Idaho State University Faculty Senate Chair Phil Cole says an investigation by a national group of professors and academics into the decision to suspend the Faculty Senate could have serious ramifications for ISU.
Cole says the worst-case scenario is that ISU would be sanctioned by the American Association of University Professors, which is investigating the Idaho State Board of Education’s Feb. 17 suspension of the senate.
The State Board made the decision at the recommendation of ISU President Arthur Vailas, who offered the solution as a way to resolve the long-running dispute between the university’s administration and faculty. The suspension came one week after ISU faculty had given Vailas a resounding vote of no confidence — the third faculty vote against his administration in less than a year.
The AAUP investigation could lead to ISU being censured, which could hamper the university's ability to attract quality professors.
But Cole says of far greater concern is the possibility that the AAUP, which has about 47,000 members around the country, would add ISU to the list of institutions it has sanctioned.
“Being on the sanctioned list is much worse than being on the censured list,” Cole says. “This is serious business.”
Making the AAUP’s “censured” list means the group feels a university is not following principles of academic freedom and tenure.
Sixty of the nation’s roughly 4,600 post-secondary colleges and universities are on the AAUP’s censured list. Only four are on its “sanctioned” list, which includes institutions the AAUP feels have seriously departed from generally accepted standards of governance endorsed by the association.
The censured list serves in part as a warning to professors around the nation that the administration of that university is violating these principles, which could affect the quality of faculty that institution can attract.
But Cole says being on the sanctioned list is a warning to employers that the degrees issued by that university are suspect.
Being on that list is a red flag to employers, academia and the public that “there is a fundamental flaw in a university and it could collapse,” Cole says. “It would be a disaster for ISU because it would say, ‘Really watch out for an ISU degree; it doesn’t mean much.’”
AAUP representative Greg Scholtz told the Journal that an investigation the group has launched into the ISU situation will lead to a report being issued before the group’s annual conference in early June. If the report recommends ISU be sanctioned, delegates at the conference would vote on that proposal.
Scholtz, director of AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure and Governance, wouldn’t comment on the likelihood of ISU being sanctioned since the investigation is ongoing but he did say, “It’s a possibility.”
He also said about 90 percent of AAUP’s investigations into alleged violations of academic freedom or governance result in some type of punishment, whether it’s censure or sanction.
The four institutions currently sanctioned by the AAUP are: Antioch University in Ohio, which was sanctioned in 2010; Miami Dade College, Fla. (2000); Elmira College, N.Y. (1995); and Lindenwood College, Mo. (1994).
In addition to AAUP’s investigation, another major academic group has joined the fray and Cole and others worry the fallout from the suspension of the Faculty Senate could end up hurting ISU’s national reputation.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a diverse national group which defends the individual rights of faculty and students at institutions of higher learning, sent a letter to Vailas dated March 2 demanding an answer for the suspension of the Faculty Senate.
Cole says both FIRE and AAUP are fast-tracking their investigations into the situation at ISU and the continued strife at the university is becoming a major national story.
“This is something clearly the rest of the nation does not want to happen,” he says in regard to the Faculty Senate’s suspension. “The nation is watching and saying, “This is bad, we cannot have this.’ It is absolutely unacceptable to other universities.”
Many on campus have speculated a sanction by the AAUP could bode ill regarding ISU’s accreditation through the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, based in Redmond, Wash.
Sandra Elman, president of the commission, which is responsible for accrediting 160 institutions in this region including ISU, said it would be premature to comment on such fears, especially since she has no way of knowing what the findings of the AAUP's probe will be.
Elman said Vailas has been keeping her apprised of developments on campus.
“At this point there appears to be no basis for the commission to intervene in the university’s dealings with matters related to governance,” Elman said.
When asked if an AAUP sanction could have ramifications for a university’s accreditation in general Elman replied, “Indirectly, yes. (The AAUP) may raise issues that would come to our attention, and then we might determine that there’s a need to look into these further, but right now this is all very premature."
She continued, “Whatever the Northwest Commission does, it has to be in accordance with our standards for accreditation. That reigns supreme for us regardless of what any organization may do.”