Faculty Meets, Tension Persists
As evidenced by Wednesday’s College faculty meeting, tensions are still running high over the unusual set of circumstances surrounding the College Faculty Council’s proposal to cut the Asian- American history position — a decision that was later rescinded for a variety of reasons.
The interactions that took place between the faculty, the administration and the student body have sparked larger concerns among College faculty members and senior administrators about process, conduct and the overall effectiveness of the institution of faculty governance.
Dean of the College Harry Hirsch began the meeting by acknowledging that, as a result of this failed, first proposed elimination, the process of cutting seven College teaching positions within the next five years — part of the plan to improve Oberlin’s financial standings — has, “not gotten off to a very good start.”
In response to significant confusion and conflict throughout the community, Hirsch announced procedural changes to the process that have been approved by President Nancy Dye as well as the CFC, the body charged with choosing which positions to cut.
“There are going to be disagreements about these seven cuts,” Hirsch prefaced. “I repeat: There are going to be disagreements about these seven cuts.”
One of these “major changes” to normal procedure is the new requirement that the reports from the Educational Plans and Policies Committee include “ranking” the value of a vacated position in a given department, which will be sent to that department for comments. CFC will also meet formally with the department chair to discuss his or her concerns and ideas.
In addition, when a professor announces his or her plans to resign or retire, the department affected has until a certain deadline to petition for a replacement. A decision will not be made to remove or replace the empty slot until the department has filed an official response.
There has been concern over the unexpected degree of Dye’s involvement in the proposed cut of the Asian-American history position. Many perceive it to have been a use of power not officially given to her. In response, Hirsch said that the president, as a member of CFC, has the right to make her opinions known in writing.
Once a decision is made to cut a position, a written statement will be circulated to explain the justifications.
“When a decision is made, it will be final,” Hirsch emphasized. “[We must] accept decisions as legitimately made; political legitimacy is the subject of trust.”
Hirsch also made his feelings clear on how faculty members will be expected to react to eliminations if and when controversy should arise.
“We do not think it is appropriate to have debates in faculty meetings or in public. We do think it’s appropriate to explain our thinking,” he said.
When Hirsch had concluded his formal introduction, he opened up the floor to comments and questions. One professor asked what would happen if there were not a sufficient number of resignations or retirements in a five-year period, since the cuts will happen on the basis of attrition and apply only to tenured professors.
“In the previous five years, 38 separations from departments have taken place, so it’s not likely to be a problem,” Hirsch said. “We should cross that bridge when we come to it.”
At this point, Dye rose to share her thoughts with the College faculty.
“The president has authority and responsibility to be involved in personnel decisions with faculty,” she said to justify her involvement three weeks ago.
To address the criticisms that she wielded her power irresponsibly, Dye said she wholeheartedly respected the system of faculty governance and the distribution of responsibilities outside of the administration.
“I won’t — and shouldn’t —work by myself,” Dye said. “We need to make sure the hiring and allocation of faculty is left to the faculty.”
She went on to clarify that although the president is, in fact, a member of CFC and does have a voice in the decision-making process, “the president shouldn’t be seen as hanging around and micromanaging — I don’t want to do that.”
In regard to her decision to question CFC’s thinking without having been present at any of the deliberations over whether the Asian-American history position should be cut, Dye said, “I did not think that this was good for Oberlin College. However awkward and bad the process, I did feel it was appropriate and even obligatory to talk to council about what I thought.
“It was an appropriate, though not desirable, way of handling things,” she insisted. “We need this new procedure [proposed by Hirsch] to better integrate the president into the process and CFC deliberations.”
One professor responded to these remarks by referring to the confidentiality of the CFC and how Dye reconciled her role as president — as well as a member of CFC — when she decided to speak to community members, particularly the student press, about the Asian-American history position.
“I would not feel comfortable speaking to The Oberlin Review as a former member of [College Faculty] Council,” the professor said.
“I speak for myself, not on behalf of Council,” Dye said. “I did not think it inappropriate to discuss my thinking with the press.”
She continued, “There will be explanations for my decisions in the press. I feel it is best to speak for myself.”
Professor of Politics Ron Kahn raised his hand at this point to take issue with Dye’s “inappropriate rallying of students” and the “political organizing” apparent in her decision to speak to the Review and others.
“The president [is using] her authority to organize constituencies against [faculty governance],” Kahn said. “But I do think decisions deserve to be explained.”
Politics Professor Harlan Wilson, current member of CFC, used the opportunity to say what he could about Council’s process.
“Council did not act to reconsider the cut [of the Asian-American history position] because the president made us do it,” Wilson stated, defending the CFC’s integrity and consistency as a governing body. “We did not cave in to any pressure.”
He said, “We made our new decision because of new information, including new information of time constraints.”
This refers to the conclusion that the College can afford to maintain this position, if on a temporary level, without having a damaging effect on the overall elimination process.
Dye took this moment to further defend her actions.
“I do not see faculty governance at Oberlin as a fragile thing,” Dye insisted. “I apologize because clearly I have offended faculty to an extreme degree, but I do not believe I have damaged faculty governance.”
She went on to describe a “win-lose” situation in which she is often criticized for not speaking or taking a stand on issues, yet she is also criticized when she does.
Kirk Ormand, a professor of classics and a member of EPPC, was not convinced. He began his statement by offering an apology for his behavior earlier in the meeting, when he impulsively interrupted Dye’s initial explanation of her involvement with CFC by saying loudly, “I would really rather not hear [about it].”
At this point, Ormand said that CFC did not use the previously agreed-upon criteria when reconsidering their original decision: “Nowhere does it say student mobilization should have [an impact on CFC’s final decision].”
Redirecting his accusations to target Dye, he said, “The president has shown considerable lack of respect for faculty governance. I’m at a stalemate. I don’t see how we can go forward with such distrust in one another.”
Wilson stood again to respond to Ormand.
“We did not concern ourselves with student pressure,” Wilson maintained. He could not, however, offer any information about the criteria CFC did use.
“We as Council members cannot defend ourselves because of confidentiality,” Wilson said, “and that’s the problem with trust.”
As the clock indicated it was time to wrap things up and professors began to collect their things to leave, Hirsch expressed his hope that the new changes to procedure would ultimately be effective. He also emphasized that the faculty’s discontent with the fact that positions must be cut should not influence their perception of the process.
“Unhappiness is not always the function of bad governance,”