Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Private Review, Silenced Protest

On Saturday, October 4, the Board of Regents held a private meeting in which they voted ‘yes’ to extend President Paul Pribbenow’s contract for another six years। This decision took place after the faculty had voiced concerns about the Board’s lack of consideration for faculty input in the decision-making process.

In an interview with President Pribbenow just after the decision was made, Pribbenow was asked to comment on the review process which led to his contract renewal and his thoughts about the faculty and students’ roles in such decisions।

“It’s not my process,” Pribbenow said “[The Board’s] contract with me is not a public deal…we have to draw some lines of governance, it’s about how we deal with authority।” Pribbenow’s understanding is that the board’s job is to act in Augsburg’s best interest and that they must review “all aspects of the college, not just faculty concerns.”

He also mentioned that faculty had more input in his review than other presidential review proceedings in the past। This was the first year that the Faculty Senate Chair was asked to give input for the review and two other faculty members, Robert Groven and Matthew Rumpza were also consulted.

In past reviews, Pribbenow said the review was conducted solely by the Board of Regents using a rubric-style evaluation where the President would be rated on specific areas of performance on a scale of 1-5।

When asked if Pribbenow thought there should be further consultation of the faculty and student body in the review process he responded that he agreed their opinions should be heard, but that was why they included the Faculty Senate Chair as a representative of those opinions। Faculty Senate Chair Vicki Olson confirmed that she was never explicitly asked to consult her fellow senators for their input.

“Opening up [the process] more generally is turning the review of the President into a public opinion poll,” said Pribbenow।

Faculty member, Kathy Swanson, in an earlier interview with Echo said “[she wished] there had been opportunities for extensive conversation among representatives of many constituencies…[Faculty] Senators did not seem to know of the evaluation by the Senate President until [Olson’s] response to the Board had been written and the process was nearly completed।” The President responded that this was “not something that gets announced.”

There was, however, and e-mail sent out by Board Member Mike Good on October 1, three days before the vote to renew Pribbenow’s contract। Good stated that “Although the Board understands that some may differ about who should participate in the process, it has no reason at this time to consider any changes in this year’s process.”

According to Article IX of the Augsburg Faculty Handbook which states that “The Faculty will consult with the Board of Regents, at the discretion of the Board of Regents,” there has been no apparent violation of Augsburg’s officially observed policies। Despite this careful observance of the verbiage, Good still prefaced his e-mail by saying there had been “some apparent confusion among some faculty members about the recent performance review process.”

Though several members of the faculty told the Echo that they had concerns about the amount of say they were given in the review, they asked that their concerns remain anonymous.
In an e-mail from Faculty Senator, Christina Erickson, Erickson noted that the faculty had two ways by which they could express their comments and concerns about the review of the President to the Board। They could either send their comments to their division chairs who would then forward them on to Chief of Staff, Christine Szaj, or they could send their comments to Szaj directly. Szaj would then report these concerns to the Board.

Faculty Senator, Mark Engebretson, when asked what the faculty’s specific concerns and comments were, replied, “We haven’t seen those letters [or] a summary of them.”
According to Engebretson, the channels that were set up through Szaj for reporting faculty concerns during the review process were not linked to the Faculty Senate। “No one came up and volunteered to me any of their concerns,” said Engebretson, and “I didn’t go knock on doors asking ‘are you concerned?’”

Engebretson express his confusion when asked whether he thought Augsburg faculty felt comfortable expressing their opinions on these presidential matters Engebretson replied, “That puzzles me, something is causing some fear। Augsburg speaks out much more than other places and that’s our strength. We want to be the kind of place where people can express their frustrations.”

But Engebretson offered his best guess concerning the current stifled discourse on campus। “Whenever there’s a president change, there’s a change in the comfort zone… the perception is that things are broken, but the structure hasn’t changed a bit.” Engebretson also added, however, that “the perception matters, [we] can’t just say there’s no problem…but how are we going to find out things if you don’t talk to [the Senators]?”

In an e-mail response to this same issue Professor Kathryn Swanson responded, “While it is true that there have been many colleagues who have disappeared from campus in the past few years, responses of "I prefer not to" and "I dare not" (respond) remind me of Bartleby in Melville's story and the compact majority in Ibsen's, Enemy of the People. These responses are worrisome because they indicate a chilly climate rather than an open environment, inviting to varying and differing responses. Indeed, this questioning of process and assumptions underlies the very model of critical thinking we work to inspire in our classrooms. Instead, we are reminded of Senator Bachman's recent (and regrettable) call to "make a list" of colleagues who seem out of sync. I argue that, in fact, these colleagues who do dare to ask questions and request authentic transparency represent the spirit of free inquiry that is at the heart of all academic work.”
The concerns that were reported to the Echo anonymously were from tenured and non-tenured faculty and addressed the President’s managing style, ability to raise funds for the college, a $400,000 renovation of the President’s house and a budget deficit between six and seven hundred thousand dollars for the 2007-2008 fiscal year।

Financial Services Director, Tom Haglund, commented that “[Augsburg] is basically a break-even institution” and that President Pribbenow was hired specifically for his fund-raising abilities। When asked about the budget deficit for 2007-2008, Haglund responded that under President Frame there was a perceived surplus. Haglund was hired in October 2006, three months after President Pribbenow. Haglund said that over time the new accounting team under Pribbenow “chipped away” at the perceived million dollar surplus which “evaporated under different scrutiny.”

The funds allocated for the $400,000 renovation of the President’s mansion were approved in early 2006 when the million-dollar surplus was still perceived to be real.
Engebretson does not directly blame Pribbenow for the current financial concerns. “Whenever the messenger delivers bad news, he [has] to beg not to be beheaded…Pribbenow has been the bearer of bad financial news.”

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