AAUP Sanctions Idaho State University for Suspending Faculty Senate

By June 13, 2011

In a letter in March, FIRE raised serious concern about the February decision by Idaho State University (ISU) President Arthur C. Vailas and the Idaho State Board of Education to suspend ISU’s Faculty Senate just one week after it recorded a vote of no confidence in Vailas. The administration had cited a "stalemate" with the faculty. Indeed, the suspension followed longstanding tension between the Faculty Senate and Vailas’ administration, evidenced in disputes over the termination of a faculty member who criticized the university, a vote of no confidence in ISU Provost Gary Olson, and the expression of many other serious concerns about Vailas’ leadership (PDF) and proposed reorganization of the university.

FIRE was not alone in its concerns. At a lecture at the annual conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) on June 11, ISU Professor Alan C. Frantz provided a timeline of faculty concerns and actions, including the February 11 vote of no confidence in Vailas (the official report shows a vote of 359 to 92 (PDF)), and the AAUP formally sanctioned ISU.

FIRE’s March 2 letter pointed out that the decision to suspend the Faculty Senate raised fundamental questions about the university’s commitment to academic freedom and shared governance. We wrote:

Rather than engage in continued dialogue with the university’s faculty and its representatives, you have instead chosen to silence the Faculty Senate altogether. Not only does this regrettable action sharply erode academic freedom among Idaho State faculty, but it also teaches your students that the correct way to engage with critics is censorship and assertion of raw power, not rational debate and mediation. This unfortunate lesson is entirely at odds with the mission of a university presumptively devoted to academic inquiry and the search for truth.

The suspension of the Faculty Senate also earned the university criticism from the AAUP. In a February 22 letter (PDF) to Vailas from Gregory F. Scholtz, Associate Secretary and Director of the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance, Scholtz wrote that the suspension "contravenes widely observed principles of shared governance." Scholtz further noted that "[g]iven the seriousness of this departure from generally accepted standards of academic governance," unless Vailas "can apprise us of truly extraordinary factors currently unknown to us that would justify the action taken," the AAUP "intends to authorize a formal investigation."

According to Frantz’s timeline, the faculty voted in a new Provisional Faculty Senate on April 25. Thirteen out of 18 members had been on the previous Faculty Senate, and the previous chair, Philip Cole, was again elected chair. The new body met on May 5 and passed resolutions and a provisional constitution, which could have taken the teeth out of the AAUP investigation, but the administration refused to recognize the meeting or any of the actions of the new body. On June 11, at the AAUP annual meeting (which runs concurrently with the annual conference), Cole read a two-page statement, noting:

[F]aculty grievance procedures have been suspended. The provisional faculty senate leadership has been sternly warned against emailing the faculty at large. … [T]he central administration inexplicably dissolved the Office of the Ombudsman. About a week later this office was reinstated, again without any explanation.

At this time, faculty at ISU have no duly-elected university-wide faculty representatives who are recognized by central administration, no bylaws, no seat at central administration meetings, no agreed-upon grievance procedures, and no right to communicate electronically with colleagues at large. The councils that reported to the faculty senate have either been disbanded or now report directly to a vice president.

After AAUP completed its investigation, its Committee on College and University Governance announced the results of the investigation last month. Predictably, ISU came in for severe criticism:

[L]egitimate agencies no longer exist to facilitate faculty participation in institutional decision making, nor does any agency remain that can speak on behalf of the faculty to the administration, the board, the students, and other constituencies. The senate, which had been created through joint effort, was eliminated unilaterally. And the faculty’s elected representatives have been summarily dismissed from office by the same unilateral action.

In short, the AAUP found that "the action in February by the state board of education to suspend the faculty senate at Idaho State University not only violated fundamental principles of academic governance but poorly served the teaching and research mission of the university." On June 11 the report was presented at the AAUP annual meeting, bearing out the concerns expressed in FIRE’s and the AAUP’s correspondence with ISU. The assembled AAUP members unanimously voted to sanction ISU for its actions. (The AAUP also unanimously voted to sanction Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for having dissolved its faculty senate in 2007.)

It appears that the onus is now on the Idaho State Board of Education. I truly do not see how President Vailas and the faculty can coexist without an extraordinarily able negotiator sitting down with both sides to resolve their very serious differences. Is it even conceivable that the ISU leadership or the faculty would think it acceptable to have no truly representative faculty body on campus? This is a question of institutional governance rather than individual rights, so I hope the AAUP continues to play a large role in this sad case.

Schools: Idaho State University Cases: Idaho State University: Suspension of Faculty Senate