Contributed Opinion: How President Alger Might Improve Faculty-Administration Relations

AAUP Forums Forum Contributed Opinion: How President Alger Might Improve Faculty-Administration Relations

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    The following opinion piece was contributed by JMU faculty emeriti Russ Smith (Economics), Bill Ingham (Physics), and Jim Leary (Chemistry).

    We are three emeritus faculty who chose to spend our entire academic careers at JMU because we were dedicated, along with countless other faculty colleagues, both living and deceased, to making good on the claim that JMU is a place where students have a genuine opportunity to acquire a high-quality undergraduate education.  Taken together, we represent approximately 100 years of experience as members of the JMU faculty, dating from 1972 to 2010.  Like many other faculty members, our JMU experience varied from a labor of love to something akin to being trapped in a failed marriage where divorce wasn’t an option.  Full disclosure: while we’ve had our respective successes in teaching, research, and service, we were all among the central administration’s prominent public critics during the latter years of President Ronald E. Carrier’s term in office.  Our hope is that by providing the following historical perspective, analysis, and recommendations, President Alger might find the will to address the core issue that has plagued faculty-administration relations since the mid-1970s: the overlapping domains of administrative power and the faculty’s authority on curricular matters.

    A recent example of these overlapping domains arose last month when the Faculty Senate censured Provost Coltman for unabashedly suppressing faculty input and for denying obvious conflicts of interest identified by the faculty.  The Faculty Senate is now considering a second resolution condemning the Provost’s hostile and threatening reaction to faculty and the Faculty Senate for making the case that some of the actions taken by Provost Coltman during the selection of the new Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics (CSM) were objectionable.  In each of these instances—the original infractions regarding the search for a new Dean of CSM and the Provost’s unprofessional reaction to the Faculty Senate bringing those infractions to light—Provost Coltman demonstrated contempt for the faculty and its traditional role as guardians of the university’s primary mission.  Provost Coltman’s comportment is just the latest in a series of administrative actions that the faculty have found objectionable enough to warrant a reaction.  It’s likely that most members of today’s JMU community were not present when a previous administration abused its power to abrogate the faculty’s authority on curricular matters. Some will need to investigate; others will recall the following extreme examples:

    • The elimination of both the Freshman Seminar Program and the Liberal Studies Program without any study of those actions being undertaken first.
    • The adoption of the General Education Program despite that program having been substantively reviewed and rejected by the University Curriculum Council (UCC).1
    • The long list of changes announced by VPAA Oberst during the general faculty meeting on January 13, 1995, which led to the “physics fiasco,” a lawsuit, and the revelation, during sworn depositions, that not a single committee had been formed, much less studied and made recommendations, for actions prior to her announcements.

    (The archives of The Breeze, the Daily News-Record, and the Richmond Times-Dispatch are readily searchable starting points for the above examples.)

    The root cause of JMU’s faculty-administrative divide is the difference between power and authority.  JMU’s central administration has been empowered by the legislature to coordinate every area of university operations, rightly so.  Its power is conferred by the state to the Board of Visitors, who delegate it to President Alger, who, in turn, delegates it to subordinates.  It is the state charter, not their respective expertise, that affords administrators the power to make decisions and give orders backed by the ability to enforce obedience.  This power is expressed in administrative control over faculty salaries, promotions, and even the livelihoods of untenured faculty.  At JMU, an examination of the last two bulleted items above is sufficient to reveal that power that is sufficient to use is sufficient to be abused.

    The two essential features that distinguish a university from other large bureaucratic organizations are the collective expertise of its faculty and the curriculum that the faculty has a moral obligation to protect.  Unlike an elementary school, where all administrators and faculty members likely understand everything being taught, a modern university embodies a high degree of specialization.  Thus, it is unlikely that any individual holding a position in the administrative chain-of-command will fully comprehend the material being presented by a particular faculty member unless that administrator has expertise in the same discipline.  For example, unless administrators hold a doctorate in mathematics, they will not know how a topic like partial differential equations should be taught.  Similarly, only a physicist would likely be able to explain the physics of microelectronic devices.  And advanced training in economics is probably required to fathom why rent-seeking behavior, a prevailing feature of bureaucracies, generates conflicts of interest that apparently escaped the imaginations of legislators writing Virginia’s statutes.  These are but three illustrative examples of a university’s most essential and distinguishing asset, the faculty’s expert authority, derived from specialized training and knowledge.  The state has conferred the power necessary for an academic administrator to ignore the expert opinion of the faculty.  It was unable to confer wisdom.  The plain names for anyone who chooses to ignore readily available faculty expertise on curricular matters—the university’s most vital asset—is either an authoritarian, a fool, or both.

