Andrew Wolfson of the Courier-Journal has already reported on Wednesday’s meeting of UofL’s Faculty Senate. I was there to as a member of the Executive Faculty and want to add my comments. The Faculty Senate has elected members from every school and college and is the faculty body of highest jurisdiction. I represented the School of Medicine on the Senate for a number of years.
The principal item on the agenda of interest to me was a discussion item labeled “Foundation compensation.” Although the intention of the Senate Chairperson was to limit discussion to the deferred compensation of the President, Provost, and the President’s Chief of Staff; subsequent discussion by the faculty expanded that focus to include the separation payments made last year to at least three other senior University officers and vice-presidents that were accompanied by controversial agreements of nondisclosure. The discussion opened an obvious can of worms. Mr. Wolfson by no means overstated the degree of faculty concern. Not a single faculty member expressed support for what the University and the University of Louisville Foundation were doing.
Regardless of whether such transfers of large sums of money from the University of Louisville Foundation to the University of Louisville for these purposes are legal or not, the Faculty had difficulty with the appropriateness and ethics of the payments and their amounts, especially given the financial restrictions facing the rest of the University. Certainly these payments were demoralizing. The differences between salaries of senior administrators and those of faculty and staff were “inconsistencies so glaring that it’s hard to take.” The “largess focused on senior executives receiving special awards and compensation” in the face of increasing student tuition and debt, flat salaries for lower paid employees, the loss of jobs, the inability to hire full-time faculty, and the corresponding massive dependence on poorly paid part-time faculty was jarring. Senior university administrators were analogized unfavorably to the upper corporate 1% of widening income disparity in America. Faculty members were uncomfortable with this manifestation of the corporatization of the University. “We are the Academy, not the corporate world.”
Legal or not?
Not all were fully satisfied that these transfers of money were allowable under University employment policy, or state and federal law— “We seem to be tiptoeing around legality.” One faculty member was uncomfortable with the fact that “Public money was being given to public officials to keep public information from the public.”
Culture of secrecy criticized.
There was substantial harsh criticism of the culture of secrecy within both the University, and the Foundation. With respect to the bonus payments, one faculty member opined that it appeared that the University was “hoping people wouldn’t notice.” Another voice added that “something is wrong” with the University’s ongoing legal challenges to keep the proceedings of its Foundation secret. In terms of how the University deals with its culture of secrecy, this issue was said to be a “Keystone moment for the University.” One faculty member urged the University and its Foundation to be “extra-transparent” in their dealings. I could not agree more.
Tension between faculty and chairperson.
It should be pointed out that the chairperson of the Faculty Senate serves also as the faculty’s representative on the UofL Board of Trustees. At the time of my Senate service in the early 1990s and even though there was often tension between University administration and the faculty, the potential conflict of duty for the Chairperson seemed never to be an issue. That was not the case Wednesday. The chairperson was pointedly criticized for appearing to offer a one-sided defense of administration positions. The “information item” posted by the Chair before the meeting could be perceived as haven been written by the University public relations office. One faculty member offered that it was the administration’s responsibility to appear before the faculty and defend its policy on bonuses, not the Chair’s. It did not help the Chair when she referred to the University as an “academic corporation,” nor when she seemed to take the University’s position that the UofL Foundation was “separate and outside the University.” Regardless of intent, the Chair was not perceived by all as acting as a sufficient advocate for the faculty in this matter. I believe this perception reflects the intensity of faculty concern on these issues and should be a signal to the administration against which the criticisms were actually directed. I also have no doubt that the faculty with its leadership will continue their deliberation in the best tradition of the Senate. As the Chair herself said, “It is better to talk about these things and not let them fester.” All would agree.
Task force on compensation.
One faculty member moved that the Senate appoint an independent committee or task force to explore the issue of the legality and ethics of some of these aspects of University compensation. Others agreed and seconded the motion but it was pointed out that this was a discussion item and not an action item. The request was to be passed to the Executive Committee of the Senate for a recommendation of whether or not the matter would be brought back to the faculty. A promise was made that the comments and questions of the day would be brought to the President and that a response was to be expected. What comes of this remains to be seen and I doubt the matter can be suppressed.
I have freely conceded to being an academic dinosaur and admit to occasional nagging doubts that I might be outdated in my expectations of what a university or medical school should be. The encouragement of enough of my readers and people I meet on the street has kept me on track bringing issues before the public. This week’s visit to my fellows of the Faculty Senate confirms and validates my belief that something is wrong at the University of Louisville. The ongoing discussion about governance and responsibility within the Board of Trustees itself provides parallel evidence of the need for University-wide reflection on how we as a public university should be operating. If we can’t work through this ourselves within the Academy, others will do it for us.
Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
March 13th (a Friday!), 2015