governors has asked me to implement the changes recommended by the committee, and to continue the momentum we have developed on the campuswide and statewide priorities for the past year. It is the work I have been asked to do. It is the work I love to do. It is the work I intend to do.”

Share of Governance

Two other motions considered Monday – one calling for censure, as opposed to the resignation, of the president, and another calling for greater shared governance, as opposed to a particular action against the president – failed in secret ballot votes.

Yet, to varying degrees explicit and implicit in the motions considered Monday was a need for faculty to gain a much greater share of the university’s shared governance structure. “That’s the feeling of virtually every faculty member at WVU,” J. Steven Kite, the Faculty Senate’s chair, said prior to the afternoon meeting. “There’s been a need for more faculty input in the past and we need to work at all levels of university governance to make sure that the folks who are at the core of the mission of the university are at least consulted in important decisions.”

It’s not hard to find the roots of the faculty's concern. The board has resolutely voiced its support for President Garrison even as faculty opposition has exploded, and the board has overruled faculty opinion on Garrison once before – upon his selection last year.

West Virginia’s Board of Governors selected Garrison -- a lobbyist-turned-university-leader who bypassed the traditional academic ranks -- over and above the objections of the Faculty Senate, which voted no confidence in the search process and endorsed another finalist, M. Duane Nellis, Kansas State University’s provost and a former West Virginia dean. Faculty also called then for the creation of a committee on shared governance and greater faculty input.

Some faculty, however, have continued to be disheartened since then by their perceived influence or lack thereof. Quotes from the board chairman that appeared in the student newspaper last week were, for instance, widely seen as divisive, and dismissive of the faculty's role.

Stephen P. Goodwin was quoted in The Daily Athenaeum as saying “We’re not playing ‘who can pound their chest the hardest.' The law prescribes how the university is administered – it is by the Board of Governors; if they don’t like that, the only way to change that is to change the law.”

In an interview Monday afternoon, Goodwin said his remarks weren’t intended as an attack on faculty. Describing shared governance as an “education buzzword,” he explained, “I’m not sure quite what it means and what it doesn’t mean. Certainly we look to the faculty to set up the criteria for the academic side of the university.”

“All these places and all these departments and all these institutions have things that they have to do. But when it comes to hiring and firing the president, there’s only one body that can do that [the board], that’s what I meant. I didn’t mean to be arrogant; that’s what the law requires.”

“I will tell you,” Goodwin said Monday, “that the board supports President Garrison at this point in time.” He stressed that the April report on the eMBA degree does not find any wrongdoing on the part of the president.

“One needs only to look at [Goodwin’s] comments to understand what little regard the board has for the Faculty Senate, and, by means of their action, for the faculty of this university in general,” said Robert D. Chetlin, an associate professor in the Department of Human Performance and Applied Exercise Science and a cosponsor of the motion calling for Garrison’s resignation. Chetlin said he has no confidence that the board will be responsive to the faculty’s recommendation on Garrison's resignation. And, nor, he said after the meeting, did many other faculty members.

“I think there would be utter surprise and shock if the board were to accede to their recommendation,” he said.

Yet, Chetlin emphasized, “The faculty is obligated to voice its opinion. We are an institution of higher learning and critical thinking. We would be derelict in our duty if we did not voice an opinion.”

“If we were not to act, then it would send a message of tacit endorsement to the administration that there is little if any culpability for a very egregious failure of academic integrity."

Academic Governance in Context

“I really try to direct the faculty to the positive role I think we should play. And that is our role in shared governance as the body that represents the academic matters of the university,” said Kristina Olson, an art professor who co-sponsored the failed motion calling not for a censuring or removal of Garrison, but for renewing and expanding the charge of the Faculty Senate's Committee on Shared Governance.

“We need a greater say not only in matters that go to the Board of Governors but in the hiring process for our other administrators, like the provost and perhaps deans as well.”

Nationally, traditional shared governance structures may face threats in the coming years, particularly as the proportion of part-time and untenured faculty increase, said Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Over the last seven or eight years … we have seen a fundamental change in the nature of academic freedom violations that we have reported to us, and that change is that those violations of academic freedom often have a component of a failure of shared governance,” Nelson said. He cited, for example, grievance procedures failing because senior administrators have co-opted control from elected faculty representatives, or the entrusting of curriculum decisions to ad hoc committees, with faculty members appointed by administrators, as opposed to elected and standing faculty bodies.

On another note, Nelson said, “You really can’t have a president who doesn’t have the confidence, trust, and at some fundamental level, the approval of the faculty. It’s true enough that presidential searches do not always include significant faculty input but it’s also true that that’s a very risky procedure. If you don’t end up with somebody that the faculty can really feel good about, you end up creating problems. This too seems to be a clear lesson of the West Virginia University case.”

“The board of trustees, the president and faculty need to move the university forward, which means they need to be together,” said William G. Tierney, a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis. He has written extensively on academic governance. “There can certainly be disagreement, but the way I think of it is creative conflict instead of destructive conflict.”

The no-confidence vote is a “nuclear option,” Tierney said, that representative faculty bodies very rarely use.

“Frankly I think once a Faculty Senate begins this discussion regardless of the vote, the question has to be, will the university move forward if the president and faculty are at such significant odds with one another?” Tierney asked.

"I think all of us here, all of our faculty here, feel deeply, deeply distressed at the negative publicity, the image," said Stanley Cohen, a West Virginia psychology professor who presided over Monday's Faculty Senate meeting.

"Where we go from here, how to get out of this, is going to command a lot of attention. And not just from us."


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