Faculty Clash with Forman at Meeting

Tensions flared as faculty members voiced their discontent to College Dean Robin Forman on Wednesday. More than 100 faculty members attended the special meeting, which was held in response to the Sept. 14 announcement that the College and Laney Graduate School would be phasing out or suspending several departments and programs.

Forman on the Defensive

Forman opened the floor by addressing concerns about the process behind the decision. Forman said that in 2008, after learning that the College needed to make significant budget cuts, the Governance Committee assembled a subcommittee of elected faculty to advise the dean.

Forman said the process wasn’t a “secret” and that in his March meetings with department chairs, he outlined the timeline of events leading up to Sept. 14 when he announced that the College was narrowing its scope. At that meeting, Forman said he explained that the College would not only close select academic departments and units but also suspend admissions to certain graduate programs.

“At that meeting of 50 faculty, there were two or three questions or clarifications, but no concerns were raised about the process,” he said.

Because discussions were ongoing and nothing was final, Forman said he was not comfortable being as forthcoming about the plan to department chairs as many would have liked. Any announcement made before the decision was final would have been “inappropriate and unwise,” according to Forman, and would have prevented the College from providing context for the decision if the focus was on the sole units being phased out.

Department chairs have been vocal about what they see as a lack of due process and have expressed frustrations about not being given a chance to take part in discussions that affected them the most.

Forman said giving a department a chance to defend itself was a “perfectly plausible approach,” but hypothesized that the ensuing debate would have lengthened the list of departments to be phased out.

“Other colleges have done it that way,” he said. “I don’t think any of them were thrilled with the experience.”

Departments and programs have been particularly keen on the criteria used by the College Financial Advisory Committee (CFAC), which advised on and ultimately endorsed Forman’s plan. Forman laid out five areas: scholarly distinction or the amount of money needed to distinguish an academic department; the role an academic unit plays in an undergraduate liberal education; interdependence with other parts of the College; ways the department contributes to the broader College mission and how that department fits into the College’s vision in the coming decades.

With regards to finances and how the College’s budget influenced the decision, the goal was never to break even, according to Forman. Rather, the College needed funds to hire new faculty, cover travel and research projects and support faculty “in the efforts we hired you to do,” Forman said.

“As a general target, I don’t think we can succeed in any of our aims starting from where we are, which is no debt and no discretion money at all and no surplus,” he said.

Forman also addressed questions about his authority to make decisions about curriculum, which comes under faculty jurisdiction. Forman said that the dean makes decisions all the time that affect curriculum and to think that the curriculum “is owned by the faculty” is a “dramatic oversimplification.”

At this point in the meeting, one faculty member called “time” to remind Forman, who had now been speaking for half an hour, that he was exceeding the 20 minutes he had said he would talk for.

Forman concluded that the faculty on the committee did not come from departments that represent “leading priorities” of the College, in reaction to criticisms that programs or departments being eliminated did not have representation on the committee.

Faculty Take the Floor

Names of faculty members who spoke during the meeting have been omitted, in accordance with the terms that allowed the Wheel to attend the meeting. 

The second half of the meeting had few questions for Forman. Instead, many chose to read from prepared statements, starting with the first faculty member.

The speaker contested Forman’s account that department chairs were informed that there were performance issues. The speaker said that as early as February of this year, Forman and the Laney Graduate School gave his department “a clean bill of health” and a “resounding stamp of excellence” in meetings. The speaker then questioned whether a committee in the College was qualified to make decisions about a graduate program and called the lack of communication between the Laney Graduate School and the committee a “big black void.”

“Should such a decision stand?” he asked, before expressing concern about future cuts that might also lack due process.

The speaker also asked whether the College is still “hemorrhaging millions” because of Emory Advantage, a financial aid initiative “to help students from families with annual total incomes of $100,000 or less who demonstrate a need for financial aid,” according to Emory’s website. The speaker said that the initiative is “Emory University policy” and therefore an “undue burden” on the College’s finances. Nearing the end of his statement, the speaker turned to Forman.

“The real shame is the damage done to what we want: trust, academic community and collegial respect,” he said.

Resounding applause filled the room, after which Forman said that it is unlikely another “wave of reorganization” is in the works, and that University officials are having discussions about financial aid at Emory and what that commitment means.

