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?