VSU President Offers Olive Branch to Faculty
Gesture follows dissolution of faculty council
By Kendra Hamilton
In his “State of the University” address, Eddie N. Moore Jr., president of Virginia State University, attempted to bridge the chasm that’s developed between the university’s administration and faculty since the university’s board of visitors voted in early August to dissolve the elective faculty council and replace it with an appointive university council composed of faculty, staff, administration and students.
“There is no winner in an action like this,” Moore said, “but there is opportunity.”
Stressing that the university council would have a “sunset provision” ending its existence after a yet to-be-specified term, Moore offered a ray of hope to proponents of shared administrative-faculty governance by noting that the 12 faculty members of the 27-member university council would be selected from the ranks of the disbanded council — all of whom had been elected by their peers.
“This is a very, very serious moment for me,” Moore said, “because I do understand the democracy that our country is founded on and I do understand the importance of having elections.”
Moore drew a sustained ovation when he concluded with a plea for thoughtful consideration of and cooperation with his proposals — a marked contrast to the tepid applause that greeted him when he stepped up to the podium.
The action by the Virginia State University Board of Visitors to dissolve the faculty council earlier this month was the culmination of several years of tension between the board and the council. The roots of the conflict appear to lie in a major academic reorganization proposed in November 1999, in which 13 small departments were merged into six, and department chairs, some with up to 20 years of service in the position, were ousted. The board approved the changes in the face of fierce opposition from the faculty council, and despite a no-confidence vote in the provost and president, the plan took effect in June.
Many of those present at the August “State of the University” address and welcome ceremonies for faculty and staff appeared to greet the president’s remarks with relief.
“I overheard several people saying that they feel the president is more or less extending the olive branch,” said Dr. David Bejou, vice provost for administration. “I think it’s a very positive sign — it indicates his commitment to a faculty role in the governance of the university.”
Dr. Joseph Goldenberg, longtime chairman of the history department whose tenure survived the departmental mergers that sparked the latest and most bitter round in the standoff between the faculty and the board of visitors, was a bit more reserved.
“I’d call it a very good first step. It shows the administration is willing to bargain,” said Goldenberg.
Dr. Oliver Hill Jr., a professor of psychology at VSU, also thought the president’s tone was conciliatory but noted that Moore would remain the chairman of the university council and retain the power to make all appointments to it.
“Unfortunately, the way it’s structured gives the appearance that the administration wants to have control,” Hill said. “The approach reinforces the impression that the faculty are not to be trusted.”
And indeed ominous rumblings of discontent could be heard beneath the cheerful banter of returning faculty and staff. Alongside the official packet circulated for Virginia State’s annual fall Faculty and Staff Opening Conference, there was an unofficial offering — a blistering memo from Dr. Florence Farley, a professor of psychology and chairwoman of the disbanded faculty council.
Farley’s “Response to the Resolution of the Board of Visitors to Dissolve the Faculty Council of Virginia State University” comprised three pages of “response” and eight pages of photocopied correspondence that managed to put all parties — but particularly the administration and board of visitors — in an extremely poor light.
But Farley scored a hit when she took on the board of visitors’ contention that it disbanded the council because she had refused to provide copies of minutes, reports and other materials demanded in the course of an “evaluation.”
“I find it difficult to accept the allegation that the failure of one faculty member to send records to an auditor for assessment of an established legitimate faculty organization is such a serious offense that the foundation structure for ensuring academic quality and integrity in this academic community must be destroyed,” the statement read.
Reached later for comment, Farley scoffed at the notion that the faculty council was in need of evaluation.
“We had just finished Self-Study with the SACS, (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools) and passed with flying colors,” Farley said.
“These people (the board) don’t even understand what the faculty council is,” she said. “The faculty council is 20 subcommittees” handling everything from grade appeals and requests for transfer credit to promotions and tenure decisions.
“They think they’ve gotten rid of Florence Farley, but what they’ve really done is left the decision-making structure for academic units in disarray,” she said.
But while Farley appears to be girded for battle, many people at this peaceful-looking campus are “tired, just tired,” sighed Dr. Renee Hill, professor of philosophy and co-director of VSU’s institute on race.
A member of the faculty council until the toll of the constant infighting led to her resignation a year ago, Hill said she thought Moore’s speech was “conciliatory.”
“I talked to one person who thought it didn’t go far enough. But really, there’s no magic thing to say except maybe, ‘It was all a big mistake, and we’re not going to disband the faculty council after all.’ “
All parties appear to agree something had to be done. Bejou described the situation as “governance gridlock — for several years.”
And Oliver Hill noted, “Everybody was tired of the impasse. Everybody knew something had to be done — though my perception of the board’s action was that it was quite unfortunate. They used a sledgehammer when something else was called for.”
Goldenberg, the historian, and a member of the Virginia State faculty for 32 years, recalls that a similar conflict erupted in the 1970s, ending in the dissolution of what was then known as the faculty senate.
“So my guess is whatever comes out of the current situation, in another generation or so, that, too, will be replaced. It is natural that things change and evolve,” said Goldenberg. “Unfortunately, change is often very sudden. And while we academics like to instruct our students about change, we are no more anxious to endure it than anyone else.”
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