BOISE — After months of antagonism between members of Idaho State University’s administration and Faculty Senate, the State Board of Education on Thursday attempted to end the dispute in a way some believe will cast a negative light on ISU and the Gem State.
ISU President Arthur Vailas, facing mounting criticism and pressure from faculty to step down, offered his own solution Thursday for dealing with turmoil on campus: Dissolve the Faculty Senate.
The SBOE concurred, voting unanimously to suspend the senate and reconfigure its bylaws.
The decision deals a blow to faculty leaders who have been feuding with Vailas for two years. Among other complaints, professors say Vailas has shown an inability to effectively lead the school.
“In the range of things to expect, this was the worst-case scenario,” said Phil Cole, now the former chair of the ISU Faculty Senate, Thursday evening. “I fear this will go national and I worry that it will not shed the right kind of light on the university. This could even hurt the image of our state.”
Cole’s not alone in his concerns. Owen McDougal, president of Boise State University’s Faculty Senate attended Thursday’s SBOE meeting and was in the room when the board made its decision.
“It’s a bad day for Idaho,” he said Thursday evening. “This will hit the national media, there’s no way around it.”
Beyond his concern for how the Gem State will look to the rest of the nation in the wake of the SBOE’s decision, is worry about just what this means within Idaho’s borders.
“The state board has sent a clear message to faculty today,” McDougal said. “Everyone in the room seemed to be shocked. I think my university president (Bob Kustra) asked me three times if I knew this was coming.”
Although McDougal and many others in the room didn’t seem to see the SBOE’s decision coming, having watched it all play out, he is convinced that some in the room knew it was going to happen.
“This was a rehearsed event. They prepared for it,” he said. “(Board member) Don Soltman read from a prepared motion. It was not a surprise to any of the board members.
“What was interesting to me is the state board called Phil. They asked him to come. They asked him to be there and provide comments, knowing this motion was going to come.”
Cole also said that he noticed how smoothly it all seemed to go.
“It was well orchestrated and I played my part,” he said.
Cole described the timing of the day, saying that at the lunch break, the SBOE had only gotten through agenda item No. 7 or 8. The ISU governance issue was agenda item No. 11.
“When I got back from lunch, they grabbed me and said I was up,” Cole recalled. “They had altered the agenda.”
Cole addressed the board, reading from his notes for about 12 to 15 minutes, he estimated. SBOE board members had no questions for him when he was finished.
Cole said that surprised him.
“Of course. I was not reserved in my views,” he said.
Then Vailas spoke from a prepared presentation, during which, Cole said, he called for the Faculty Senate to be dissolved, its bylaws to be suspended, and a new Faculty Senate be put in place as per his Institutional Governance Advisory Committee report.
Also called the IGAC report, the document was the impetus for the most recent rift between ISU administrators and the Faculty Senate.
Even its creation, during a summer in which the senate claims administrators told them nothing regarding shared governance would take place, upset many faculty members. Its contents furthered flamed their discontent.
Chief among the concerns expressed by the Faculty Senate was that the IGAC report, which they considered to hold flawed changes to ISU’s shared governance structure, would be presented to the SBOE as a model to which ISU should move toward.
McDougal couldn’t help but notice the irony in Thursday’s decision from the SBOE.
“What Art Vailas has done is the implementation of the IGAC report,” McDougal said. “The faculty was suspicious of that report from day one, that it was intended to put in place committees that were not to work with the Faculty Senate, but to replace the Faculty Senate’s authority.”
Weeks of discussions that amounted to little satisfaction on either side resulted in the ISU Faculty Senate voting in November to hold a confidence election regarding Vailas. That vote was scheduled for Dec. 6, but later rescinded at the urging of the SBOE, which requested the two sides hash out their issues with the use of a mediator.
But as Faculty Senate members got a look at the contract for that mediation early last month, they were again thrust into feelings of mistrust and concerns that the administration had a more narrow view of what should be included in the mediation.
With the feeling that they were at an impasse, the Faculty Senate again voted to hold a confidence vote regarding Vailas. At that Jan. 24 meeting, the senate also received adequate signatures on a petition from the faculty at large mandating a confidence vote on the president.
The vote took place Feb. 10 and resulted in about 77 percent of ISU's 649 full-time faculty members turning out to cast ballots. Of those voting, 72 percent expressed they had no confidence in Vailas. Another 40 cast ballots abstaining while just 18 percent, or 92 votes, were cast in support of Vailas.
In comparing the vote totals to ISU's total faculty count, 55 percent voted they have no confidence in Vailas compared with 14 percent who supported the president. Cole, upon announcing the results last Friday, asked the president to step down from a job he’s held since 2006.
State Board President Richard Westerberg said Thursday that under the circumstances, the best decision was to throw support behind Vailas and give him the chance to take charge and make things work at the Pocatello campus.
“The impasse between the leadership of the senate group and the administration has reached a point where the prospect of any kind of progress was simply non-existent,” Westerberg said in an SBOE release Thursday.
In a statement from Vailas sent via e-mail by Mark Levine, ISU’s director for marketing and communications, it was announced the president would meet with faculty on Feb. 25, “to keep faculty, staff and the university community informed.”
“The meeting will provide the opportunity for dialogue among all parties, which is critically important as we move forward building upon the strengths of Idaho State University and the new opportunities and challenges that await us,” Vailas said in the release. “The faculty will continue to have a significant voice in ISU’s governance.”
While the Faculty Senate is being reconstituted as per the SBOE’s decision, the university has created a plan for continued shared governance in the interim, which includes several specific existing committees reporting to administrators deemed appropriate by the ISU administration.
Vailas has been a lightning rod on campus for two years. Professors contend Vailas made budget decisions in secrecy and took credit for achievements in meetings with the state board that should have gone to faculty.
Vailas also angered faculty last year when he stood behind Provost Gary Olson, who helped create a plan to reorganize some of ISU's colleges. This plan was met with outrage and resulted in faculty voting first against the plan last spring and then against Olson himself in the form of a no confidence referendum shortly thereafter.
Addressing the board Thursday, Cole shared the frustrations that provoked last week’s vote against Vailas, including how the constant turmoil has left some ISU departments without chairpersons and prompted the exodus of at least five tenured professors.
“The faculty considers this a last resort,” Cole said about the no confidence vote. “Sometimes we have to stand up and make our voices heard. The internal strife at ISU is killing ISU.”
But Vailas said he and his administrative staff have endured steady resistance from faculty leaders and a lack of cooperation for resolving differences. He said it was time for a new approach.
“There’s a lot of resistance to any type of reform,” Vailas told board members.
A plan to restructure the Faculty Senate and its bylaws will be presented at April’s board meeting.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.