On Sanctions and Governing Boards


Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article by Peter Schmidt entitled “AAUP Rethinks How It Fights Governing Boards.” In a nutshell, the piece argues that as college and university governing boards, often overseeing multiple state institutions, increasingly overreach and interfere in governance matters best left to faculty and administrators, the AAUP is hamstrung because “its bylaws preclude it from directing sanctions at governing boards, no matter how responsible they might be.”  As Schmidt reports, the AAUP does have the option to censure a governing board for violations of academic freedom, but owing to a quirk of organizational history cannot now impose “sanction” on a board for violations of shared governance.

The issue came to a head, according to Schmidt, at the AAUP annual meeting earlier this month when the Association “heard faculty leaders at the University of Iowa protest the AAUP’s sanction of that institution for the actions of a statewide governing board.”  The annual meeting voted to sanction the university based on an investigation, which found that the statewide Iowa Board of Regents had appointed J. Bruce Harreld, a business consultant with no higher education experience, as that institution’s new president through a search process designed specifically to prevent any meaningful faculty role in the selection of the final candidate. The call for the AAUP sanction vote noted that it was “primarily directed against” the state board, which also oversees Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, but as Schmidt notes this nuance might be lost on casual observers.  “In response,” Schmidt continues, “the AAUP plans to establish a panel to seek new ways for it to exert pressure on colleges.  It also will be reconsidering its policy of sanctioning colleges when their boards trample shared governance.”

Now, let me say at the start that Schmidt’s article is for all intents and purposes factually correct.  I also don’t think he misquotes anyone; certainly I am quoted accurately.  Nonetheless, the article is somewhat misleading in two critical ways and hence merits a response.  First, the planned panel that Schmidt describes, a joint subcommittee of AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and its Committee on College and University Governance, was not conceived in response to this relatively minor procedural conundrum.  Instead, the two committees agreed earlier this spring to form the body in order to study more closely and more extensively the contemporary phenomenon of board overreach in ways that investigative reports on individual institutions cannot.  The subcommittee, currently in formation, will mainly examine and seek to measure the extent of the problem and analyze its various manifestations both at institutions the AAUP has already investigated (e.g, the universities of Virginia, Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois) and elsewhere (e.g., Sweet Briar College, and the universities of North Carolina and Wisconsin).  It will only secondarily address possible changes in AAUP policies and procedures in response to its findings.  The main goal is to shine a brighter and more sweeping light on what appears to be a growing and troubling trend, not on rethinking how we “fight governing boards.”  [Actually, the article headline is also misleading.  The AAUP does not “fight” governing boards or administrations; we condemn them when they violate established principles of academic freedom and shared governance and seek to set them right, so to speak.]

In addition, the article exaggerates the depth and extent of the problem it reports.  For even if the phenomenon of board overreach becomes more widespread than I now fear it has already become, it is difficult to imagine all that many cases in which the board itself will be solely responsible for violations of either academic freedom (meriting “censure”) or shared governance (meriting “sanction”).  Indeed, over decades the AAUP has only censured a governing board in a small handful of cases.  I can think of just one prominent case, which concerned the firing of activist and then-Communist Angela Davis from a temporary appointment at UCLA in 1971.  In that case the UCLA campus administration, including the Chancellor, vigorously opposed to the end the ultimately successful effort of the University of California Board of Regents to overrule the faculty and dismiss Davis.  Hence the AAUP chose in that case to direct its censure solely at the regents and not the UCLA administration, which by all accounts acted nobly.  However, such administrative courage has been unusual in the past and, sad to say, even more exceptional these days.  To be sure, campus administrators are probably not often happy about board intrusions, but they nearly always end up to some degree complicit with them.

Take, for example, the Iowa case that is at the core of Schmidt’s article.  I am not a member of the Committee on Governance and was not privy to their deliberations, but speaking for myself I’m not at all sure that I would have voted to restrict sanction to the Iowa Board even had that option been available.  To be sure, the AAUP investigative report urged Iowa faculty to take Harreld “at his word” and, while “remaining vigilant and prepared to act,” give him a chance to succeed, a position that also generated considerable controversy in the institution’s faculty.  But no reader of that report can avoid reaching the conclusion that irrespective of Harreld’s performance since taking office he was at bare minimum passively complicit in the deeply flawed process that led to his hiring.  After all, as the current president he does represent the campus administration that has been sanctioned.

