By Daderot [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

May 21, 2018; Chronicle of Higher Education

“The search for a new chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston was shut down on Monday after the three finalists for the job dropped out,” reports Eric Kelderman for the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The candidates made their decision, Kelderman adds, “following faculty criticism of both the finalists and the search process.”

The finalists, Kelderman notes, were “Kathy Humphrey, senior vice chancellor for engagement at the University of Pittsburgh; Peter Lyons, vice president and dean of Perimeter College at Georgia State University; and Jack Thomas, president of Western Illinois University.”

Faculty complained in a letter to the university system’s president, reports the Boston Globe, that three chancellor finalists lacked “the skills, experience, or values” to lead the institution. But a broader complaint involved the selection process. Under the longstanding concept of academic shared governance, faculty often expect to have an outsized role in hiring the campus executive. But, reports Kelderman, at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, “just two faculty members were appointed to a 15-person committee charged with finding a new chancellor.”

Kelderman describes the failed search as “an unusual outcome to a very common controversy.” He notes that, “The widespread use of search consultants, the decline in shared governance, and the politicization of higher education have all contributed to the marginalization of faculty input in searches.” In an interesting twist of fate, stakeholder governance—an arena where academia once excelled—appears to be withering on the vine, even as other nonprofit sectors, facilitated by information and communications technology, take up its mantle.

Other campuses have had controversial university president hires, including University of Oklahoma, the University of Florida, the University of Iowa, and the University of North Carolina system. In Oklahoma’s case, the other finalists were not even publicly announced. Instead, former oil-company executive James L. Gallogly became president “over the objections of faculty members, who said the process had been too secretive.” Complaints about secrecy and lack of faculty input also surfaced in the Florida, Iowa and North Carolina hires.

But rarely does the faculty act to blow up the search. Clearly, this dispute extended far beyond the search itself. For instance, this month, the University of Massachusetts, Boston faculty voted no confidence “in the system’s president, Martin T. Meehan, over the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s $75-million purchase of the campus of the defunct Mount Ida College, which is just 10 miles from UMass-Boston.” Joe Battenfeld, writing for the Boston Herald, contends that “Much of the discord over the chancellor search and the Mount Ida deal seems rooted in something much deeper: a $30 million deficit at UMass Boston, with the likelihood of layoffs and cutbacks. Faculty and staff feel they’ve been unfairly targeted, and until Meehan addresses that, there’s likely more nastiness coming.”

The impact of the scuttled search remains to be seen. Certainly, there will be recriminations. Search committee chair Henry Thomas called the faculty out for “disrespect and calumny on one of the country’s few African American sitting college presidents, a top African American female university leader and an academic administrator from an institution that graduates more African Americans than any college or university in the country.” Meanwhile, Zong-Guo Xia, a geography professor and former vice provost for faculty and research at UMass Boston, defended the faculty’s objections, saying that one candidate recently had a “no-confidence vote taken” at his host school and arguing that the other two candidates had shortcomings as well.

For his part, university system president Meehan wrote that he was “mortified” at the faculty’s actions and suspended the search. Meehan named Katherine Newman, the system’s senior vice president for academic affairs, as interim chancellor.

It is difficult to sort out who is “right” in situations like this. But the breakdown in communications is clearly an issue that can affect nonprofits and public institutions of all kinds.

An example of the breakdown is provided by Heike Schotten, a political science professor and associate chair of the faculty council, who told the Boston Globe that, “Over and over again the president and the board has forced us to go to the press because they won’t speak to us.”

A few years ago, NPQ’s Ruth McCambridge wrote that “communication requires reciprocity. This reciprocity extends beyond the message sent and received fairly accurately to a deeper and longer negotiation of sorts: a searching out of common interests, topic, and form that ends in a sharing of intelligence toward a common end and the common good. This is, at its essence, a different practice from telling people something they ought to know or do.” And, it might be just the kind of communication that UMass Boston needs right now.—Steve Dubb