Two universities about whom I care, Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids (alma mater), and North Park University (17 years as professor), have recently voted “No Confidence” for the current president of the school. Both votes were close to 80%.
The tensions are high at each school. There is much pain and grieving and hoping and waiting and anger and frustration and praying and, I hope, talking with one another.
Both were covered by the Washington Post, here and here, and I include clips from the WaPo articles without comment.
I am a faculty member who sees things from that perspective. In that I have taught nearly four decades my experience comes into play when I sketch the problems and suggestions for Boards and Presidents.
Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer are the authors of A Church called Tov, a book that explores toxic cultures in order to help form tov, or goodness, cultures.
The 42 to 6 vote, with 14 abstaining, is non-binding but was reported to the school’s board in a letter late Thursday.
In an earlier letter, 42 university faculty and staff said, “Our current campus culture has become one of fear and suspicion. Faculty and administrators — many of whom have dedicated long years of faithful service to the university and our students — have simply disappeared without explanation.”
Carole Bos, chair of Cornerstone’s board of trustees, said in a statement to RNS that the new president “is committed to continuing our diversity efforts and will lead the Board’s charge to build a diverse Cornerstone community. Our board is confident that he will seek collaboration with our tremendous faculty and staff to help our students reach even further in their goals to serve the global marketplace. Most of all, he will challenge each of us — and himself — to remain steadfast to the teachings of Christ while we reach above the more common, contentious dialogue within today’s social landscape, so that we all may remain focused on training future leaders.”…
On Oct. 3, written testimony submitted to the board detailed Moreno-Riaño’s alleged creation of a hostile environment.
The document was signed by 22 full-time faculty members and 19 staff, though some remained anonymous due to fear of retaliation. A summary document shown to RNS contains reports of bullying and intimidation, threats of dismissal and unilateral decisions in hiring.
The document expressed faculty and staffers’ additional concerns about Moreno-Riaño’s apparent opposition to diversity, equity and inclusion.
There has been a “disappearance of nearly every employee who advocated for DEI,” the summary said, including the assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion, the director of diversity and multicultural affairs and the vice president for student development.
The president has written: “In an Oct. 18, 2020, article for the Washington Examiner, Moreno-Riaño elaborated on his vision for higher education. He wrote that American higher education’s insufficient focus on Western Civilization and its excessive attention to “the oppressed” is shaping students into “vicious” and “intolerant” individuals who are participating in the “corrosion of US democracy.”
He said: “American higher education must be renewed so that it can reject the revolutionary impulses that will lead to its demise,” he wrote. “This renewal begins when universities are held accountable to provide education that is truly tolerant — that fairly considers the breadth and depth of approaches to the true, beautiful and good, and is not myopically fixated on the perspectives of the ‘oppressed.’”
North Park University:
(RNS) — Faculty at North Park University, a Christian school north of downtown Chicago, voted no confidence in the school’s president, saying she created a hostile environment for students and faculty of color.
The 55-26 vote last week (Oct. 13) took aim at President Mary Surridge, who has led the evangelical school since 2018. In an accompanying document, the university’s faculty senate detailed “a toxic climate for students, faculty, and staff,” especially those of color. Specifically, the document took issue with a failure to hire and retain racially diverse people in leadership positions as well as athletes.
“The big picture is that we have a school that attracts a lot of students of color,” said Rachelle Ankney, senate faculty president and a professor of math. “But we are not providing an inclusive and welcoming atmosphere for those students. That’s not setting the school up for success in the long run.”
Recently, the school has also seen an exodus of staff and faculty of color; the faculty says those departing were pressured to sign nondisclosure agreements.
The university’s board of trustees issued a letter at the start of the senate’s vote, saying it was “unequivocally pleased” with the leadership of Surridge, the first woman to helm the school.
“She is setting the strong strategic that North Park needs at this time in its history to assure its long- term viability and she is accelerating our forward momentum,” the letter written by the board’s executive committee said.
