Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Faculty members at Worcester Polytechnic Institute are speaking up about the ongoing search to replace outgoing president Laurie Leshin, emphasizing the need for a new leader committed to shared governance and someone who can heal the community after a series of recent student suicides.
With the Board of Trustees meeting last week, two faculty groups sent letters seeking transparency in the presidential search process. Of the two letters, one struck a sharper tone, focusing on the alleged dismantling of shared governance by the current administration and highlighting the stable size of the faculty even as the student body at WPI has surged in number in recent years, leading to crowded classrooms.
“The trustees of WPI now have an opportunity to put WPI on a different path, one that might help us restore a sense of belonging, community, and trust that has been severely eroded in recent years,” reads part of a letter sent by the American Association of University Professors chapter at WPI. “We urgently need a new kind of leader of our institution, one responsive to the needs of everybody in our community, someone willing and able to show the strength necessary to work in a transparent, collaborative, and democratic way with the people who work here.”
“The urgency of the letter was that our trustees were meeting this last week, to hammer out some parts of that search process, behind closed doors, and we wanted to have some input,” said John Sanbonmatsu, a WPI philosophy professor and president of WPI’s AAUP chapter. “There’s a concern that this process not be secretive, and that it be transparent. Universities have been in recent years trying to conduct presidential searches, more or less out of the limelight, where communities have insufficient input to the candidates, aren’t able to question them and so on. So we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.”
A second letter, sent by WPI Faculty Governance leadership, was more measured in tone but reflected similar concerns on shared governance and a commitment to healing the community.
“As an academic institution, WPI prides itself on the ideal balance between providing thoughtful, innovative, time intensive, student-centered undergraduate and graduate teaching, on the one hand, and conducting creative, societal, and daring research and scholarship in all its broadest forms, on the other,” part of the letter sent by WPI Faculty Governance reads. “At the same time, as our recent campus problems have so clearly demonstrated, it is essential that this balance be achieved while guaranteeing a warm and nurturing educational and social environment for our students, and while providing a productive yet accommodating quality of life for our faculty and staff. WPI’s next president should demonstrate an understanding of the special—often competing—challenges required to achieve this balance and harmonize these goals.”
“President Leshin announced in late January that she would be leaving WPI. My understanding was that the board wanted early input before the board meeting on Feb. 17 and 18 on the issues we addressed in the letter,” Mark Richman, an aerospace engineering professor and secretary of faculty, wrote in an email explaining the intent of the letter sent by Faculty Governance members. “Faculty governance leaders wanted to crystallize their thoughts in a coherent way for the board to make our positions clear, at least to the extent that those positions have evolved so far.”
Academic Freedom Issues
Sanbonmatsu said that academic freedom battles at WPI have been ongoing for several years, which prompted the creation of the AAUP chapter in late 2018. It’s a fight that remains active.
“There was the perception of the faculty that the administration was eroding that system of shared governance. For example, there was this creation of something called the Administrative Policy Group. This was an organization, a kind of policy-making body, that was created in 2020,” Sanbonmatsu said.
The Administrative Policy Group, according to WPI’s website, is “a cross-functional team with exclusive responsibility for creating, revising, recommending, and publishing institutional administrative policies.” Members include WPI vice presidents and their designees. With the exception of two faculty representatives, all members are appointed by the WPI president.
Sanbonmatsu is critical of the group, arguing it has centralized policy-making authority and, as a result, faculty members have struggled to have their voices heard on a variety of issues.
Alongside the distrust of the current administration over issues of shared governance is the sentiment that faculty and staff are stretched thin and thus unable to adequately meet the needs of a student body that has witnessed seven student deaths in almost as many months.
“We would like to believe that the unimaginable pain of experiencing more than half a dozen tragic student deaths in our community over the last seven months is unrelated to the toxic environment at WPI. Alas, however, we cannot know this. Many faculty and staff feel overburdened and under stress, and this has doubtless compromised our collective ability as a university to meet student needs,” part of the letter from WPI’s AAUP chapter reads.
In response to the issues raised in the AAUP letter, WPI administration pointed to a recent faculty survey. “Results revealed overwhelming faculty satisfaction in nearly all areas, compared both to our peer institutions and to our 2017 survey,” WPI spokesperson Alison Duffy wrote in an email.
WPI administration also cited challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.
“These last years have indeed been trying for faculty, students, and staff—across all of academia—as we’ve navigated through the pandemic,” Duffy said. “The WPI community remains focused on educating and supporting our students and advancing research and ideas to improve our world. We recognize that there will always be a variety of approaches to managing university operations as well as opinions about leading a university. We value respectful and constructive dialogue.”
Ongoing Student Concerns
Though not linked to the presidential search, WPI students have also been trying to get the attention of both the WPI administration and the Board of Trustees regarding mental health issues on campus. The points raised in an online petition titled “Address Root Causes of the Mental Health Crisis at WPI” reflect some of the same concerns raised by faculty members.
The six points raised in the petition include the “unsustainable growth” of WPI’s student body, students not receiving the meaningful education they came to WPI for, an administrative response to recent tragedies that has been “inconsistent and trauma inducing,” communication tactics that are “out of touch and unproductive,” the need to redefine success at WPI among a “culture of overwork,” and investment in spaces where students can forge social connections.
The petition asks trustees to provide an action plan or responses to all six points raised.
The Search Process
With Leshin departing WPI at the end of the academic year to take a position at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Board of Trustees appointed senior vice president and provost Winston “Wole” Soboyejo interim president while the search for Leshin’s successor continues.
As faculty weigh in on their hopes for the search process, Sally Mason, a search consultant for the Association of Governing Boards, said, “This is the time for their voices to be heard.”
Mason, who is president emerita of the University of Iowa, said it is expected that faculty members will have a say in the process of presidential searches.
“A lot of times, the faculty have been at those institutions for decades,” Mason said. “Many of them have a strong vested interest in who the president is and what the president represents because in many cases faculty feel that the president is representing them as part of the institution as well.”
Armand Alacbay, vice president of trustee and government affairs for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit and advocacy group that favors a traditional college curriculum, said that it’s common for faculty members to make their voices heard amid a presidential search. He described faculty as one of the key constituencies that trustees should listen to as they conduct the search.
Regarding the issues raised by faculty in the two letters sent to trustees and the student petition, Alacbay said that well-informed trustees should already be aware that such issues exist.
“None of these things should be surprises to a well-informed board,” Alacbay said. “Regardless of whether they’re in the middle of a presidential search or not, boards should have a very good idea of how the institution’s constituencies feel about the state of being on campus.”
The tragedies experienced at WPI—seven student deaths in less than a year, with at least three of those being suicides—are significant. Student mental health challenges have been exacerbated by the pandemic, as widely reported, but so have other issues, Alacbay said. Even the challenges of day-to-day operations have proven more difficult during the pandemic. Such pressure, Alacbay suggested, adds more weight to already demanding leadership roles.
“I think the pandemic has put unprecedented pressures on governing boards and presidents,” Alacbay said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be an incoming college president in 2022.”
(This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Arman Alacbay's name.)