Letter to the editor: A fast train to nowhere: Reorganization at NU

A former provost once told me that university reorganization is something you take on when you have nothing else to do. While it distracts the university for a time, it invariably produces a lot of internal friction; lots of smoke but little fire. The marginal gains to such reorganization are typically that ‘- marginal. But, perhaps in the corridors of ‘administrivia’ it’s a great way to show you are doing something.

Provost Stephen Director outlined profound changes to the institutional structure of Northeastern, having them lauded recently in The News by Interim Dean Bruce Ronkin. Our provost invites us to e-mail some distant e-mail address with our comments and tells us that the Faculty Senate will vote on this proposal on Oct. 7. Timing is everything.

Rather than having my comments buried in cyberspace, I would rather present them here, as I encourage others to do as well. My views on the College of Criminal Justice (CCJ) are well known; I won’t belabor them here, although this in no way diminishes their validity. What should be troubling to us all are the processes that underlie these decisions, including the absence of any real substantive content to justify taking such actions; something as an academic community we need to address.

You will recall that the process of managing the Restructuring Committee, which met intermittently for about four months, fell to Vice Provost Mary Loeffelholz, a chief architect of the final report and certainly not a neutral arbiter, taking her marching orders from the Provost. The report and its aftermath, the Provost’s white paper, have not calmed the waters; comments recently made in The News from CCJ and non-CJ students are troubling as neither recognizes of the value of the others’ perspective, representing perhaps a much deeper frustration with what is a far and distant leadership at NU.

If you read the Committee report you will find that it reflects considerable reservation across Northeastern for reorganizing either college. A number of College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) departments actually voted to keep the single college option, and students, faculty, alumni and friends of CCJ publicly and vociferously rejected the reorganization of the college. The final report of the Committee showed much concern in the reorganization, both for CAS and for CCJ. The Committee report does not support in any major way the reorganization of either CAS or CCJ. This is the foundation of massive reorganization of Northeastern? No business person in her right mind would reorganize an institution like Northeastern with such flimsy detail and support.

In May, when a public din was rising, the provost, in an ex post facto way revised the process, adding the idea that there would be a campus-wide retreat, followed by a white paper to be reviewed and discussed by the NU community this fall. As is typical for universities the summer hiatus was not particularly eventful, although a new Provost Palace has been outfitted in Churchill Hall.

The white paper was crafted by the provost, although his process called for others to participate, took us to a place that was likely the starting place for all of this ‘- the provost and president’s desire to change NU’s college structures. We have likely come full circle in a managed process best characterized as disingenuous and distorted. Take for example, the ongoing discussion of the university’s budgeting and financial system, which according to the provost’s memo played an important role in this decision, although such models were not part of the public process or the continuing discussion. Last spring those of us in CCJ were told, (1) the financial process militates against small units, then (2) the financial process has no effect on small units, and then (3) finances are not driving this discussion. In reality financial decisions already taken by the senior administration, provost and president, including whatever financial policies will be put into place are driving the bus here ‘- make no mistake. It would make no sense whatsoever for the university to reorganize and then sort out its financial framework. Intellect is not driving the issue, despite attempts to wrap this discussion in an intellectual veil. Like many things Northeastern, this is about money.

A one-day retreat discussing a monumental change for Northeastern is equally problematic. From those I spoke with in attendance, consensus was more contrived than realized. The question posed was how, not whether, to reorganize. Groups were broken out to press these issues in what are always difficult and truncated discussions. One day ‘- actually about 6 hours, less breaks and lunch, to divide up NU. Like any good politician, the provost simply ‘declared victory and moved on’ in his white paper, although there were many present who were not part of the Provost’s consensus. It was reported to me that toward the end of the meeting the Provost publically lamented that criminal justice had ‘circled the wagons’ in opposition to his proposal. He would expect that CCJ would simply participate in the choice of how to end the college, without debating the merits of capital punishment?

The list of intentional or unintentional missteps in this process is indeed overwhelming; meetings set too late to be attended by students and alumni, poor communication between the central administration and the NU community throughout the process ‘- largely through a rather moribund website, committee members randomly strewn through the public meeting process, constituents like co-op employers marginalized, statistics selectively presented, consultants promised to the Reorganization Committee and then withdrawn, a one-day meeting to discuss the reorganization of over one half of the student enrollments of the university, and a set of selected and distorted reports, always fitting the ‘facts’ to the spin. This process is neither an example of faculty governance nor faculty engagement; rather, it represents institutional manipulation toward a foregone outcome. It does not respect faculty, students or alumni. So what to do now?

The Faculty Senate can now act like one. Instead of rubber stamping the provost’s decision, it can hold hearings on whether there is the ‘consensus’ reported by the provost. If there is then we should move forward, recognizing that what we have come to see as Northeastern will change, and whether that is beneficial or not is presently unknown, and un-reviewed in the current process. This seems like a useful and important role for the Faculty Senate. Or we can accept the under-the radar approach, which has characterized much of this entire process. What we can’t afford to do is wait until the new college deans are advertised and hired, which the provost proposes to start immediately, thereby closing the door on debate and discussion. So what happened to the university-wide discussion that was to take place this fall outlined by the Provost last spring?

In a recent (Sept. 6, 2009) issue of the New York Times Book Review, Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University, raised serious concerns about universities losing their sense of purpose, being driven by short-term business decisions that ignore the complexity of the intellectual enterprise that is the university, and failing to question bad policies or programs. President Faust writes, ‘Higher education is not about results in the next quarter but about discoveries that may take ‘- and last ‘- decades or even centuries.’ She cites York University’s former Dean George Fallis as deploring ‘the dominance of economic justification for universities’. She concludes that ‘Universities are meant to be producers not just of knowledge but also of (often inconvenient) doubt. They are creative and unruly places, homes to polyphony of voices.’ In short, universities are not business monoliths; we have plenty of them already.

Perhaps we should pursue the benefits and costs of several of these lines of inquiry (the financial, cost benefit, intellectual, historical and symbolic) in the current proposal to massively restructure Northeastern, keeping in mind Gilpin’s ‘polyphony of voices’, and to cast some doubt on the substance and process of institutional change at Northeastern. To do less is an insult to a fine university.

‘-‘ Jack R. Greene is a professor of criminal justice and former Dean of the College of Criminal Justice.

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