    Thus, the root cause of JMU’s administrative-faculty divide is that for several decades, JMU has been managed in a way that has been long on the use of administrative power and short on substantive administrative-faculty collaborations.  As JMU has grown, the size of its managerial bureaucracy has increased dramatically.  It resembles the managerial systems of corporations.  Those managerial systems embody incentives that breed authoritarians.  They also feature a lack of transparency.

    In remarks to the Faculty Senate, Provost Coltman acknowledged survey results that indicated a lack of faculty satisfaction with senior members of the administration and listed steps she has taken to address this issue.  Unfortunately, the rest of the Provost’s remarks amounted to little more than authoritarian assertions, backed by the opinions of JMU attorneys and President Alger.  it is likely that Provost Coltman’s remarks only validated the concerns that generated faculty dissatisfaction.  Fortunately, there are steps within President Alger’s power that are much more likely to foster collegial relations than the time-consuming process of writing and passing Senate motions that the administration has the power to disregard.

    First, President Alger should begin by establishing the groundwork for a collegial system by directing Provost Coltman to negotiate with the leadership of the Faculty Senate on how to facilitate a transition from the current system of academic unit heads to academic unit chairs, elected by their faculty peers for a fixed term.  Academic unit chairs are more likely to understand the need for, and thus provide, transparency.  Chairs may also be inclined to encourage senior members of the administration to allow transparency when it is lacking. Establishing academic unit chairs is no panacea, but having chairs who see their role as mediating between the unit’s faculty and the relevant dean is a much more likely path to collegial working relations than relying upon academic unit heads who may think that their respective dean is the only person they need to please.

    Second, President Alger can change the way faculty are assigned to university committees—especially search committees for senior administrative positions that have academic responsibilities–such that the faculty determine their representatives as opposed to the administration hand-picking them.  Elected faculty have both a kind of public trust to uphold and, as representatives, are more likely to provide unvarnished and timely analysis.

    Finally, President Alger can announce the end of the era when JMU’s administration established ad hoc committees that included faculty determined by the administration rather than by the faculty and paraded such committees as evidence of shared governance in compliance reports to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

    In candid support of an improved climate at JMU, we are:

    Vardaman R. Smith, Emeritus Associate Professor of Economics, Carl L. Harter Distinguished Teaching Award, 1993-94

    William H. Ingham, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Distinguished Teaching Award, College of Science and Mathematics, 2002-03

    James J. Leary, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, Carl L. Harter Distinguished Teaching Award, 1994-95


    1 Smith, Vardaman R., Brunton, Bruce G., Kohen, Andrew I., with Gilliatt, Cynthia, A., Klippert, John C., and Marshall, Caroline T.  “General Education Reform: Thinking Critically about Substance and Process,” Journal of General Education, (2001) Vol. 50 No. 2. pp. 85-101.

    Anonymous User AnonymousAnonymous

    These are great recommendations. Thank you for continuing to care and for contextualizing JMU’s presend day in this very important history.

    Anonymous User AnonymousAnonymous

    Yes! to this whole letter and yes! to the chair model. Many faculty on the Senate have raised this issue and support it, we just don’t know how to make it happen. Most faculty at JMU seem to be unaware of the differences between having an AUH vs. a chair, and the answer, simply put, is top-down vs. bottom-up. The chair model would bring us more shared governance by having a chair be a representative of the faculty, rather than an AUH who reports to and works for the dean. As this letter says the transparency would improve as well, administrators wouldn’t be able to mandate directly to departments with no discussion. Thank you for this letter, I just hope it gets read by all that need to read it

    Anonymous User AnonymousAnonymous

    The letter-writers make excellent suggestions.

    Does the jmu president have the will to *do* anything? After JMU faculty overwhelmingly condemn the provost, via the senate Resolution of Condemnation, JA is quoted by the Breeze only as saying: “It’s time now to move forward in a respectful, harmonious and constructive manner. The Provost has my support as we remain committed to shared governance and civil discourse, and to work productively with the Faculty Senate on a variety of issues.”

