Trouble At The Top
What does a 'no-confidence' vote really mean for a college president?
Thursday, September 30, 1999
CSU-Monterey Bay President Peter Smith took the first hit Sept. 9, when 73 of 110 instructors and administrators responding to a survey said they had "no confidence" in Smith''s abilities to lead a multicultural campus--one of the school''s prime directives.
A week later, Hartnell College faculty members gave their leader, Ed Valeau, an even harsher indictment. Eighty out of the 92 full-time instructors who voted in that poll said they disapproved of Valeau''s helmsmanship.
They were two unrelated votes on two separate, very different campuses. But in each case, the presidents'' underlings came forward publicly and said they had no faith in their leader. What does it mean? At the very least, it means that CSUMB and Hartnell are staffed by dozens upon dozens of frustrated people.
"We''re not going at this in a mean-spirited way," says Larry Elder, president of Hartnell''s Faculty Association. "We don''t want anyone to lose their job. We just want a change in behavior and a public forum on priorities."
No-confidence votes aren''t uncommon in academic circles, especially in Monterey County.
Hartnell''s previous president, Jim Hardt, was hit by a series of no-confidence votes in late 1993 and early 1994. Hardt stepped down three months after the final vote--in which 72 of 76 respondents voted in the negative--three years before his contract was due to expire.
And in 1996, just a year into his tenure, Monterey Peninsula College President Ed Gould was given the thumbs-down. The vote spawned a series of embarrassing, morale-sinking problems at MPC, culminating in violations being slapped against the athletic department. In 1997 the college paid Gould $65,000 to forego the final year of his contract.
Still, by most accounts, it would be a mistake to assume that Smith and Valeau are on their way out their respective doors. At a minimum, however, the votes expose a rift on their campuses that may never be healed.
A no-confidence vote "is sort of like a last resort," says Rich Kezirian, MPC''s history chair and former College Council leader. "It''s taken after a lot of soul-searching, a lot of reflection. It''s past the point of compromise. It''s past the point of an administrator being able to turn it around. By then, too many things have been done, and the faculty has lost trust."
The CSUMB and Hartnell votes differ in important ways. In Smith''s case, 130 of the 240 staff members eligible to vote did not do so. And, CSUMB staffers were presented with this single sentence: "I have confidence in the president''s abilities to provide the leadership necessary to build the type of multicultural university we are committed to creating."
The vote climaxed a series of difficulties at the four-year-old university, where minority instructors and students, decidedly unpleased by the school''s treatment of Latinos and other minorities, have called for the resignation of Smith and former Provost Dell Felder since the spring.
"The people who did vote had very strong feelings," says bobbi bonace, president of the Academic Senate, which organized the vote, "and that feeling indicates there clearly needs to be a revisiting of efforts on this campus to walk the talk around multiculturalism."
After the vote against him, Smith reiterated his commitment to "bring added life to all the elements in the university''s vision statement"--including multiculturalism--and said he respected the feelings of disgruntled staffers.
At Hartnell, the vote against Valeau--coming after 15 months of contract negotiations between staff and management--was a much stronger statement against his leadership, as 92 of 104 faculty members responded to the survey. "They have great concerns about the direction the college is going," said the Faculty Association''s Elder. Valeau declined to be interviewed, as did board president John Inman.
Internal politics aside, the true indication of what the no-confidence votes mean for Smith and Valeau may be found in how each man responds to criticism from below.
At CSUMB, a multiculturalism and diversity advisory council created last spring has stalled over internal disagreements concerning its structure and power. At Hartnell, Elder says the administration has yet to respond substantively to the vote.