Inside Higher Ed: A professor’s cri de coeur

By Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed

June 18, 2012

Last week, David Dudley did something that surprised his colleagues at Georgia Southern University. He sent all of them an open letter in which he described – in detail – the extent of dysfunction he sees at the university.

He described an administration disconnected from the faculty, with oversized ambitions that could move the institution away from its teaching mission. He described a faculty governance system willing to adopt the wrong resolutions just to make the administration pay attention. And he described professors who have spent their careers at the university (in November he’ll have been there 23 years; he currently serves as chair of literature and philosophy) who feel besieged by one idea after another from administrators destined to be short-termers.

While his colleagues were a little stunned when they opened their email, it wasn’t because they disagreed. “I was so happy because someone stood up and said this out loud,” said Eric Nelson, one professor. “We all have these sentiments, but no one has said so like this.”

Dudley’s open letter seems to have become the talk of faculty not only at his institution, but elsewhere too. As people have forwarded it to colleagues elsewhere, frequently using the phrase “speaking truth to power”, many are saying that Dudley has captured many of the things that are wrong in higher education today, especially at the non-flagship, non-elite private institutions that most students attend.

Referring to various administration and faculty positions, Dudley wrote: “At the moment, many of us realize there is intense strife among these parties, and we are in danger of descending into warfare that masquerades behind a fragile veneer of civility.”

The immediate prompts for the letter include some campus-specific issues. A popular provost left after one year and was replaced by someone whom Dudley wrote that he had no problem with – except for the lack of any faculty involvement in a search for the senior academic position on the campus. An accreditor’s complaints about insufficient assessment systems in place was first ignored (Dudley says) but now, with a new accreditation review approaching, is resulting in lots of extra, rushed work for professors. A proposal to add a faculty member to the president’s advisory council was rejected. Faculty members haven’t received pay rises in five years.

Mixed in with his discussion of these issues, Dudley describes problems many professors say are evident all over:

On faculty/administrative differences:

“Deans, provosts, and presidents come and go. Many such individuals are building their careers and are often looking to go on to the next, better job. That’s their prerogative…But faculty members tend to stay put. Given today’s job market in academia, that is understandable. Georgia Southern has a long tradition of faculty members devoting their entire careers to this place. I am among those people, and so are many of my colleagues. We have given Georgia Southern our best years. We’ve worked hard for small pay. We’ve taught our thousands of students, and we’ve celebrated the successes of hundreds of them. Let me say this as plainly as I can: Georgia Southern belongs to its faculty and staff every bit as much as it belongs to any administrator. In fact, it belongs more to us, because when the current deans and higher administrators are long gone, we will still be here, striving to maintain what this place stands for: individual attention to our students.”

On the way faculty leaders respond, based on a recent faculty senate meeting:

“The Senate proposal for a moratorium on hiring additional administrators and/or raising administrators’ salaries was ill-advised and, as the president noted, impossible for him to agree to. The president’s response to the motion was reasonable and correct. Yet the Senate passed it anyway, as if daring the president to ignore it. Two dynamics are at play: the motion expresses the deep frustration faculty feel over lack of raises, over salary compression, over ever-increasing health insurance costs, and over larger teaching loads. Second, passing the motion despite the president’s thoughtful remarks shows that the Senate believes its concerns are not being heard and that reasonable debate is ever more difficult.”

On the university administration’s seeming emphasis on a non-student-oriented mission:

“The current administration is trying to lead us in new directions. More doctoral research programs. More publications. A higher national profile. Bigger football (bigger might just not be better, in my opinion). We are about to undertake a huge capital campaign. We have two choices before us: work together, openly discussing everything, listening to one another, and striving for consensus, knowing that we won’t always agree on everything. Or the administration and faculty can circle their wagons, retire to hostile positions, and let the battles begin.”

Throughout the letter, Dudley suggests that more truly open communication between faculty members and administrators could restore trust and a true sense of being on the same team. In fact, the letter ends on a note not of cynicism but idealism. Dudley writes that it’s time for administrators and faculty members to stop thinking of themselves as “the most important person” at the university.

“The most important person on our campus is the young woman from a small southeast Georgia town who will enter here as a freshman in August. She will be nervous but excited. She might not know what she wants to study, but will find her interest sparked in a biology course, or a sociology class, or in a philosophy class. A certain professor will ask a certain question, present a certain problem, discuss a certain topic that this student has never heard of or thought of before. And then her education begins,” Dudley wrote. “The most important person on our campus is the young man from Atlanta who could have gone to UGA [the University of Georgia] but chose us because he was impressed by our personal regard for him as a student and as a person. He already knows he wants to study business, but he, too, will be surprised at how his intellectual field is enlarged by what he hears in an American history class, or in a geology lab, or at a construction site.”

In an interview, Dudley said that there was a direct relationship between the way administrators turn over at institutions such as Georgia Southern and the way faculty members come to view their relationship to the university.

“My college has had five deans in the past 10 years. They want to make their mark. That’s fine, but the longer I’m in one place as a faculty chair, [the more clearly] I see why faculty are cynical and jaded,” Dudley said. “Every time there is turnover, there is a new initiative. There is a new strategic plan. So many faculty are just at the point where they say, ‘Just leave us alone.’ ”

Dudley also said that he wanted to speak up for the college’s mission. “Our tradition is of excellent teaching. We’ve got great researchers, but teaching load has always been a big teaching load, and the salaries are low. We don’t attract people who can go to the Ivy League, but people who are dedicated to their students. Our faculty fall in love with the students and [the] place and they stay a long time. So we feel Georgia Southern belongs to us more than [it does to] the dean who was here three or four years ago.”

A university spokesman said that Georgia Southern would not comment on Dudley’s letter.

Dudley said that he’s been overwhelmed by the email messages he has received and the praise offered on Facebook, where some have been posting the letter. On Friday last week, he was also invited to the office of Brooks Keel, the university’s president, for a talk. Much of what Keel said, according to Dudley, was explaining why he couldn’t do some of the things outlined in the open letter. But Dudley said that the president was “friendly and cordial” and invited him to reach out again in the future. Dudley said that he appreciated the president’s overture, and said that he had tried to impress upon him that, even if there are good reasons for administrators acting as they do on some issues, “people are so frustrated that they will automatically read the worst motives around any decision that has been made”.

Friday did mark a change for Dudley. When he served on the university’s internal accreditation team, he said, he had been in the same room with a previous president and had been able to discuss various issues the group was considering. But in nearly 23 years of teaching at the university, the first time he was invited to offer private counsel to the president was the day after he sent an email to everyone on campus.

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