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A photo of protestors holding signs objecting to job cuts at Lesley University.

Employees, students and alumni protested job cuts at Lesley University last fall.

Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Frustrated by job cuts and an alleged lack of transparency from administrators, faculty at Lesley University cast a vote of no confidence in President Janet Steinmayer last month for the third time in as many years.

The no-confidence vote was prompted by a series of cost-cutting measures that university leaders have implemented in the face of declining enrollment and a budget deficit that was reportedly $10 million last spring, when the Faculty Assembly voted no confidence in Steinmayer for the second time since she was elevated from the Board of Trustees to the presidency in 2019.

Beyond the demonstrations on campus, the no-confidence votes have emerged as a form of protest in themselves. In addition to rebuking Steinmayer thrice, the Faculty Assembly has voted no confidence in the Board of Trustees twice, including once last month. Interim Provost Deanna Yameen was also subjected to a vote of no confidence last month and the Faculty Assembly called for her and Steinmayer to resign.

Faculty members have taken issue with the job cuts—totaling nearly 50 faculty and staff—and the way cost-cutting measures have been enacted. They have also alleged that older professors and union stewards are overrepresented among those who lost their jobs.

Lesley University leaders argue that the changes are necessary as the college seeks to “right size” itself after losing students for years and coming under financial duress. The administration also contends that only a small number of faculty have expressed discontent through the no-confidence votes, arguing that others are engaged in a plan to move Lesley forward.

The Battle Over a ‘Better Lesley’

A look at Lesley’s finances shows a clear need to fix serious issues. The university has operated at a deficit in three of the last 10 fiscal years—a number that would have been higher if Lesley hadn’t sold off at least $100 million in assets since fiscal year 2014. In addition, Lesley’s enrollment has fallen by more than half over the past two decades, from just under 8,000 students in the early 2000s to roughly 3,400 in 2022, federal data shows.

Amid those struggles—which have been commonplace at many institutions, particularly private universities in the Northeast—the administration launched the “Better Lesley” initiative last year. The plan called for the elimination of 25 staff and 30 faculty members (which administrators later lowered to 24 faculty due to reassignments); a reorganization to combine four separate colleges into a more centralized entity; and a $100 million campus-transformation project to be funded through the sale of real estate assets.

But judging from the repeated no-confidence votes in Steinmayer and the board, not everyone in the Lesley community supports the plan.

“Our Vote communicates our concerns in three key areas: financial mismanagement, erosion of shared governance, and violating the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. This Vote came after careful deliberation and months of attempting to convey our concerns to the administration and get answers to many questions about current restructuring efforts,” the Faculty Assembly Steering Committee said in a statement shared by chair Michelle Pate.

Last month’s third vote of no confidence in Steinmayer landed almost exactly one year after the second one and was based largely on the same issues. (The first vote, cast in December 2021, cited allegedly insufficient responses from administrators in responding to student complaints about housing and dining-service issues after Lesley reopened following a prolonged shutdown during the coronavirus pandemic.)

Since that first vote, faculty members have accused Steinmayer of limited engagement with them. And the alleged lack of face time has been particularly galling during the layoffs; some professors told Inside Higher Ed they were essentially fired by email in recent months, though Lesley officials disputed both Steinmayer's lack of engagement and the firings by email.

After 17 years, Steve Benson, a math professor, will leave Lesley when the spring semester ends; the university, which does not offer tenure, revoked his contract in the fall, he said.

Benson, who accused Steinmayer of micromanagement, believes the cuts are aimed at faculty members who have pushed back against the administration as it sought to eliminate positions.

“As a chief steward of the union, former chair of faculty assembly, and an outspoken critic of the way the university has been mismanaged in the last 5 years, I suppose I’ve been in the crosshairs for a while. In fact, the majority of faculty who have been laid off were union stewards and/or current or former faculty assembly leaders,” Benson wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed.

Donna Halper, a professor of communication and media studies, also believes union stewards, vocal critics and older professors were targeted for cuts. Halper, who has taught at Lesley for 15 years following a lengthy broadcasting career (which includes discovering the rock band Rush), will lose her job at the end of the spring semester, a scenario that left her “shell shocked,” she said. Halper, who alleged that she was fired by email, believes there is a lack of transparency as Lesley.

“I wish I knew how the decision to get rid of some of us was made,” Halper said, adding that, at age 77, she worries about the possibility of finding a similar faculty job at another institution.

University officials contend that it’s a vocal minority of aggrieved professors swept up in the cuts who are responsible for driving the no-confidence votes, and many faculty members are actually moving ahead.

In an emailed statement from Lesley spokesperson Rhonda Mann, university officials said that the last vote of no confidence passed with only limited support. Fewer than half of Lesley’s 144 full- or part-time faculty with multiyear contracts participated, they argued, adding that the group of 51 who voted no confidence in Steinmayer included faculty members who were laid off in October and are teaching through the spring term.

“Lesley is an institution in transition. Faculty and administrative leadership are creating a university that is easier for students to navigate and more vibrant academically,” officials wrote.

Despite the votes of no confidence, university officials see Lesley on an upward trajectory. They point to increased applications for this fall and a 50 percent increase in enrollment deposits for fall 2024.

Do Votes of No Confidence Matter?

While a third vote of no confidence is unusual, it appears to have changed little at Lesley. Leaders have not walked back job cuts or undone any changes enacted in recent months.

Such votes signify a breakdown in shared governance processes and a distrust by faculty in the president and the board, said Michael S. Harris, a professor of higher education and chair of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership at Southern Methodist University. While a vote of no confidence in a president is somewhat rare, three is “exceedingly uncommon,” Harris said.

No-confidence votes are “last resort tactics” to “express extreme displeasure” in leadership, including both the president and the Board of Trustees at Lesley, he noted.

While such votes seem to be trending up since the COVID-19 pandemic, they remain relatively rare, Harris said. But he acknowledged that there is little data on how common no-confidence votes are, or on their consequences, including whether they drive change or push leaders out. Oftentimes, presidents do leave afterward, Harris said, but not necessarily right away.

A cursory look at no-confidence votes across higher education suggests the impact is mixed.

In 2022, faculty voted no confidence in then presidents Judy Sakaki at Sonoma State University and Robin Capehart at Bluefield State University; both left within a year. Sakaki moving on to another job in the California State University system while Capehart retired. In early 2023, then-presidents Thomas Hudson of Jackson State University and Katherine Bergeron at Connecticut College were also subjected to no-confidence votes. Hudson resigned (while on unexplained administrative leave) last March; Bergeron stepped down within a few weeks.

But leaders of other institutions have shrugged off no- confidence votes and remained on the job.

University of Maine system chancellor Dannel Malloy was subjected to multiple votes of no confidence in 2022 after withholding information about a candidate in a botched presidential hire at the University of Maine at Augusta. But he had his contract extended despite the ordeal.

The information that Malloy withheld? Ironically, it was that Augusta presidential candidate Michael Laliberte had received two no-confidence votes while president of the State University of New York at Delhi. The fallout from the hiring fiasco allowed Laliberte to collect a steady paycheck from the University of Maine system without ever working a day.

And last year, Robert Robbins at the University of Arizona, Walter Wendler at West Texas A&M University and E. Gordon Gee at West Virginia University were subjected to no-confidence votes. All three currently remain on the job, though Gee, 80, plans to retire next year.

While these votes may be toothless, Harris believes they are an important tool for faculty to express their discontent. At the same time, he noted that there are diminishing returns for no-confidence votes; while they might make headlines and illuminate concerns, he believes they lose impact with repetition.

“If it didn’t work the first time, there’s little reason to think it will subsequently,” Harris said.

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