Over the past two years, my university, Wright State, has been producing negative news stories with remarkable regularity. Our enrollment, which had been gradually increasing has dipped somewhat, and because we are in the midst of a largely self-created budget mess, any decline in enrollment makes the budget issues worse and the number of positions that need to be eliminated more likely to increase. As a result, some staff and faculty have started to blame the regional media, in particular the Dayton Daily News, for its “consistently” negative coverage of the university, suggesting that such coverage may be discouraging students from attending the university. This charge, of course, echoes the Trump administration’s complaints about negative media coverage, and like those complaints, it is easily countered: if you don’t like the negative media coverage, stop stoking it with a seemingly endless volume and variety of stories that seem to suggest that if anyone is actually in charge, their professional competency—if not their basic mental competency–should be in question.
I offer this background to explain why I have become more curious about and attentive to how colleges and universities present their internal issues to the media. More specifically, it should suggest why the following headline grabbed my attention: “Bergen Community College Fires President, Citing ‘No Cause.’”
The news story has been published at northjersey.com, and it focuses on a meeting of the college’s Board of Trustees. Although the meeting was heavily attended by faculty and staff, there is no indication of any overt activism by those in attendance—no protest signs or vocalizations of discontent. Instead, the Board seems simply to have voted almost unanimously (there was one dissenting vote) to buy out the final year of the president’s contract and to appoint an interim president while a search for a permanent replacement is being conducted. The terminated president, B. Kaye Walter, had survived a vote of no confidence several years ago, but professed to be “’surprised’” and even “’shocked’” when she learned shortly before the meeting that her job was in jeopardy. When “asked about any conflict or concerns that caused the board to suddenly end the president’s contract,” the chair of the Board of Trustees said simply that there was “’no cause.’” Instead of addressing the question, “she spoke about moving forward”: “’We are entering an age of transition, and we will preserve what is and what always has been good about the college. To do that, we must work in tandem and in concord.’”
So, fairly obviously, there was considerable unanimity that, for good cause or not, this president had simply lost too much support to continue to lead the institution with a sufficient degree of effectiveness. More specifically, she herself seems to have become a somewhat fixed point of distraction, a focal point to which negative stories about the college seemed to become attached in one way or another.
What goes unanswered, of course, is whether the strategy of ignoring the reasons for the president’s termination will effectively end the distraction that she came to represent or, instead, serve to prolong it. In this case, it is very possible that because of the previous vote of no confidence, there is little remaining mystery about the problems that this president was having, and so the only real mystery is the immediate cause for her seemingly sudden dismissal after she had survived the vote of no confidence. But, as a general rule, it seems to me that this strategy of stonewalling the media on the details will backfire much more often than it succeeds.
The former president at Wright State has an enormous reservoir of personal charm that very seldom comes across, at least in person, as a glib affectation. But, as our university confronted deepening and, again, largely self-created budget issues, it also became the target of several federal and state investigations. And as things started to seem clearly headed toward some sort of a tipping point, the exodus of administrators started to accelerate, and the number of personal lawsuits against the university started to contribute to the impression of an institution with some serious legal as well as management issues. Unrelated stories that were not particularly favorable to the university started to seem part of a broader narrative that reached its climax (or at least an early climax) with our finally backing out of the very ill-considered decision to host the first presidential debate between Clinton and Trump. (I suspect that it may have ended up costing us more to not host the debate than it cost Hofstra to host it.)
Through all of this escalating turmoil, our former president’s response was not just to put a “brave face” on things, but to offer with his signature smile and a completely contented facial expression and composed tone, reassurances that everyone was making far too much of some small stuff. If you are really good at it, and he was, that approach can work for a while—for a lot longer than, in retrospect, it seems it ever should have worked. But when it suddenly stops working, it just seems ridiculous.
Several years ago, language eliminating our collective-bargaining rights was put into the biennial state budget bill—after it had already left committee! And no one, either inside the legislature or out, would claim responsibility for the language. Our president was then the chair of the Inter-University Council (IUC), representing the public university presidents. So I naturally asked for a meeting with him. He put me off for about a week. When I finally did meet with him, he reiterated the claim that the language had surprised everyone and that no one knew where it had originated. He then almost immediately acknowledged, with a very disarming directness, my very obvious disbelief. I pointed out that we knew the source of the language because we knew that the exact same language had been introduced into other legislation the previous year, in committee–though after five or six hours, it had been quietly removed by the chair of the committee–and we knew that the source of that language was a particular state official who works very closely with the IUC.
The president then hardly missed a beat and smoothly shifted to what he could do to reassure me. He offered to make a public statement against the language, but that offer simply confirmed to me that the language was about to be pulled, if it had not been pulled already, and so whatever he was offering to do was essentially meaningless. You might wonder, as I did then and later, why I did not find it all unforgivably insulting and why I was not angrier about the meeting than I was, and the answer is simple: at that moment, it all just seemed ridiculous.
I suspect that much the same thing has happened at some point or another to every reporter covering the issues at our university, and that moment of recognition would have made things less, not more, personal, as they processed one story after another. It would make one stop thinking about, never mind being concerned about, the implications of reporting a steady, if not relentless stream of negative news. Any uneasiness about striking the same note over and over again would have dissolved in the acceptance that the “news” itself is simply ridiculous and to report it in a way that suggests that it is anything but ridiculous would be not just a disservice to truth but a denial of very obvious realities.
Our institutions obviously don’t benefit from airing all of their “dirty laundry” in the media, but it should be equally obvious that the sources of festering problems cannot prevent them from continuing to fester. To function effectively, Boards of Trustees need to recognize that the diminishment of faculty’s role in shared governance has very real consequences for our institutions because it eliminates one of the major checks on administrative excess and eccentricity that has served to keep institutional priorities in balance.
And it is very clearly a check that serves the institution much better than several years’ worth of negative media attention serves it. As our new president takes office today, I can only be hopeful that she gets it.