Saturday, December 2, 2023

William & Mary President Discusses Open Letter Concerns at Faculty Assembly Meeting

(WYDaily/Dominic Catacora)

WILLIAMSBURG — Over 180 participants attended a William & Mary (W&M) Faculty Assembly meeting Oct. 11, as President Katherine Rowe discussed an open letter she had received in late September — a publicly shared document signed by over 200 faculty members expressing a variety of concerns shared by professors from over 40 departments within the school.

The open letter expressed very specific areas of concern to President Rowe, particularly a desire from faculty members to have a greater say in university matters.

According to one of the opening paragraphs of the letter, Over the past few years, William & Mary has faced enormous challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic, concern over financial stabilization, and changes in public attitudes toward higher education have all created the need to rethink the missions and values of William & Mary. During this time, we have seen a disturbing tendency to centralize decision-making and exclude meaningful faculty participation in setting the direction of the institution.”

The open letter was shared and passed around by email to different departments and professors within W&M, then it was officially sent to President Rowe on Monday, Sept. 26. The signed document garnered 212 signatures at the time that it was officially sent. That number had increased slightly to 219 signatures by the time of the Oct. 11 meeting.

The letter’s primary message appears to have been acknowledged and has since been publicly addressed by President Rowe. Many professors signed the open letter because of the collective concern for protecting the Faculty Assembly’s constitutional concept of shared governance. There was also an expressed desire for greater clarity regarding the list of university initiatives that help make up W&M’s strategic plan, Vision 2026.

Vision 2026

Vision 2026 lays out four university initiatives that act as, as the open letter states, “guiding stars”:

According to the letter, The faculty have seen our elected representatives marginalized, our perspectives dismissed, and our involvement in university governance largely eliminated. For example, the release of the strategic plan, Vision 2026, was publicly announced without any opportunity for the Faculty Assembly or the individual faculties to develop the final plan, to review it, or even to read it prior to announcement at Charter Day and publication in the local media. Even today, many faculty do not comprehend how ‘Data,’ ‘Water,’ ‘Careers,’ and ‘Democracy’ constitute a compelling set of guiding stars, nor how these four parts are supposed to form a coherent vision for William & Mary.

The letter also contained a call to action directed at President Rowe:

  • Acknowledge the legitimate role that faculty through our elected representatives must play in policymaking, resource allocation, and administrative evaluation. Senior administrators and others with significant responsibility must be subject to review that includes both faculty representation (as recommended by the Faculty Assembly Executive Committee) and general opportunities for faculty to comment on the performance of these administrators.
  • Fully engage faculty in reviewing the Strategic Plan for its alignment with the best interests of William & Mary, and an accounting of the allocation and/or redirection of resources required to meet the plan’s provisions.
  • Facilitate significant faculty involvement in discussions about the admissions goals of the university, and the faculty resources necessary to teach the increased numbers of undergraduates we have already admitted. 

“We kind of expect that the faculty are consulted about academic policies.” Suzanne Hagedorn, Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Director of the English Department at W&M, said in an interview with WYDaily. Hagedorn was one of the 219 that signed the open letter.

Some, like Hagedorn, signed the letter after examining Resolution 17, a W&M Capital Plan Update proposed by the Board of Visitors. Resolution 17 includes a proposed $43 million Data Science Innovation Hub, amongst other ideas for potential short-range, mid-range, and long-range university resource allocations.

“We’re William and Mary, I love this place,” said Hagedorn. “I’ve been here for 25 years, you know, which is way longer than the four years I spent at Princeton, or the six years I spent earning a master’s and doctorate at Cornell. And I love this place. And I want to see it flourish, as it says in the charter, ‘for all times.’ But to me, that means that we cannot lose sight of our mission. And our mission is undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences.”

President Rowe Accepts an Invitation to Faculty Assembly

President Rowe issued a response to the open letter on Sept. 29 stating that she would attend the Oct. 11 Faculty Assembly meeting to have a conversation about the letter and provide an opportunity to further discuss questions raised within.

According to President Rowe’s initial Sept. 29 response, “After thoughtful consultation with the Faculty Assembly executive committee this week, I have accepted their gracious invitation to come to speak to the issues you raise and develop more robust paths for communication and involvement. I have valued Faculty Assembly’s partnership in shared governance since my very first meeting with the Faculty Assembly in August of 2018. Indeed, the FA report I received that month, ‘W&M 2026,’ is the blueprint we are following for enrollment growth. As I say frequently to the board and alumni, W&M faculty bring solutions to the problems they identify — and do so with creativity and dedication.” 

Faculty Assembly meeting

The main agenda items slated for the Oct. 11, 3:30-5 p.m. meeting, other than the opening remarks by W&M Faculty Assembly President John Gilmour, were allotted to President Rowe to address concerns raised in the open letter. President Rowe offered her remarks, followed by a Q&A session where faculty members could ask additional questions directly to President Rowe in an open format.

President Rowe prepared her official remarks prior to the conversation with Faculty, and one of the first issues she addressed was the concept of shared governance.

“The Faculty Assembly’s constitution establishes this as the representative body of the faculty for collecting and discussing matters that I think of as high strategic priority,” President Rowe said. “Effective shared governance is exactly that. It’s a high strategic priority. Especially at a time of rapid change.”

While she noted the importance of shared governance, she recommended that the school move forward with “a different mode of shared governance.”

According to President Rowe, “In one respect, I think differently than my colleagues who signed the open letter: I don’t think we can go back to some earlier mode of shared governance and be effective going forward. I actually think we need a model of shared governance that’s more robust than what we had in the years before pandemic. So I hope this can be a moment for Faculty Assembly fully to express your role as the representative body that ‘ensures effective faculty participation in the governance of the university as a whole.’ I’m pleased to work towards that goal with you this year. And the desire raised by our colleagues in their open letter — a desire for more faculty involvement in strategic planning and other strategic issues — is timely and welcome.”

The discussion then turned to Vision 2026.

“When we launched this strategic plan, I emphasized that it will not look like prior plans. Our aim is to continue to work in a phased way, as we did under pandemic. Vision 2026 is a concept statement, not a blueprint. That means it’s a framework into which you are invited to build, in defined ways. Like any building project, it has four stages: we started with a design concept (vision); next comes program development (what we are doing) and design development (how). After those stages, what results are construction documents. That’s the blueprint.”

President Rowe expressed the need to position the university to become more competitive at attracting potential students that are seeking rigorous academics, “They seek rigorous academics and associate that with strong STEM programs in a Liberal Arts context as the top characteristics of a great university. And they need to prepare themselves for future work, in relevant ways. This is the field we are playing on.”

The strategic plan’s four initiatives are seen by President Rowe as “umbrella areas that are interdisciplinary and cross schools.”

“In spring 2021, we asked every department to review the three strategic planning whitepapers, and to write to their Cabinet members identifying gaps and opportunities,” said President Rowe in her remarks. “These initiatives represent areas of broad convergence in the responses Cabinet received.”

Each initiative has a specific coordinator in each area:

  • Careers – Kathleen Powell, Chief Careers Officer
  • Data – Peggy Agouris, Provost
  • Democracy – Vice President Ginger Ambler and Dean Carrie Cooper
  • Water – Dean Derek Aday

President Rowe concluded her remarks with comments on four topics raised by faculty in Government, English, History, Languages, and other departments:

  • Enrollment growth
  • Executive reviews
  • Faculty hiring
  • Leadership transitions

For additional information on Vision 2026, visit William & Mary’s website.

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