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In tense exchange, Board leader calls out tenured faculty

Media Credit: Camille Sheets | Senior Staff Photographer
Board of Trustees chair Nelson Carbonell, who spent six months meeting with more than 600 faculty members, said lower-ranking professors told him that their voices have been suppressed by the minority of tenured professors at GW.

Within the University’s core of 3,889 faculty, there is a minority group with enough power to pressure deans out of office, handpick new hires and sway promotion decisions.

The leader of the Board of Trustees told a group of GW’s highest-ranking faculty Friday that the influence of tenured professors has been largely unchecked for years, tipping the University’s balance of power and feeding a culture of inferiority among the three-quarters of GW professors who do not have lifetime appointments.

“There’s a lot of bullying here. There are things that happen here that would get you kicked out of fourth grade. And it’s intolerable,” first-year board chair Nelson Carbonell said on the floor at the Faculty Senate on Friday. “We have heard over and over again that research and clinical faculty feel like second-class citizens.”

Carbonell said the stark imbalance between tenured and non-tenured professors surfaced during six months of meetings in which he heard from about 600 professors.

In about three weeks, Carbonell will return to the Faculty Senate – a group of about 30 professors elected by tenured faculty in their schools – with an official set of recommendations to better balance faculty power. Those proposals will likely spark a debate as faculty leaders are forced to decide how and whether to limit their own power.

In a room filled with top administrators, including University President Steven Knapp, members of the Faculty Senate stayed mostly quiet after Carbonell’s 30-minute speech. Some faculty applauded how Carbonell spent time to meet with them, which they said was rare for a board chair.

But the former head of the senate executive committee, Michael Castleberry, immediately stood up to defend the way the University split responsibilities among faculty.

“We have a harassment policy if someone is bullying. I don’t want to be bullied by the chairman of the Board of Trustees. I don’t want to be bullied by the president or my department chair or the provost,” said Castleberry, a long-serving professor of special education and disability studies.

More than just changes to faculty code

The conversations with faculty across the University, led by Carbonell and three other trustees, three professors and an administrator, shed light on what they say is a fractured system of faculty governance.

The effort began as a probe into the University’s faculty code, the highly guarded set of rules that lays out faculty governance, outlines academic freedoms and establishes the process for promotions.

But the findings that Carbonell shared Friday extended much further, calling attention to years of escalating tension among tenured faculty, non-tenured faculty and University leadership.

Carbonell said non-tenured professors want more say in processes like dean hires and promotions. He suggested that GW could adopt a University-wide committee to decide tenure, potentially taking power away from individual departments.

He also said the clout of tenured professors hurts GW’s ability to hold onto deans. Four deans in the last four years have left their positions after facing mounting faculty discontent.

About 78 percent of the University’s faculty are not on the tenure track, according to 2013 faculty data.

The recommendations for more shared power would fall in line with a report from the American Association of University Professors two years ago, which pushed leaders to allow more faculty to assume governance roles.

Knapp, who said he was informed of the conversations but had not taken part, called the review an important method of soliciting input across GW as leaders strive to update the Faculty Code to bring it in line with the University’s research and academic goals.

“There are always things you can improve in any document. Even the constitution had to be amended multiple times,” Knapp said. “I’m sure we’ll come up with things we can do to bring the code even more into alignment with what we’re looking to do as an institution, but I’m not inserting myself into that process in a specific way at this point.”

Carbonell said the governing structure must be changed before major University initiatives settle in, such the $300 million strategic plan that will bring on up to 100 professors over the next decade.

The power to outrun a dean

The Board’s attention on governance comes after deans of the GW Law School, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, College of Professional Studies and the GW School of Business all left their positions shortly after facing a swell of faculty distrust.

Doug Guthrie, the former business school dean who administrators said was fired in August after a disagreement on how to close a budget deficit, also faced faculty opposition to his plans to tighten tenure standards and raise expectations for professors.

Guthrie, still a GW professor, said in an interview that deans across the University have been concerned with the power that tenured faculty hold. In particular, tenured professors in some schools can review deans’ job performances, which have been leaked publicly.

The key issue lies in “an entire faculty governance system” that University leaders should rework, Guthrie said.

“This isn’t just about tenure. This is about a culture at GW where some faculty think shared governance means that faculty should have the final say on all important issues,” he said.

Guthrie, an expert in sociology, management and governance, said his efforts to deny tenure to professors was dragged out in a year-long appeals process, which he said was unique at top universities. At his former school, New York University, deans’ tenure denials tend to stand.

“Tenure is not a right, and it shouldn’t be because it’s such a great opportunity and gift for anyone who gets it. No one should expect that they get lifetime employment,” Guthrie said. “GW has done this to themselves. They have allowed the problems in the system to persist by not taking the issues on directly.”

Law school faculty were planning to hold what they said would have been the first successful vote of no confidence in GW’s history last year, accusing then-dean Paul Schiff Berman of closed-off decision-making. Berman quickly moved into a new vice provost role after Knapp and Lerman asked faculty not to go forward with the vote, according to faculty accounts.

Tensions also ran high among top faculty leaders last summer. Emails between members of the Faculty Senate executive committee revealed outrage at administrators for not having been involved in conversations about expansion in China, and allegations that Guthrie and other top administrators were receiving money through GW’s partnerships there. Those allegations were determined by GW to be false.

Kim Acquaviva, an associate nursing professor with tenure and former member of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee who called attention to the allegations earlier this year, wrote in an email to Knapp and Lerman that deans did not have the support to stand up to tenured faculty.

“If shared governance is to be effective, both sides of the equation need to be strong. Unless the deans can count on your support, they’re at a distinct disadvantage in the shared governance equation,” she wrote last summer. “And if deans can’t count on your support in situations like this, we’re going to have a hell of a time trying to recruit and retain deans in the years to come.”

Carbonell stressed that when school leaders prematurely leave their posts, fundraising struggles because it often takes years of growing relationships for deans to bring in seven-figure donations.

And at schools where interim deans are in charge, fundraising tends to drop as donors pull out due to the school’s uncertain future.

At the law school this year, fundraising decreased $4.3 million after its dean was reshuffled into a position in the provost’s office. After Guthrie’s highly-public firing over a $13 million spending gap, fundraising dropped by about one-third.

– Cory Weinberg contributed reporting.

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