Here is how Mark Barrett explained it on his Ditchwalk blog:

As a factual matter, J. Bruce Harreld was indeed a knowing participant in his own fraudulent election. . . .

Not only did J. Bruce Harreld abet his co-conspirators on multiple occasions prior to his appointment, but only moments after being appointed Harreld told a lie to the press, to the people of Iowa and to the university community in order to cover for the machinations of his co-conspirators. Included among the people who witnessed Harreld’s lie on that day, and who knew Harreld was lying, were Regents’ President Bruce Rastetter, and UI Vice President for Medical Affairs, search chair, and UI Interim President, Jean Robillard — the top-ranking administrator at the school at the time, whom Harreld would later also name Dean of the College of Medicine. . . .

As a factual matter the University of Iowa is not only not blameless in the abuses of power perpetrated by the Iowa Board of Regents, the single highest ranking administrator on campus at the time — Jean Robillard — was a blatant, unrepentant traitor to the school. . . .

Barrett then quotes the Chronicle of Higher Education’s own report, by Eric Kelderman:

Jean E. Robillard, Iowa’s interim president, invited Mr. Harreld to speak to staff members of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics on July 8.

Dr. Robillard, who is also vice president for medical affairs and was chairman of the search committee, said Mr. Harreld had not been an official candidate for the position at that time.

Local news organizations have also reported that Mr. Harreld ate lunch that day with four members of the search committee, including Mr. Rastetter and Christina Bohannan, president of the Faculty Senate.

Barrett goes on to add how subsequent press reports revealed “that Harreld, Rastetter, Peter Matthes and Robillard all met for three or four hours several weeks earlier, in mid-June, to talk about Harreld’s candidacy. So not only were three of the people at the July 8 ‘VIP Lunch’ fully aware that Harreld was considering and being considered for the presidency at Iowa, but those people then went out of their way to keep that prior meeting secret.”

Again, I was neither on the investigating committee nor privy to the Committee on Governance’s discussions of the case, but this would surely suggest that a sanction directed solely at the governing board and not at the campus administration might have been even more controversial than the sanction as imposed.

Or take another case discussed in Schmidt’s article, the censure voted this month of the University of Missouri at Columbia for the firing of Melissa A. Click, an assistant professor of communication who had aggressively confronted students, “even though the AAUP’s own investigation concluded that the Missouri Board of Curators had acted unilaterally in voting to dismiss her” (Schmidt’s words).  I chaired the investigation of this case and we drew no such conclusion.  Our report certainly demonstrated that this was an egregious case of board overreach, resulting in a total denial of due process and violations of both AAUP principles and campus policies and procedures.  But we hardly argued that the administration was blameless.  For example, in concluding the report we wrote this of the actions of Interim Chancellor Hank Foley:

Chancellor Foley’s dramatic shift from defending campus policies on January 25—just two days before the curators voted unilaterally to suspend and investigate Professor Click—to endorsing just a month later both the curators’ decision and the process they used to reach that decision is troubling. Chancellor Foley stated in his meeting with us that his reversal was motivated chiefly by a recognition that “we had to move on.” It is not clear, however, that moving on required his acquiescence in the board’s position.
As I told Schmidt, the AAUP has “been around over 100 years.  We have a certain stodginess to us, but we have lasted over 100 years by changing over time.”  It may well be necessary for us to adopt new approaches to violations of both academic freedom and shared governance by governing boards (and, I might add, state legislatures too).  But the important story is not how the AAUP will address these violations, but the burgeoning number of such violations themselves, in which far too frequently campus administrations may be at best sadly, if reluctantly, complicit.


One thought on “On Sanctions and Governing Boards

  1. Pingback: On the University of California, V: Gutting Accountability? | ACADEME BLOG

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