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No confidence votes aren't something 'risk-averse' faculty undertake casually, expert says

Tim Shelley

University faculty have to be pressed hard to take a no confidence vote against their leadership.

That's according to Mae Kuykendall. She is a law professor at Michigan State University who's written extensively about no confidence votes in higher education.

"For a faculty to do this means there's considerable provocation. They don't do it casually," she said.

She said faculty are risk-averse in general, and often fear retaliation for speaking out. She said it takes a "publicly significant reason" for them to make a collective stand.

Bradley University's Senate overwhelmingly passed resolutions of no confidence in the president and provost earlier this month. They oppose planned cuts to academics that the president says are needed to close a $13 million operational deficit and get the private, not-for-profit university on better financial footing.

The deficit has been attributed to a number of factors by Bradley adminstration, including lower than expected enrollment, increasing operational costs, and economic headwinds —all factors that other institutions are also facing.

But Bradley's faculty have repeatedly questioned both the reasons for the current deficit, and the "urgency and magnitude" of the proposed solutions. Faculty and students walked out of classes on Nov. 14 in protest of the cuts.

On Tuesday, 84 current professors and professors emeriti issued a public statement calling for the replacement of President Stephen Standifird. Thirty signed their names to the document.

"As believers in Bradley University’s future, we would be active partners in supporting justified reductions with a well-articulated vision of the university’s future in mind. What has been proposed is nowhere close," they wrote.

Standifird has called for discontinuing 17 programs and bumping another five down from majors or concentrations to courses in the core curriculum. Sixty-eight positions would be impacted, including 47 currently filled positions. He said the interests and needs of today's students as reflected in enrollment trends are a main driver behind the selections, which differ with the recommendations of a faculty review committee.

After the no confidence vote, Standifird said in a statement that he was disappointed by the result, but will continue working towards a "successful and sustainable committment for the university."

The leadership of Bradley's board of trustees didn't respond to a request for comment on the vote.

Kuykendall said a no confidence vote can make a university leader's long-term position untenable.

"When the faculty becomes sufficiently concerned about the leader that's been chosen that they create a no confidence vote, it follows from that, that the understanding is shattered that this is a leader for this group of professionals who have to perform the work of the institution," she said.

What's happening at Bradley is not unique. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in September that at least 23 votes of no confidence have been taken by faculty at various institutions this year alone, and a general upward trend in no confidence votes over the past decade has been noted by experts. Researcher Sean McKinniss has catalogued no confidence votes and the stated reasons for them back to 1989.

A 2017 study found a little more than half of no-confidence votes ultimately resulted in a presidential change within 6 months.

Standifird spoke Monday at a student forum about the proposed program discontinuations. WCBU was invited to the event by students, but asked to leave by Bradley administration.

Department heads were given 30 days to respond to Standifird's proposal on Nov. 6. The final announcement is expected Dec. 11.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.