The Demise of Shared Governance in Academia

While the faculty furor directed at Simon Newman, the beleaguered former president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, has certainly garnered the most media attention, it is simply the most recent in a growing number of faculty attempts to remove senior administrators at colleges and universities throughout the country.  In a climate of cost-cutting and program elimination on many campuses, faculty votes of “no confidence” in the president are proliferating. Several have been successful. In addition to Mt. St. Mary’s President Newman, “no confidence” votes have been held in the past month against Reverend Kevin Wildes, the president of Loyola University of New Orleans, and the president of the University of Akron. Earlier this year, “no confidence” votes have been held to protest the leadership of the City Colleges of Chicago, Hocking College, Ithaca, California State University at Chico, and the University of Missouri. And, in 2013, faculty members at the Jesuit St. Louis University passed three votes of no confidence against the president, Reverend Lawrence Biondi, until he finally resigned.

In October, Timothy M. Wolfe, the former president of the University of Missouri, paid the price for poor relations with faculty when he was forced to resign for failing to consult with faculty and students about several major decisions and being dismissive of students’ concerns when racial protests in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, spilled over onto campus. Some charged that Wolfe’s non-academic roots meant that he wasn’t interested in fostering dialogue with students. Still, it is possible that some of the cost cutting strategies that Wolfe had implemented led—in part—to the poor relations he developed on campus. The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that Wolfe allowed the graduate student health insurance subsidy to expire. Graduate students marched, threatened to strike, and formed Facebook groups bringing national attention to their plight. Within a week, the decision was reversed—demonstrating weakness on the part of the president, and generating additional mistrust.

It All Began at Harvard
For more than a decade—beginning with the faculty-fueled implosion of Harvard University president Lawrence Summers in 2005—faculty have been increasingly willing to mobilize to bring down senior level administrators. Summers was targeted after he suggested at an academic conference that innate male-female differences might possibly provide a partial explanation why mathematics, engineering, and hard science faculties remain so heavily male.  But, long before his conference remarks, Summers had already been under pressure from the newly formed female faculty Caucus for Gender Equality on the Harvard campus to protest the drop in senior job offers to women during Summers’ tenure. While there was no evidence of discrimination in hiring, the Caucus charged the president with having “reduced diversity by failing to hire enough female professors.” In response to faculty demands, Summers retracted his suggestion on innate differences and issued what The Atlantic’s  Stuart Taylor, Jr. called a “groveling, Soviet-show-trial-style apology.” Still, the faculty held a no confidence vote and Summers resigned.

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Sometimes these kinds of faculty led protests—what some researchers now call “mobbings”—have deadly consequences.  In 2006, University of California at Santa Cruz chancellor, Denise Denton, leapt to her death from a 42-story San Francisco high rise in the wake of a well-orchestrated attack by the campus community that included death threats, harassment, vandalism of her home, and a hostile media campaign waged against her. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the UC unions protested the “spousal-hiring” of Denton’s longtime partner, Gretchen Kalonji as part of her recruiting package. A distinguished scholar herself, Kalonji was given a well-paid and well-publicized administrative position in the UC system. But, a brutal media campaign followed which focused on Denton’s alleged demands for costly improvements to her university-provided house on campus—including fencing for her dogs and a new sound system. At the height of the protests, someone threw a large metal pole through a window in Denton’s home shattering glass throughout her living room. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Denton, who had received a doctorate in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and won a prestigious national award for encouraging women and girls in science, had “very high standards … she expected people to perform and she also worked like crazy. She really set an example.”

Indeed, Denton’s productivity is key to understanding academic mobbing. Research by scholars studying academic mobbing behavior including Kenneth Westhues whose book, The Envy of Excellence: Administrative Mobbing of High-Achieving Professors, reveals that mobbing victims like Denton, Summers, and the besieged president at Mt. St. Mary’s are typically highly successful in their professional lives. Florida Atlantic University professor Joan Friedenberg concurs in her essay, “The Anatomy of an Academic Mobbing” when she writes that “productive, inner-directed individuals who also often act on their principles… They are also often a little different … often foreign-born, with accented speech.”

