Monday, November 10, 2008


Votes of No Confidence

(Happily, this isn’t a concrete issue for me now. This just falls under “I’ve always wondered…”)

What are the rules governing faculty votes of no confidence?

I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t actually faced one of these, either directly or indirectly, which may explain some of my ignorance on the subject.

From a spectator’s perspective, they strike me as somewhat ambiguous.

Historically, the idea of a vote (or motion) of no confidence is an import from parliamentary systems of government, in which the Prime Minister is actually elected by the Parliament. The Parliament – which has the power to hire the PM – has the power to fire the PM. But faculties don’t hire Presidents, so it’s not clear to me where they get the standing to fire them.

From this side of the desk, I can attest that faculty aren’t the only interested parties at a college. Whenever faculty talk as if their voice is the only one that matters, the staff bristle. (At my cc, I find myself defending the faculty from the staff, who’ve had it with what they perceive as arrogance.) Yet votes of no confidence seem to be the exclusive province of faculty.

As near as I can tell, votes of no confidence don’t have to come with reasons or abide by criteria; they’re the equivalent of a mob yelling “we don’t like you.” The mob may or may not have good reasons, but the simple fact of group anger, by itself, strikes me as neither here nor there. If the anger is a response to valid grievances, then it seems to me the grievances should be spelled out; if it isn’t, then the vote is baseless and should be treated accordingly.

The usual reading of votes of no confidence is that they’re ‘symbolic,’ but that doesn’t really answer the question. Symbolic of what? I’m not convinced that people vote the same way on ‘symbolic’ questions as they do when they believe the decision will actually happen. (Voters frequently vote to ‘send a message,’ not meaning the content of the vote literally.) By casting the meaning of the vote as symbolic, a distortion of intended meaning is baked into the cake. But that distortion defeats the value as a symbol.

Someone out there has probably done the legwork; I'd like to know the aftermath of Presidential 'votes of no confidence.' How many occur in a given year? How long do Presidents typically last afterwards? It could be tough to define success in this case, since a definition of success presumes a definition of purpose, but I'd take something like "an improved campus climate" as a success, whether with the current President or a new one.

I suppose one could defend votes of no confidence as the cri de coeur of an otherwise-powerless bunch, but I'm wary of making policy based on that. Besides, one could just as easily define them as an unaccountable method for the tenured to bully the untenured.

So I'm not entirely sure what to make of them. Wise and worldly readers -- what's your take? What have you seen?

This is all dependent on context. Sometimes it's sour grapes. Many times it's a statement to the world: "We've tried for over a year, through many quiet paths, of trying to work with this asshole, and it's time to declare that she or he is unimprovable, uneducable, and unworthy of further attention. We quit the game of working with him/her." Larry Summers seems the obvious example of that.

The functional point of a non-explanatory vote is that people can bring different reasons to the vote, but they all agree that the limits of toleration have been reached.

The logical point to make when faculty at an institution start to talk about votes of no confidence is to ask, "Have you done the legwork?" There are a number of meanings on this:

- Have you done the legwork of really demonstrating that there's no way to work with the putative asshole?
- Have you done the legwork of ruling out alternatives that would leave him/her in place?
- Have you done the legwork of figuring out the next steps, after the vote of no confidence?
- Have you done the legwork of making sure that you'll actually win the vote? (Embarrassing if not!)

Without the legwork, a vote of no confidence is remarkably like pissing down your pantsleg: it makes you feel warmer for a little bit, but that doesn't mean it's worth it.
In my CC District, after a strike, the faculty voted no confidence on our Chancellor, an overwhelming vote with something like 550 voting no-confidence, and 7 voting confidence.

The aftermath: it had ZERO effect on anything.
I think of votes of no confidence in relation to ethical or legal snafus that the top people are refusing to deal with, as in the case of West Virginia University and the scandal around that dude (president? regent? I forget) who was handing out degrees to his cronies. He refused to admit it, and then refused to admit that it was wrong, and the vote of condemnation was all they had to try and shame him out of the position.
My colleagues and I several times discussed a no-confidence vote, but too many people were too afraid. (There was no tenure...) We did this first with a president who did not address serious academic issues; and second when multi-year contracts were replaced with one year ones, and the only response to crisis was to blame the faculty. (Which deserved some of the blame, but so did some administrators.)
This was an institution where the board expected faculty concerns to come to them through the president, so we had no legitimate avenue to the board.
So my experience is that faculty are reluctant to do the vote of no confidence because they don't know where it will go.
Some still think the 60s are alive and well . . .
In 2006 the faculty at Gallaudet University in DC went through several iterations of votes of no confidence when the Board of Trustees chose a person whom both the student body and the faculty felt was unqualified in many ways to be president. After a long long fight, she stepped down and was replaced with someone the students and faculty liked better.
an opportune time for this discussion. There's some sentiment on my campus to hold a vote of no-confidence on our chief campus administrative officer. (He has not been much of a success in his nearly 10 years here, and retires in the not-too-distant future.)

My own position on this vote is somewhat complicated. First, I think it must provide a rationale for the motion. (I tend to think of the Delcaration of Independence as the ultimate resolution of no-confidence.) Second, it must be persuasive to the faculty on the campus (not all of whom are inclined immediately to support the motion). Third, because we are a campus in a system, to the extent that it's addressed to the system administration, it must be persuasvie to them as well.

What I have seem fails all three of these tests. So what I see is something that will fail in its avowed purpose(s) and create a lot of ill-will toward the faculty.
At Rose-Hulman, faculty, staff, and student government each independently voted "no confidence" in the president in 2005. Here's an article: So it needn't be just faculty. The president soon resigned.

It seems like such a vote is a good way to judge the extent of the problem: it makes it clear if everyone is having problems with this person, or if there are only a few people having problems who happen to have loud voices.
Ideally, a vote of no confidence is accompanied by a document stating the reason for the vote. Our faculty held a no confidence vote on our last Prez. Although the letter of explanation was great (and published in local papers), the vote itself was ambiguous. Most full-time faculty voted for no confidence, but most adjunct faculty did not vote, allowing the Prez to state that the no confidence vote was only among about 50% of faculty.

The short-term effect was nil, but the Prez was deeply hurt and moved to a different job a year later.
Sisyphus, it was the president at WVU. The faculty had a vote of no confidence before he was even inaugurated to express their displeasure. As anonymous said, in that case it was sour grapes.

In my opinion, it was premature. I knew he'd do something dumb, something worth a vote of no confidence, and that when it happened the faculty would vote no confidence AGAIN and be promptly ignored as sour grapes, when in this case it did have a basis but was dismissed as faculty whining. As a result, it took several more months than it should have, and I think a big reason was the first vote of no confidence.

The short-term effect was nil, but the Prez was deeply hurt and moved to a different job a year later.

Getting rid of a president you dislike within a year seems like lightning fast results for academia!
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