    No acknowledgement of the problem, viz., that the provost’s attempt to intimidate faculty, and her other attacks on shared governance (hiring guidelines fiasco, Math & Science search, etc.) are the antithesis of “respectful, harmonious, and constructive.”

    It would also be good to hear from the letter-writers, or others, about what the “physics fiasco” involved.


    More on the “physics fiasco” anon.

    Russ Smith

    Anonymous User AnonymousAnonymous

    RE: Physics fiasco

    A Physics faculty member asked President Carrier in a meeting to explain:
    a) his conflict of interest from serving on boards and getting compensation from construction companies with JMU contracts;
    b) his broadly perceived as unqualified son being appointed to a leadership position at one of the colleges;
    c) football spending

    In what the majority considered to be retaliation, Carrier tried to close the Physics department. More details on this debacle from national media:


    The original author asked us to please post the following:

    “Physics Fiasco” A Short Version

    In February 1991 Virginia’s General Assembly approved JMU’s proposal to establish CISAT. In August 1993, JMU’s BOV passed (at President Ronald E. Carrier’s request) a resolution instructing REC
    to “move expeditiously” to “implement innovative programs.” Shortly thereafter in an article that appeared in Harrisonburg’s Daily News Record (DNR), REC [Ronald E. Carrier] was quoted as saying that the resolution would afford the opportunity to try new programs without going through “the traditional approach by going through commissions and committees.” In a letter he published in the DNR, Professor Richard A.Thompson, Anthropology, was the first to object publicly to this direct abrogation of faculty authority regarding the curriculum. His letter galvanized existing faculty opposition and awoke many others.Many faculty published letters or opinion pieces in the DNR, The Breeze, the Richmond Times Dispatch,and on a closed bulletin board open to all members of faculty and staff.

    Carrier announced the formation of a special, Board-appointed Task Force on Governance. Its distinguishing features were the appointment of two faculty members who would be elected by the
    entire faculty and its inclusion of a Member of the Board. Once these faculty were elected, and the Task Force started working, the campus settled into an uneasy state of relative quiet that lasted through the remainder of 1994.

    During the week of January 9-13, 1995, articles in The Breeze and the DNR reported that REC’s son, Michael had recently been named Assistant Provost of CISAT. Dorn Peterson, Associate Professor of Physics and Speaker of the Faculty Senate was quoted in print as criticizing that action in the absence of a search.

    On January 12, VPAA Oberst scheduled a meeting for faculty and staff for the next day. At 11 AM, on January 13, Oberst made several major announcements. The two relevant here were that the physics major was being discontinued, and that all ten, tenured physicists will shortly receive notification of the termination of their positions, effective August 1996.

    The announced actions were claimed to have been recommended by a committee of administrators (chaired by Oberst) whose very existence was previously unknown by members of the community.
    The announcements of January 13 triggered massive protests, including a campus-wide faculty vote of no confidence (by a margin of 305 to 197) in Dr. Carrier’s ability “to lead James Madison University responsibly.” Faculty members, administrators, and members of the Board of Visitors produced a series of letters. A group of concerned faculty members established “Faculty for Responsible Change” (FRC) and began raising funds in defense of appropriate academic decision-making.

    In February, the administration announced that a program review of physics would be conducted.

    On May 7, FRC challenged the changes announced on January 13 by filing a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the [Board of] Visitors of James Madison University.

    On July 21, prior to the external committee’s visit, the administration issued a press release stating that “… JMU will not have to terminate the positions of some faculty members as had been previously announced.” A separate written statement provided to physics faculty suggested that the department’s “good faith effort to increase teaching productivity” had led to the withdrawal of the six-month-old termination threat.

    July 21 was four days before the first scheduled deposition of JMU administrators in the lawsuit brought by FRC.

    During the discovery phase of the lawsuit, FRC learned that the administration could not produce any evidence supporting the claim that President Carrier had relied upon recommendations from an advisory committee or had even established such a committee.
    Testimony provided by senior members of the administration during sworn depositions established that no such committee had been formed prior to the announcements of January 13.

    Bill Ingham and Russ Smith

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 3 weeks ago by aaupjmu.
    Anonymous User AnonymousAnonymous

    Alger’s response to the resolution was pathetic.

    It can’t be time to move on until the ground is solid. Otherwise, we move into quicksand.

    If the president can’t lead, he should get out of the way.

    • This reply was modified 7 months, 2 weeks ago by Anonymous User  Anonymous.
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