Significance Unknown: Transitions at Marylhurst University

This is a guest post by Simeon Dreyfuss, a contributor to the recent September-October issue of Academe. Dreyfuss is chair of interdisciplinary studies and president of the AAUP advocacy chapter at Marylhurst University. He also served for fifteen years as director of Marylhurst’s liberal arts core program. 

The best that might be said about the effect Marylhurst University’s new president will have on our AAUP advocacy chapter’s struggle to reverse a half decade of faculty disempowerment is that it remains to be seen. Her personal history gives us reasons to be optimistic: Before she began her climb through the ranks of academia she had been a member of an AAUP bargaining team. However, her first pre-official act was to fire the Provost. I say pre-official because it happened two weeks before her official start date as President. The memo from the Chair of the Board said that the Provost had tendered his resignation. The memo continued, “As a valued part of the Marylhurst executive team for 15 years, [the former Provost] has led the institution and created strong academic programs. He is well respected by the board, faculty and staff and will be missed.” Word through the rumor mill was that he was as surprised as everyone else, and had not even considered that he might want to update his resume. While there are no official fingerprints the general belief among faculty at Marylhurst is that he was fired, and that our new President did the firing.

While faculty understand the need for discretion in executive level transitions, the utter lack of information about the reasons behind this sudden and unexpected change in academic leadership creates space for rampant speculation, and widespread insecurity. We founded an AAUP Advocacy Chapter a year ago, rather than pursuing unionization, because we wanted to foster positive change in Marylhurst’s organizational culture. But if the faculty’s goal was for increased transparency and faculty involvement in crucial university decisions, the bureaucratic obfuscation around the former Provost’s departure certainly does not inspired confidence.

The memo from the board came just days before the release of the first faculty review of the Provost’s performance. Faculty evaluations of Deans and the Provost was one of the accomplishments of the AAUP chapter in our first year of existence. Unless someone within the small faculty committee managing the survey leaked results to the administration, there was no way that our evaluation might have contributed to the Provost’s departure.   One common view among the faculty who responded to that survey was that the former Provost had not been the most effective advocate for academics and for faculty among his peers and superiors on the executive team.

In my recent article in Academe, that discusses the origins of Marylhurst’s AAUP Advocacy Chapter and the effects of our first year, I wrote that, “Instead of increasing faculty powerlessness, there is now a nascent experience that faculty voices are included in important ways. Many, though not all, in leadership positions understand that faculty have a legitimate role in university governance.” Unfortunately with the Provost’s departure left in place are two members of that executive team who fall into the “not all” category. Recent events suggest that those individuals believe they have gained power in the transition. One of them recently acted to cut previously negotiated faculty compensation for selected introductory and capstone courses only weeks before the beginning of Fall term, in some cases cutting that compensation by half. This has been brought to our new President’s attention, though how she will respond is not known at the time of this writing.

Also in the Board Chair’s memo was the statement, “At this time, there is no plan for an interim appointment to the Provost position. [Our new President] looks forward to working directly with the deans, department chairs and faculty as she gets acclimated to Marylhurst and its academic offerings.”

So far, however, the consequence of having no Provost is that faculty and academic voices have even less influence on decision making than we did before we lost the chief academic officer. While other members of the executive team have regular and sustained access to the President, faculty have yet to gain the opportunity to help her form impressions of the health and functioning of the institution.

Marylhurst’s AAUP Advocacy Chapter was founded with the goal of changing the university’s culture toward one more inclusive of faculty in university governance. Clearly, we have a long way to go.

Note: A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the September-October issue of Academe in “Making a Tangible Difference in Campus Culture in One Year”, an essay by Simeon Dreyfuss.

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