KU faculty straw poll finds weak support for no-confidence vote on key administrators

Frustration persists with budget shortfall, policy threatening tenure

By: - February 26, 2021 8:13 am

The Faculty Senate at University of Kansas chose not to cast a formal no-confidence vote Thursday in the chancellor and provost in light of controversy about budget problems and potential use of a new policy easing dismissal of tenured faculty. (Screen capture/Kansas Reflector)

LAWRENCE — Frustration simmered among University of Kansas’ members of Faculty Senate who characterized the way top campus administrators were maneuvering through the COVID-19 budget crisis as an attack on academic freedom, shared governance and transparency.

The Faculty Senate’s discussion, however, didn’t lead to consensus that now was the time to consider a no-confidence vote against KU’s chancellor Doug Girod or provost Barbara Bichelmeyer. A straw poll open to the 39 members of Faculty Senate showed only 15% were interested Thursday in saddling these key university administrators with such an unflattering label.

Instead, they urged KU brass to be more open about their budget intentions and to disavow a policy recently adopted by the Kansas Board of Regents granting KU and five other state universities an easier path to dismissal of tenured faculty and other employees during the next two years. There was general agreement Girod and Bichelmeyer needed to share more information with KU faculty about a projected $75 million revenue shortfall in the upcoming fiscal year and include them in consideration of personnel, degree program or management steps designed to fill the budget crater.

Lua Yuille, a professor of law and the Faculty Senate president, said she received a heavy volume of feedback ahead of the Faculty Senate meeting. Some faculty are concerned about public perception of open debate on the performance of administration leaders, she said. One faculty member suggested the dialogue can prompt a wide assault on tenure by forces outside the university, she said.

In early February, faculty, staff and students marched to Allen Fieldhouse to inform people waiting in line for a basketball game about their grievances.

“What we’re seeing in this body is some real tension and frustration,” Yuille said. “It is really clearly reflected in our colleagues.”

 

The $75M crater

In January, the KU chancellor said the Board of Regents’ policy necessitated outreach to university governance, academic administrators, faculty and staff across the university to determine how the process could help KU prioritize its academic mission amid budget challenges.

“Beyond that,” Girod said, “we will need your continued understanding of the unprecedented budget challenges we face. As we have consistently communicated to you, KU faces a projected fiscal year 2022 shortfall of $74.6 million, which could worsen depending on state funding, that will require us to eliminate programs and departments, reduce services, and implement furloughs and layoffs. While this will not be easy, it is unavoidable given the financial challenges facing KU and other universities across the country.”

University of Kansas chancellor Doug Girod and Gov. Laura Kelly chat during a groundbreaking ceremony on campus in Lawrence. The KU Faculty Senate discussed but didn't formally vote on a motion of no confidence in the chancellor and provost Barbara Bichelmeyer. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
University of Kansas chancellor Doug Girod and Gov. Laura Kelly chat at a groundbreaking ceremony on campus in Lawrence. KU Faculty Senate discussed but didn’t formally vote Thursday on a motion of no confidence in the chancellor and provost Barbara Bichelmeyer. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Bichelmeyer hosted a series of videos, available to faculty through a password-protected system, this month that delve into obstacles at KU requiring a common understanding of “goal setting, strategic initiatives, budget development and fiscal recovery as we move through the spring semester and beyond.”

During the Faculty Senate meeting, linguistics professor Allard Jongman said unrest and dissatisfaction had been growing among faculty and students. The termination policy cuts to the heart of the university because it can weaken the faculty’s freedom to pursue, develop and express ideas that might run counter to popular sentiment, he said.

“By not rejecting the policy, our administration here at KU indicates that academic freedom is not a priority,” Jongman said. “Moreover, KU’s response was formulated without any consultation with Senate groups. As Faculty Senate, it is our responsibility to question the administration’s position. Anything less would make us look out of touch with our faculty constituents at best and irrelevant at worst. It is clear that trust and confidence in KU’s leaders is at a low.”

He supported the idea of a Faculty Senate discussion on the Board of Regents’ policy and the KU administration’s response to it. He said erosion of tenure as a fundamental right at KU would compel faculty to pursue jobs elsewhere and harm the university’s students.

 

‘It’s scary’

Forrest Pierce, professor of music compensation, said he didn’t believe Faculty Senate should vote at this juncture on an expression of confidence in the provost or chancellor.

It is likely impossible for any university faculty to agree with every decision of administrators, Pierce said. Many decisions by KU officials over the past 20 years caused him pain, he said, and some in the near future could be devastating.

“That doesn’t mean that I don’t have confidence in the intention and abilities of those making the decisions,” Pierce said. “I’m more concerned, at this point, about those decisions being made with transparency, with shared governance and clear rubrics. That seems to me to be the job of an administrator. What’s happening now in this moment?”

He said the difficult financial situation called for tact from administrators juggling complexities of the COVID-19 pandemic, a dramatic drop in revenue relied on to run the university and, from the Board of Regents in Topeka, availability of a new policy viewed as a threat to faculty careers.

“It’s scary — scary to me — and I find it easy to blame folks. Far harder, and maybe more productive to my mind, is to work with people to navigate this challenge,” Pierce said.

Hossein Saiedian, professor of electrical and computer engineering, told colleagues on Faculty Senate the university’s budget woes were grave. He said disparaging the central administration without offering alternative solutions would be a mistake.

“We do not want to burn all the bridges that we have with the administration. Imagine, for example, we do a vote of no confidence. Let’s say, for example, the provost would pack up and leave. Then what? The budgetary issue will still remain a major problem,” he said.

English professor Geraldo Sousa, who has been associated with KU for more than 40 years as a student and professor, said Faculty Senate ought to affirm support for the administration because they stood between faculty and the Board of Regents’ termination policy.

He recommended a plea to be issued to potential donors about the university’s budgetary despair.

“We need to plug this budget deficit,” Sousa said. “Send an SOS to our donors.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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