'Breach of Faith' at Idaho State

When the Idaho State Board of Education decided in February to dissolve the Faculty Senate at Idaho State University, it stripped faculty members of their only means of weighing in on important university issues, according to a report being issued today on the results of an investigation by the American Association of University Professors. And, while a new faculty body has since been convened, considerable acrimony remains in Pocatello.

May 26, 2011

When the Idaho State Board of Education decided in February to dissolve the Faculty Senate at Idaho State University, it stripped faculty members of their only means of weighing in on important university issues, according to a report being issued today on the results of an investigation by the American Association of University Professors. And, while a new faculty body has since been convened, considerable acrimony remains in Pocatello.

The AAUP report was produced relatively quickly (the investigation was announced three months ago) and though it notes that "the conduct of the faculty and senate leaders cannot be said to have been flawless," it reserves much of its harshest criticism for the administration -- particularly President Arthur C. Vailas and the Idaho State Board of Education.

The 14-page document, with 13 footnoted rebuttals by Vailas (distilled from his 21-page response, the full text of which can be read here), details the deteriorating and increasingly poisonous relationship between the faculty, on the one hand, and Vailas and Provost Gary A. Olson on the other. The report, which was written by AAUP staff and sent to the university's administration and the state board for comment before its release, catalogs a flurry of recriminations, votes of no confidence, and charges and counter-charges. Faculty members accuse administrators of "disingenuous manipulation," while Vailas says the faculty's complaints arise from a "generalized discontent" that has been stoked by a select few.

The dissolving of the senate, and the actions leading up to it, resulted, the authors write, in "severely restricting the faculty's decision-making role in academic governance ... suppressing faculty dissent and ... with it the last vestiges of shared governance." In doing so, the authors continue, the board and administration violated the principles and standards of shared governance laid out in the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which was jointly formulated by the AAUP, the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges -- a statement that, Vailas responds, was never adopted by ISU's administration or included in the handbook for faculty and staff.

In a statement, ISU called the AAUP report "biased and unbalanced" and said it contained "critical flaws" because the AAUP did not contact Vailas, other administrators or the State Board of Education during its investigation. (The AAUP confirmed that it did not send anyone to Idaho to investigate; its staff e-mailed queries to senate leaders and forwarded a draft of the report to Vailas and the state board. While the AAUP said it incorporated many of Vailas's comments into the footnotes, the state board did not respond.) "AAUP representatives seem to have selectively interviewed those persons who embrace the viewpoint advocated by AAUP," the statement from ISU reads. Or, as Vailas wrote to the AAUP in his rebuttal: “It appears … that you have already drawn your conclusions.”

Much of the trouble between the administration and faculty, the report notes, dates to 2008, two years after Vailas assumed the presidency of the 12,200-student university in Pocatello, with branch campuses in Meridian, Idaho Falls and Twin Falls. It was in 2008 that the Vailas administration proposed a new manual of policies and procedures, which some on the faculty perceived as an incursion into academic and faculty personnel matters.

Faculty members began collecting grievances against the administration. In November 2009, seven months after Olson became provost, he announced that he and the president had devised a reorganization plan in response to a 6 percent cut in state funds, which came on top of a 12 percent reduction the previous year. Such a restructuring, he argued, would help stave off the dismissal of as many as 32 faculty members.

In a letter described in the report, Olson announced the formation of three task forces, each of which would be assigned to separate clusters of programs at ISU and asked to "carefully consider, discuss and fine tune -- or even reject, if necessary" the proposal put forth by Vailas and Olson. But one task force member told the AAUP that task force members were simply given the model and expected to justify and expand upon it -- an account that Vailas challenged as reflecting the view of one faculty member among the 36 who who served on the task force.

In February 2010, ISU administrators unveiled a plan for the reorganization that, the report's authors say, was essentially the same as the one originally put forward months earlier. In March, the Faculty Senate called for a referendum on the plan. Nearly three-quarters of the 379 participating faculty voted to reject it. The referendum, Vailas said in his rebuttal to the AAUP, was "obstructionist" because it interfered with legitimate institutional governance. It also ignored what he characterized as significant changes that were made during the review process.

In April of that year, the administration forwarded the proposed reorganization to the state board over the faculty's objections. A few days later, 70 percent of the 431 faculty members who voted registered no confidence in Olson, though Vailas backed him publicly. Olson has since announced his intent to resign, effective next month.

In June 2010, the state board directed Vailas to review the faculty governance structure at ISU. Vailas commissioned an 11-member committee to work throughout the summer. Faculty members complained it had meager faculty representation and was stacked in favor of administration: two people serving on the committee were regular faculty members, but one later resigned and the other left for another university.

The committee's work was also cloaked in secrecy, some on the faculty complained. All members of the committee were asked to sign a statement of confidentiality barring them from discussing the work of the committee except with fellow members. Although the faculty chafed at this proviso, the report's authors note that other committees routinely required the same commitment to nondisclosure.

In August 2010, the committee produced a report calling for the creation of four new committees reporting to various vice presidents, which many faculty members perceived to be an effort to sidestep the Faculty Senate. When the senate received its copy, it asked the administration to permit the senate to vet the proposal before it was submitted to the state board.

That didn't happen. Four days after the faculty asked Vailas to allow for faculty input, he forwarded the proposal to the state board, calling the faculty governance system "often unproductive and inefficient." The senate's executive committee described as a "breach of faith" the decision to forward the proposed governance plan without faculty input (Vailas said many of its recommendations, in fact, came from earlier work by the senate).

The relationship continued to fray. In October, after a newspaper reported that Vailas called the faculty senate "dysfunctional," the senate prepared a vote of no confidence. Efforts to bring in a mediator failed. In February, the faculty returned a vote of no confidence in Vailas, citing 23 grievances, including administrative dysfunction, the dismissal of a tenured engineering professor in 2009, and concerns about the president's integrity.

Less than a week after that vote, the state board, acting on Vailas's request, dissolved the senate, suspended its bylaws and installed a new faculty body. Less than five minutes after the vote, campus security officers changed the locks on the senate offices and wrapped them in police tape, the AAUP report's authors say, citing faculty sources. Vailas said that it is misleading to attribute suspension of the senate to the vote of no-confidence because there is a "greater and meaningful context" -- and that the suspension was not meant as retribution.

Vailas established a "provisional structure" for the faculty to participate in academic governance. One part of this structure consisted of several existing councils; the other was a provisional faculty senate that would report to the provost. Two weeks after Vailas established the new provisional senate, faculty held an election for officers, which apparently was not sanctioned by the administration. Thirteen of its 18 members served as members of the senate before it was suspended. It has not been smooth going. The administration has not recognized the provisional senate, which voted at its first meeting to return to its previous committee assignments. Barbara Adamcik, associate vice president for academic affairs (and slated to serve as interim provost after Olson's resignation becomes effective), called the election of senate officers "inappropriate" and said she would call the first official meeting in the fall. Until then, she said, faculty senators will not need to have access to the senate office or cell phone.

Share Article


Dan Berrett

Back to Top