The second speaker also read from a prepared statement, this time on behalf of a professor who couldn’t attend the meeting. The speaker defended the role of educational studies amid the current educational challenges the state and nation faces. The speaker also said that the University wanted to attract more African American and Latino graduate students and that her department had been successful in that mission.

Faculty members applauded as a third member spoke on behalf of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), a national organization that works to “define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education,” according to AAUP’s website.

The speaker announced that the local AAUP chapter will release a statement shortly, but would go on the record and say that AAUP guidelines were violated “insofar as shared governance and educational matters are concerned.” Responsibility for such “subject matter” and “method of instruction” primarily falls to the faculty, the speaker said.

Speaking on her own accord, the faculty member called the recent events “appalling,” and suggested that the College create a standing committee devoted to budgetary matters populated by elected representatives “who are given a clear charge.” She rejected the notion that “sensitive matters” was an insurmountable obstacle and that the University now had an opportunity to strengthen faculty governance.

“I don’t think it’s rocket science. We’re smart people,” she said. “We can figure out a way to enhance our participation in these various conversations.”

The next faculty member to speak took issue with Forman’s authority to place tenured faculty into different departments. The speaker said that one could place tenured faculty in a hostile department in an effort to encourage early retirement.

Such powers were an extraordinary breach of faculty governance, he said.

“What that says is, ‘Hell, we gave you a job and they chose to retire.’”

Referring to Forman, the speaker concluded, “The dean is an honorable man, and he would not do that, but we know the problem with honorable men.”

Forman responded that proper steps would be taken to ensure that tenured faculty and involved departments would be consulted prior to any decisions. He also noted that the president of the University has the authority to move tenured faculty but has delegated that power to the dean.

The next speaker took Forman to task on the nature of the CFAC. The speaker said she read the minutes of meetings from the last three years of the Governance Committee, and that at one meeting, a member asked why the CFAC did not report to them if it was a subcommittee under them. She surmised that the CFAC simply reported to the dean.

“Will you please release the complete set of minutes of the CFAC from the time that it was created?” asked the speaker, who also wanted to know how many faculty members on the committee were appointed by the dean.

Stefan Lutz, an associate professor in the chemistry department and the chair of the Governance Committee, replied that there are no minutes taken down during the CFAC’s meetings.

Lutz said that the chair of the CFAC has given reports to the Governance Committee. He also said that when the Governance Committee emailed faculty asking for nominations for the CFAC, the response was “moderate” and only two names were suggested.

“These committees serve an incredibly important function, but it does require faculty involvement,” he said. “I think we need to do a better job to engage in those committees.”

Another prepared statement followed Lutz. The speaker touted the importance of journalism as more than a program that only trains students to become journalists. Journalism is only a co-major, and students must also major in another field. The speaker said the diverse composition of journalism classes has led to “dynamic discussions and critical thinking — all of the things that liberal arts institutions are supposed to stand for.”

“You cannot pick up the New York Times, you cannot listen to NPR, you cannot read the Wall Street Journal or watch The Today Show, [or watch] 60 Minutes without seeing the imprint of an Emory journalism graduate,” he said.

The speaker went on to celebrate those graduates who entered other professions and whose work was informed by the Journalism Program.

Faculty applauded, followed by another speaker asking Forman for the specific criteria and discussions regarding individuals departments. Forman didn’t budge.

“It has never felt appropriate to go unit by unit to talk about the rationale behind that decision,” he said. “If there’s a collective sense by Government Committee that there’s value in that by, maybe we will do it at some point.”

The decision to keep proceedings and discussions confidential was a process defined by the Governance Committee, Forman continued.

Even as the meeting exceeded an hour in length, the full house of faculty members remained seated in chairs and in walkways. The next speaker came from the back of the room. The faculty member said she came to Emory 1.5 years ago and had no idea that she had “signed on for the demise of [her] department.”

As a former member of the Governance Committee, the speaker said she remembered a different process of events when they considered eliminating the Physical Education and Health Department. The committee decided to invite the department to give a presentation, which changed the committee’s minds. At a later faculty meeting, other faculty defended the department.