The letter cited one of the largest incoming classes of first-year students and a return to fiscal solvency among her accomplishments. It made no reference to problems over race and equity.
Board chair David Otfinoski said he was “deeply troubled” by the faculty no-confidence vote, even as he and the board support Surridge.
The North Park faculty’s long list of grievances include Surridge’s hiring of her husband to a senior-level position after he had retired as the head of the university’s athletic department. They also allege she violated university governing documents by firing four tenured professors without proper consultation with the faculty senate.
Surridge served as vice president for advancement at North Park before becoming president, raising $63 million for the school, according to the school’s website. She does not hold a doctorate degree.
Now some comments and observations. (These comments are not at all about my current institution. I am grateful for our Board and its relationship with our president and our faculty, and the relationship of our faculty with our president.)
First, any vote of No Confidence embodies a very serious breakdown between the faculty and the president. To think that Vote can be glossed over or wished away or dismissed reflects an egregious act on the part of president or Board. Such a Vote is a major major declaration. Everything has to stop.
Second, Boards and presidents do not always understand faculties well. Most Boards are made up of businessmen and women, lawyers, and entrepreneur types. They are there because of their success in that world and often because of their funds and resources. They are talented persons, each one of them. Much to be admired. Well spoken. Professional. But academic faculties are not businesses and they don’t operate like businesses and they don’t respond in business-like ways. Faculties are taught to think for themselves, to challenge current thinking, to offer critical opinions, and to forge their way through the morass of traditions and ideas. They are often innovators and culture change agents. It is a compliment to faculties to say they are like trying to herd cats. They are and they always will. Faculties that are sycophants to presidents or Boards have ceased being faculties and have become servants of an agenda. Boards and presidents that want to control faculties are doomed to failure or to disrespectful takeovers. The best way to treat faculties is to let them do their thing.
Third, for the Board at NPU to have preemptively struck against the about-to-happen Faculty vote of No Confidence was a serious mistake. It fractures trust in any kind of genuine conversation that is promised to follow. To write a letter as they did is an act of sheer power rather than an act of wisdom for the sake of the school.
Fourth, those who study culture shifts, changes and transformations know that it takes a long time to form a culture at a school – a decade at least and a generation probably – and it takes a long time to reform one. To threaten, bully, fire or silence faculty members in order to get rid of dissidents is both to strike at the heart of what faculties do and to coerce people to conform. It is bad management. To require NDAs for money is unChristian and forces silence when truth needs to be told. (There’s more to NDAs, when not to and when to, than I need to say in this context.)
Fifth, the breakdown between faculties and presidents (and Boards) occurs over time not all at once, and this means conversations should have occurred much sooner with people in the room who can discern the trouble lurking ahead if wise decisions aren’t made. Each school, especially NPU, could have a profitable conversation about what happened and when it all began.
Sixth, the Cornerstone president has decided to act quickly to rid the place of what he deems discontents and misdirected professors and staff and administration. Hostile takeovers like this breed sycophantic faculty and staff, and promote cynicism among the students who were formed in the previous culture. This can be the making of a collapse of culture and trust. These kinds of takeovers create power through fear cultures, suck-ups, and emotional damage to those who have invested their careers in the institution.
Seventh, the Cornerstone president clearly wants to transform the culture from the very respectable previous president who was conservative but tolerant of those advocating for social justice and diversity. The new president wants to form a more fundamentalist culture – very much what happened to its sister school, Cedarville University. There is a culture war, it now has a political partisan battle feel to what’s going on there. There is only one good (tov) way to transform culture in a school: patiently and in a spirit of listening and learning from all principal parties that build into a unified coalition of Board, president, admin, staff and faculty. This approach has been burned to the ground. Because of tenure and the reality that many professors remain for decades, culture transformation in a university takes a longer time than in a business or a law office or a megachurch.
In short, I’m both discouraged about both schools and am not one bit surprised. There is an alarming distance in both schools between Boards/presidents and faculties.
A No Confidence sends a message to the Board that emergency measures need to be put in place where every move matters for the future.