Referendum on governance
One CUNY campus president is borrowing a line from King Louis XIV: L’école, c’est moi – the school, it is me.
William Fritz, the president of the College of Staten Island (CSI), is proposing a dramatic overhaul of the governance structure of the school that faculty advocates say would dissolve faculty governance and consolidate power under the president. The proposal, which requires a successful faculty referendum before going to the CUNY Board of Trustees for approval, would create the CSI College Senate, which would “replace the existing College Council and Faculty Senate,” and “be a unicameral body, representing the faculty, students, non-teaching instructional staff and administrators of the college, presided over by the president of the college.”
The outrage from faculty leaders at the college is palpable. “[The proposal] dismantles nearly every institution of shared governance and shuts faculty out of all of its major roles in campus leadership,” said Jane Marcus-Delgado, the chair of the CSI Faculty Senate. “Like many CUNY campuses, CSI has a long-established tradition of faculty participation in all aspects of campus life. Its most important leadership bodies – in terms of representative governance and checks and balances – would be eliminated under the president’s plan. Gone would be the Faculty Senate, the College Council, the Institutional Planning Committee and nearly every major body chaired by faculty members. Replacing them would be committees headed by the president and administered at his discretion. Many faculty, myself included, vehemently object to the proposal in terms of both its process and content,” said Marcus-Delgado.
Is it just a coincidence that this sweeping change consolidating power under the president comes just months after the CSI Faculty Senate voted no confidence in both the president and the provost? As Clarion reported in February, that vote focused on two main issues: the undermining of faculty governance and the mishandling of the campus budget.
John Verzani, the chair of CSI’s College Council (his authority would be abolished under the proposal) and a professor of mathematics, certainly believes that the president’s proposal is a response to the Faculty Senate vote. “The president did not admit to that, but I don’t see any other reason,” Verzani said.
George Sanchez, the PSC chapter chair at CSI, agreed. He noted that the new governance plan, if approved and enacted, would do away with the faculty governance body that recently voted no confidence in the president and provost.
“This is a direct response to the vote of no confidence. No one can question this,” he said. “President Fritz was given a strong vote of no confidence at the Faculty Senate of the college on December 17, 2020. That vote was given over two months of open, transparent discussions within every department, and with staff, prior to the vote in December.”
Verzani, among the other faculty leaders on campus, urged faculty to vote “no,” not just because he believes the proposal constitutes a power grab by the president, but because voting would begin at the end of March. Normally, he said, a referendum on governance changes of this magnitude would happen after months of discussion. “I think this is extremely rushed,” he said. “I think there’s a design in rushing it.”
Marcus-Delgado, a professor of political science, blasted the speed of the referendum as well and viewed the entire referendum process as a rigged game. “The CSI president’s timeline and process for the proposed gutting of the college’s shared governance are alarming,” she said. “He has called for comments on a public website, a town hall and a referendum. All of these elements are biased and flawed. Given the precarity of employment, the intimidating hierarchy of the administration and community members’ total dependence on the college for their livelihood and professional survival, who is going to publicly denounce this ill-conceived initiative on a website or in a public forum? And the intrepid souls who do speak out at the town hall will be given two minutes to speak.”
Sanchez urged a ‘no’ vote, saying, ‘It is paramount for all eligible voters at CSI to reject outright this assault on our governance plan by a president who was soundly given a vote of no confidence only three months ago. We need to do this to save our governance, but equally important, we need to do this to prevent this from happening at any other CUNY campus. If this is allowed to happen at CSI, it can happen at any of our institutions.”
LOTS OF ISSUES
The Faculty Senate vote of no confidence in the president cited several issues concerning governance, including that the President did not articulate a clear intellectual or scholarly vision for CSI and had failed to provide leadership or consistent instructional polices, guidelines or parameters during the pandemic; approved and allowed online class sizes to increase against the recommendations of the Faculty Senate and the faculty in general;” and also “ignored the Faculty Senate Committee reports on research and technology submitted over the last two years.”
Deborah DeSimone, secretary of the Faculty Senate, said of the no confidence vote last December, “There were ample opportunities for debate” and “this vote truly represents the concerns of the faculty at large.”
Verzani said of the president’s proposal, “It seems punitive in nature,” adding that “there’s no reason the college can’t affect changes through a traditional process” and that “there’s no reason why an upset president should dictate terms of roles on campus, which are designed to limit his exposure to faculty.”
For Verzani, the proposal is clearly about disempowering the faculty in the governance process by putting the president at the head of a unicameral governing structure. “This plan takes away faculty leadership and replaces it with administrative leadership,” Verzani said. “It fails to have a system where faculty have a voice to affect real change,” adding that “it happens to be a poorly worded plan and has many fundamental flaws….It’s a demonstration of a failure to build a consensus around ideas and assert authority he doesn’t have.”