Friedenberg identifies Heinz Leymann, a German-born Swedish citizen, as the first to apply the term “mobbing” to human behavior: “Previously, the term mobbing was used almost exclusively in zoology, characterizing the behavior of small birds aggressively ganging up on a larger predator bird.” Current research on academic mobbing indicates that the successful career of another can inspire envy and fear for some—and they try to destroy that person. For example, according to media reports, St. Louis University’s Fr. Biondi, devoted 26 years to leading the Jesuit university to prominence—increasing both the number and the quality of its faculty and students, doubling the acreage of the school, and “stabilizing a huge swath of the city, making the Grand Center arts district, and extended SLU’s influence throughout the city and the world.” St. Louis mayor Francis Slay told a reporter for St. Louis Magazine: “Those who remember the SLU when he arrived and examine the one from which he will retire know the truth: Larry Biondi is one of America’s greatest college presidents.”

From every objective measure, Fr. Biondi is indeed one of the greatest college presidents. So, why did the faculty turn against him in a mobbing action that appeared to focus on a tenure dispute, and an unpopular academic vice president? It seems that like Mt. St. Mary’s faculty protest over an intemperate joke from the president about poorly performing students, these kinds of “critical incidents” are used by faculty to justify an extreme reaction. They provide a rationale for the overt mobbing behavior to begin.  For researchers of mobbing behavior, these kinds of incidents are just the “struck match … the kindling’s been stacking up for years, dry and brittle and some of it drenched in gasoline.”

Friedenberg notes that there is often a “critical incident” that follows a sustained period of conspiracy and secrecy—a period when rumors and gossip proliferate. Preceding the widely reported comment about failing students at Mt. St. Mary’s, there were rumors that President Newman, a former private equity chief executive with no experience in academia, was going to “dilute” the faithful Catholic identity because he allegedly told a gathering of the Advisory Board of the College of Liberal Arts that “Catholic doesn’t sell.”  That rumor became defined as fact—reported on at Catholic sites like in an article entitled “President Reportedly Disparaged Role of Faith.”

However, according to Kate Marshall, Jim Becraft, and Philip Zulli, three members of the Mt. St. Mary alumni who actually attended the gathering, the president praised the strong Catholic identity but added that the increased competition for students demands that the university can no longer rely only on its strong Catholic identity to recruit high achieving students: “We did not view President Newman’s comments as showing either disdain for, or hostility to our beloved Mount, only a realistic determination to identify, confront and resolve the issues that it must grapple with at this time in its history.”

Media reports also indicated that President Newman wanted the faculty to be willing to consider changes that will benefit student career aspirations—but these changes involved reducing the number of core courses in philosophy and other Liberal Arts courses that students would be required to enroll in. Mt. St. Mary’s currently has a requirement of 69 units in the core curriculum—higher than most Liberal Arts colleges and universities, and the proposal was to reduce the core to 49 required units.

Likewise, according to the New York Times, in the case of Larry Summers, the critical incident at the academic conference occurred after his attempt to overhaul the undergraduate curriculum, appointing deans and mapping out a new campus were “hugely divisive at the 370-year-old university.” Summers told a reporter at the Times that “I looked at the extent of the rancor that had emerged in parts of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the extent to which for many, I personally had become a large issue, and concluded very reluctantly that the agenda for the university that I cared about—as well as my own satisfaction—would be best served by stepping down.”

It was a huge loss for Harvard’s students at the time. Summers had been lauded in the Times as a “once-in-a-century leader, in the mold of Harvard’s greatest president, Charles W. Eliot.” But, even the Times conceded that he eventually “alienated professors with a personal style that many saw as bullying and arrogant.” Despite the faculty mobbing, students continued to support Summers—holding rallies with signs reading: “Stay, Summers, Stay.” Likewise, students at Mt. St. Mary’s continued to support their president. In fact, a survey administered by Mt. St. Mary’s Student Government revealed that 75 percent of the students who completed the survey (with a 60 percent response rate) expressed strong support for the president and the policies he had implemented.

In addition to rumors and gossip, one of the most important characteristics of the kind of faculty-led protests we are increasingly seeing on college campuses is fear mongering through emotional rhetoric. In the Summers case, one of the accusers from the academic conference, MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, told a reporter that when Summers made his statement, she felt she was “going to be sick … my heart was pounding … that kind of bias makes me physically ill.” It is common for faculty engaged in mobbing behavior to grossly exaggerate personal characteristics and behaviors of the target of the mobbing—claiming that he or she is “dangerous” or even “evil.”

