Since the last time I wrote, a number of developments have brought strong reactions from the university community and continue to attract the attention of external interests and authorities. These matters have implications for our work, and their effects will be felt for the foreseeable future. They merit review.
Following the board’s decision that Benjamin Ladner would not return as president of American University, the board announced a settlement agreement that was signed on October 24. Board vice chair Thomas Gottschalk met with representatives of a number of campus constituencies on that day and later that week to discuss the terms of the settlement and the board’s logic in endorsing the agreement. Terms of the agreement have been widely reported on campus, in the news media, and in other venues.
Reaction to the settlement was immediate and generally negative. I need not recount the criticisms in detail, other than to state that both the basis and the specific terms of the agreement were questioned and disapproved in strong terms. The board responded to the criticism in a letter signed by vice chair Gottschalk and chair-elect Gary Abramson. They issued an apology to the community and going forward pledged a number of things, among them:
. . . for the trustees to be less isolated and insulated from campus and have a better understanding of the concerns and priorities of all who work and learn here . . . . for improved and more inclusive governance . . . . for the board to be more vigilant with respect to financial matters . . . . to be more transparent in its discussions and decisions . . . . (and) to assure that the board itself, as a matter of leadership, reflects the values of this university in its work and processes.
On November 1, chair-elect Abramson conducted a series of informal meetings with the acting provost and deans, the leadership and members of the Faculty Senate, student leaders, and the Staff Council to discuss concerns regarding the agreement and governance matters. On November 3, Matthew Pittinsky, who heads the board’s working group on the presidential succession, met with many of the same groups to get their views on the search process. These will likely be the first of many such meetings in the weeks and months to come. The board’s special committee on governance will be engaging the community, as well. As Tom Gottschalk and Gary Abramson noted in their memo to the campus:
We hope . . . the ensuing dialogue with the community will be considered not only responsive to the faculty resolutions and student expressions of concern, but also to what we see as our responsibilities as trustees of this great university.
One result of the board’s commitment to a new way of doing business is that they will be reaching out to the community in new and varied ways. I encourage everyone to be constructive as we test new ways to communicate viewpoints, exchange information, and be inclusive. This will eventually settle into regular communication patterns that are both effective and efficient. Please continue to work through your elected representatives to the extent possible and forward to them your ideas, concerns, and suggestions on any matter you consider relevant. In addition, a governance Web site has been established, www.american.edu/governance, and an e-mailbox for communicating to the board, email@example.com.
It is vitally important that the AU community use the opportunities presented by the board for interaction. I hope you do so in an informed manner and become familiar with “best practices” in university governance, to enable us to participate in meaningful ways in the ongoing discussions.
For my part, I will convene a working group of representatives of the major university constituencies to serve as a clearinghouse on matters pertaining to governance. It will consist of the chair of the Faculty Senate or his designee, a representative of the student body, a dean, a vice president, President of the Alumni Board, a parent, and the chair of the Staff Council or her designee. In convening this group I am fully aware and strongly support the efforts already well underway in these individual constituencies on the issue of governance. This working group will in no way preempt those efforts or interfere with the ability of individual constituencies to communicate directly with the board. Instead, it is a forum to share and discuss ideas and may serve as a single stop for a comprehensive list of the ideas on governance that will be generated across the entire university. Once convened, the group will determine its own agenda and I will take no further part in their discussions, unless requested.
The current controversy is not likely to abate soon. We all are aware of the letter from Senator Charles Grassley to the board vice chair. Throughout this period, our commitment to the core academic mission will not lag. We exist to create knowledge, to teach and learn, and to serve our varied communities. In each of these areas we have opportunities and challenges that deserve our best thought and concerted actions. At the same time, it is important that discussion and debate about future governance continue. This is expected in an institution with a deep commitment to academic freedom. While our attention may not be undivided, I have complete confidence that we are more than equal to the tasks at hand.
I know, as do you, that over these past several months our accomplishments as a community have been substantial and, in some cases, truly remarkable. Our fundamental work continues, and continues at a very high level. I will write again soon and whenever events merit. In the meantime, accept my appreciation for your efforts on behalf of AU.
December 9, 2005 2:11 PM
AU's strategic plan, Leadership for a Changing World, outlines goals and objectives for the next decade at American University. Visit american.edu/strategicplan for more information. (myAU.american.edu login required for some documents)