She then lamented the nature of the meeting’s proceedings as a non-conversation starter since “the horses have already left the barn.”

“I’m not participating much [today] because I don’t have a choice. My contract will end,” she said. “I’m not convinced by this activity that conversation or interchange is what has really been promoted in this practice.”

The next speaker came from the middle of the auditorium and reiterated a previously-mentioned criticism that in departmental reviews with the dean, praise, not criticism or concern, was the tone of the conversation. Perhaps in reference to Forman’s plan to explore the study of contemporary China, the speaker then mentioned her department’s proposal to create a committee to advise the dean on international matters. The proposal was ignored by the administration, according to the speaker.

After polite applause, what followed was, by far, the most heated moment of the meeting. Standing from the back of the auditorium, the speaker criticized the chairman of the CFAC, Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Political Science Micheal Giles, who said he “lied” to faculty in 2008 about the financial state of the College in a previous interview with the Wheel.

As a former program director, the speaker recalled meetings with administrators in which finances were discussed. At the mention of cutting a department, the speaker remembered a consensus that departments should always “get their say.” In the event that there were implications during a meeting that the department was in danger of being cut, the speaker said that department chairs were always “very strong in asking for details.”

The speaker said the recent decision to shut down departments and programs came as a “lightning bolt.”

“Am I just incredibly obtuse … or do we in fact have a major breakdown in faculty governance?” he asked. “I don’t frankly trust what the dean is saying. I don’t frankly trust what the faculty governance committee is saying, and I’m not pussyfooting around.”

Forman remained silent amid applause, as he had for most of the second half of the meeting. Shifting from the tone of the previous speaker, the next faculty member asked Forman how the community might “heal” from this experience and move forward. Forman said that it was clear the current faculty governance structure was “not adequate to support the role that many would like the faculty to be playing,” and that faculty wanted a “different kind of representation” moving forward. Forman also shared Lutz’s frustration with garnering faculty nominations for the committees already in existence.

The next speaker expressed concern about creating the proper “channel of discussion” by which “the people whose fates have been decided can have a voice.” That channel, she said, should be more than a legal obligation, but part of the community.

“There has to be a venue of redress in terms of discussion,” she continued. “[The decision] cannot simply be a fiat.”

Forman responded that since the faculty controls graduation requirements, his responsibility is to allocate resources so that those requirements can be satisfied. Forman also said that those departments most affected by the changes have been and will continue to make important contributions to the community.

“We have to stop doing some things,” Forman pronounced. “What should they be?”

The subsequent set of speakers reiterated similar issues already voiced. One was “disturbed” that the departments of members on the CFAC were not affected. He wondered why that didn’t “raise all sorts of red flags.” Forman said he did not make the committee, and that responsibility falls on the Governance Committee. Responding to criticism about not consulting with chairs, Forman called the characterization a “dramatic oversimplification.”

Another faculty member asked how University administrators are doing their part if faculty and students are taking cuts. Forman said that the administration will be “shrinking” its team, but could not speak for the University Central Administration.

By this point the meeting was approaching the two-hour mark, and more and more faculty were filing out. Perhaps summarizing the mood of the remaining faculty members in the room, one of the final speakers was direct with Forman.

“I’m just not satisfied,” the speaker said. “Part of the reason is that there’s a kind of double-speak.”

The speaker suggested Forman was playing the victim about inheriting these problems and that there were shortcomings in the governance committee, and yet he made the decision to assert himself as a leader and as the dean. The speaker said that she was frustrated that University officials had not taken steps to “answer most of the questions of people in the room.”

“I don’t know if the conversation can move forward,” Forman responded.

As someone who came to Emory just two years ago, Forman said he did not think it was a mistake to consult with the CFAC even if the process “led to an unsatisfactory outcome.” Forman appeared agitated that many faculty thought the decision to consult with the CFAC was unwise, given that the faculty nominated members to that committee in the first place.

In a moment of frankness, Forman continued. “I am incredibly upset by the vitriol that’s been directed at the members of that committee … They are the ones who stepped up when the University asked them to and take on a burden that nobody would ever dream up,” he said. “Those who are committed to stronger faculty governance should think twice about being abusive to those who have answered the call.”

— By Evan Mah