Informal Power Structures Undermine Authority
Jeanine Stewart, professor of psychology at Washington and Lee University, has proposed that the design of the academic workplace itself may have fostered these kinds of counterproductive behaviors. In a paper entitled “Dysfunctional by Design: Mobbing and Harassment in the Academic Workplace,” Stewart suggests that in a campus community in which large numbers of faculty members might report to a single dean or provost, informal pecking orders can emerge. She calls these virtual power structures “soft hierarchies,” in contrast to the hard hierarchies that you see on an organizational chart. It is within the highest tiers of these soft hierarchies that power is concentrated: “People who you wouldn’t expect are at the top of the soft structures. It all depends on who you know.”

Stewart points out that soft hierarchies exert undue influence over decision makers and senior administrators who are higher up in the hard hierarchies; she suggests that senior administrators will be unable to get things done if they do not get the backing of the people at the top of the soft hierarchies. An article published in Women in Higher Education proposes that the mobbing of Lawrence Summers is an example of soft hierarchies bringing down an administrator. In the Summers case, it was powerful female faculty members on the Harvard campus who were influential enough to bring about the mobbing behavior. On most campuses, tenured faculty—especially tenured faculty in the Liberal Arts—hold most of the “soft-hierarchical” power because the curriculum on these campuses requires students to enroll in large numbers of core courses in the Liberal Arts. This mandate results in full-employment for faculty who do not have to actually “recruit” students to enroll in their courses. Any change in core requirements in these areas is a threat to their “soft hierarchical” power and status at Liberal Arts colleges.

It is especially difficult to end mobbing behavior once it has emerged because there are so many individuals on (and off) campus with so much to gain by keeping the mobbing behavior going. Those—like the faculty in the Summers mobbing—gained faculty positions and funding for women’s programs at Harvard. In the middle of Mt. St. Mary’s mobbing of the president, Pamela McGuire, the president of Trinity Washington University, a competitor for the same students who might be attracted to Mt. St. Mary’s, published an incendiary essay attacking President Newman personally.

The tipping point at Mt. St. Mary’s was the concern expressed by the school’s accrediting body, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. The week before the president of Mt. St. Mary’s resigned, the accreditors demanded a report on the recent campus controversies—even though the accrediting body had provided a glowing re-accreditation report to the school in June. reported that the accreditors suggested that the events on the Mt. St. Mary campus may have “implications for continued compliance” with the governance, leadership, and student retention standards identified by the Middle States Commission.

While President Newman’s resignation will likely end the campus controversy, the financial challenges on campus remain. In 2013 Forbes ranked Mt. St. Mary’s one of the least “financially fit schools in America.” In the Forbes financial rankings of 927 colleges, Mt. St. Mary’s was one of 107 colleges to receive the D grade—ranking 888 out of the total in terms of the balance sheets and operational strength. Newman, a successful private equity and strategic planning leader was hired to help the struggling school recover. In some important ways, he was the perfect choice to help the financially struggling school. But, his lack of understanding of the soft hierarchical power dynamic within the faculty led to missteps that undermined his ability to work cooperatively with faculty leaders.

Still, as those like former Mt. St. Mary’s philosophy professor John Schwenkler, who protested Newman’s presidency, are publicly celebrating their success in forcing the president out, it remains uncertain whether it will be a pyrrhic victory for the current faculty. The financial problems at Mt. St. Mary’s have become exacerbated by the negative publicity.  Student retention and recruiting may also be impacted. Yet, Schwenkler told a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter that the statement of protest he had organized “helped to make a national story out of what otherwise could have been just another incident of administrative overreach at a small college… I hope this is a clear signal to other academics and administrators at other institutions of what can happen when scholars join together in solidarity for justice.” An article published in the Daily Nous, the philosophy  website that hosted the 8,000 signature protest against Newman, warned: “This incident should be a message to administrators everywhere about the power of the academic community to unite. Now let’s do it more.”

Schwenkler understands the power of the soft hierarchy on campuses like Mt. St. Mary’s. There will likely be more votes of “no confidence” on campuses throughout the country as the demographic decline in college age students combines with the diminishing pool of state and federal dollars to force colleges and universities to make hard choices to stay solvent. Moody’s predicts that “revenue stress” will triple the number of closures of small Liberal Arts colleges in 2017. Faculty have been empowered by their successes in removing their presidents but their victories may have come at a cost that is higher than most schools can afford to bear.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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