Appalachian State University is in crisis. The crisis began on Aug. 17, 2020, when the Faculty Senate discussed a motion of no confidence in the chancellor, which the body approved 23 in favor, 12 opposed, and six abstentions, which is to say, approved almost 2 to 1. The meeting concluded at 6:01 p.m. and at 6:19 pm, 18 minutes after the meeting, Chancellor Sheri Everts and Provost Heather Hulburt Norris sent a written communication to the university community that they would no longer attend Senate meetings upon advice of counsel because of a pending systemwide lawsuit in which ASU Faculty Senators were participants. Eighteen minutes for a major legal determination. Eighteen minutes.
This communication suggested three questions. First, participants in the lawsuit apparently include faculty senators from other campuses and no other chancellor or provost of those institutions subsequently refused to attend their Faculty Senate meetings.
What do ASU’s attorneys know that the attorneys of the other campuses do not and why haven’t they shared that? In fact, an attorney from the General Counsel’s office advised the Faculty Senate that the reasons the advice had been given to the chancellor and the provost were too complicated for the Faculty Senate to understand and would be something only a lawyer would grasp. He explained that he would not therefore explain the rationale for the opinion. This lack of transparency has led to the opinion among many that the reason given for the boycott was a pretext behind which lies retaliation for the vote of no confidence. Second, the chancellor and provost then announced they would bypass the Senate by attending department meetings, but those departments include the same senators that caused the chancellor and provost to boycott the Senate, so why is meeting with lawsuit senators OK in the departments, but not in the Senate? Other than size, what is the legal difference? Third, the boycott of the Senate was announced, as noted, 18 minutes after the no confidence vote. Eighteen minutes. The speed of the decision furthered the opinion that retaliation was in play.
The substantive problem with the boycott is that it weakens the institution, the education we offer our students and the research and knowledge we offer society. The main purpose of the university is to teach and research, faculty functions. This is what faculty do, and by and large, only faculty. These are specialized tasks appropriate to knowledge workers. Generally, the person teaching a course and publishing in his/her field is the specialist on campus in that area, and nobody on campus presumes to know more, certainly no administrator. Excluding them and their knowledge from the shared governance of the university is counterproductive and self defeating since in what they do, they presumably know more than anybody else and therefore ought to be part of the decision-making process. On our campus, this is legally implemented through the Faculty Senate via a legal document, the Faculty Handbook. It is a contractual obligation of faculty and academic administrators to follow the handbook. ASU is not a factory in which a manager gives orders to factory workers and they blindly follow them; although in modern and enlightened factories, no manager would proceed without listening to worker input. Good factories do not ignore their labor force and neither do good universities ignore their faculty. The legally established mechanism to convey faculty thoughts and ideas to the university is the Faculty Senate. Get rid of it and we’re a 19th century cotton mill, albeit with better air conditioning. That is the sole reason why the overwhelming majority of American universities have faculty senates, and provosts and chancellors who engage them. Can you imagine the provost at Yale refusing to attend the Faculty Senate? We are not Yale but should we aspire to Yale or instead a 19th century cotton mill? Most universities have the equivalent of faculty senates and most chancellors and provosts tend to them for one very good reason, it is a time-proven mechanism to incorporate the necessary input of knowledge workers into the decisions of a knowledge producing institution. The futility of trying to propel the university forward when the voice of the faculty is disregarded is obvious.
We cannot stop the chancellor and provost from devaluing shared governance and the university itself, but we should not accept it. The purpose of the Faculty Senate is to advise the chancellor and provost, whose boycott makes clear they do not want advice. That is a stance that no chancellor or provost should take. We advise our chief administrators, wanted or not, to return us to respectability and join us as necessary at our Senate meetings, where they will be welcome. That decision should take, well, 18 minutes.
By Jeffrey Bortz,
Appalachian State University professor of history
and, Leigh Dunston, Appalachian State University, Executive-in-Residence, Finance, Banking & Insurance