Ben Schiff is the the chair of Oberlin’s politics department. Until
recently he was a candidate for dean of the college of arts and sciences. He
will be on sabbatical next semester.
In your remarks at last week’s faculty meeting you indicated that
you thought that President Nancy Dye had personally vetoed your candidacy for
College dean. How did you come to this conclusion?
The wording of the
statement to faculty from the Search Committee that announced the candidates to
be brought to campus stated that finalists had to be acceptable to both the
committee and the president. I was interviewed by the committee and the
president and my impression of that interview was quite positive. I am not aware
that the committee believed that I was unqualified and given this, my conclusion
is that the president had reservations about my candidacy.
Do you have any idea what these reservations were?
I’d rather not
speculate about that.
If things had turned out differently and you had been made dean of the
College, what would your plans be for the division?
I think we need a dean
that is a visible advocate for the faculty and promotes the implementation of
faculty governance routines and strives to create legitimacy for the
dean’s office and the administration by being as open and transparent as
possible. I believe that our dean’s office has not well fulfilled some of
those objectives recently and I thought I could change that. We now have a
Strategic Plan and some serious constraints on the College that need to be dealt
with. Many of those constraints are in the realm of the college of arts and
sciences. Changes in staffing and the curriculum need to be considered in
accordance with that plan but according to appropriate governance procedures.
What did you mean by “the President is the problem?”
talked to a lot of people, a lot of faculty members, while I was still a
candidate, and there’s a lot of concern in the College that our normal
patterns of governance are being undermined by opaque decision-making at the top
of the administration. In addition, people feel that initiatives are
inconsistently pursued. The place seems to lack direction because the
leadership is just not well focused. People tell me stories of what I consider
to be organizational disfunction and how it’s being produced by actions at
the top. We have a terrific faculty and wonderful students. Enormous good will
and energy has been put into efforts by the faculty to create committees and
programs. The problem of opacity and lack of leadership isn’t coming from
the faculty, it’s coming from the administration.
The other point which I perceived in your speech was that the faculty
could work to overcome some of the problems you mentioned. How do you think they
should go about this?
I think faculty involvement in the dean selection
process is crucial. However it proceeds, I hope the faculty is highly engaged,
makes its preferences clearly known and then holds the dean and the rest of the
administration responsible for the open governance and participatory action that
should be the norm. These aren’t sudden problems. It’s not strange
or peculiar that an administration closes in and refuses to consult. Any
administration has to fight those impulses.
Do you think students have a role to play?
I’m not very close to
the student culture. I’ve had students come tell me that they too are
unhappy with closed decision-making. Certainly students have a role to play.
I’m generally reluctant to recruit students into faculty controversies. I
think that’s really corrosive. Students should be involved with books and
classes, not fighting the administration, but to the extent they want to act on
their feelings about how the school is run that’s a role they can play.
You played a pretty strong role in the development of the Strategic Plan.
How did you feel about the document that finally emerged?
I think it has its
strengths and its weaknesses like any negotiated document. It is a product of
compromises. I don’t think it has yet established priorities and actually
points to clear curricular changes or, for faculty, ways to ameliorate the
problems of the balance between teaching and scholarship. I’m not sure
that it was based as solidly as it could of been in careful research. The
process of its adoption in the end was rather hurried and last minute. The
process of implementation will determine its value.
Do you think that this kind of change can happen under the current
administration or is some type of “regime change” necessary?
think the president is the problem and there are two conceivable solutions. One
is that the president changes the way she conducts her administration and the
other is that a new president operates in a different way.