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Following Suspension of Faculty Senate, FIRE Asks for Answers at Idaho State University

In a letter yesterday, FIRE called upon Idaho State University President Arthur C. Vailas to explain the Idaho State Board of Education's recent decision to suspend Idaho State's Faculty Senate. The suspension was levied on February 17, just one week after the Faculty Senate recorded a vote of no confidence in Vailas. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reported:

In an apparently unprecedented step, the Idaho State Board of Education voted on Thursday to suspend the Faculty Senate of Idaho State University and instructed the university's president to put in place an interim faculty advisory structure.

In a statement released after its vote, at a meeting in Boise, the board cited an impasse between faculty leaders and the president, and said its action was "the most reasonable action to take at this time."

The board acted after hearing an update from the university's president, Arthur C. Vailas, on a controversial reorganization plan that includes changes in faculty governance. At the meeting, board members  questioned Mr. Vailas about the possibility of their working through "the current stalemate" over the proposed changes.  They also heard from Phil Cole, chair of the Faculty Senate, about faculty members' concerns with the reorganization plan and with Mr. Vailas's honesty and his ability to communicate well with them.

The suspension follows longstanding tension between the Faculty Senate and Vailas' administration, evidenced in disputes over the termination of a faculty member who criticized the university, the ensuing vote of no confidence in the university's provost, and the expression of many other serious concerns about Vailas' leadership (.pdf) and proposed reorganization of the university.

Our letter points out that the decision to suspend the Faculty Senate raises fundamental questions about the university's commitment to academic freedom and shared governance. We write:

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 has also earned the university criticism from the American Association of University Professors (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 writes that the suspension "contravenes widely observed principles of shared governance." Scholtz further notes 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 and resulting report on the matter."

FIRE has asked for a response by March 16. We will keep you updated on the situation here on The Torch.

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