The Last Colony in Shared Governance

The history of Medgar Evers College parallels that of many historically black institutions where shared governance has been an elusive goal.
By Sallie M. Cuffee

My first opportunity to hear women’s studies professor Beverly Guy-Sheftall talk about her experience of shared governance at Spelman College, a historically black college in Atlanta, was in spring 2008. She spoke that year at Medgar Evers College, the unit of the City University of New York where I teach. As I listened, I found myself saying “amen” to her talking points again and again, as if they were my own. What she described had an uncanny resemblance to the governance history of Medgar Evers. Reading her piercing piece in the November–December 2006 issue of Academe, “Shared Governance, Junior Faculty, and HBCUs,” further convinced me that she had stumbled upon an important truth—at least for Medgar Evers, but probably much more broadly—related to the “president-centric” nature of many black institutions.

According to Guy-Sheftall, the scant literature on the governance of black colleges and universities “points to campus climates that are ‘president-centric’ and hierarchical structures that do not encourage faculty governance.” Education scholar James Minor, in a May–June 2005 Academe article, argued that many support the “strong presidential leadership” style on black campuses because it is perceived as “partly responsible for the survival and progress of some [HBCU] campuses.” Though the literature is mixed, the general consensus is that the trajectory of HBCUs has been shaped by a racially charged society with its own stereotypes about the mission and effectiveness of such institutions. Ivory Phillips, author of the July–August 2002 Academe article “Shared Governance on Black College Campuses,” agreed that “shared power had been less apparent at [HBCUs] than many of their predominantly white counterparts.” Although Medgar Evers is not an HBCU, its mission has a striking similarity to that of its mostly southern brother and sister colleges.

Many HBCUs were founded just before the turn of the twentieth century to serve the needs of a transitioning newly freed population of men and women. Medgar Evers College was created in response to community pressure to meet the academic needs of an underserved black community in central Brooklyn in the aftermath of the turbulent 1960s. According to the US Department of Education, Medgar Evers falls into a group of institutions identified as predominantly black colleges. Its creation, its development, and the problems it has faced as a largely black institution in a white power system parallel the difficulties of other black campuses trying to realize the elusive goal of shared governance. At Medgar Evers, as at many HBCUs, the internal and external conditions impinging upon the governance process have in some cases constrained and in others truncated the evolution toward shared governance.

Black campuses that operate under the president-centric model of governance should reassess whether this is the most effective model of governance today. President-centric leadership—praised for its value in warding off predatory board practices and guiding resource-strapped institutions to a more robust bottom line—now needs to transform into a stronger collective model. It has become an obstacle to the empowerment of the collective institutional body on predominantly black campuses just as it has on predominantly white campuses.

Protest History 

The history of Medgar Evers College is filled with the rhetoric of rights, protest, and shared governance. A senior college, Medgar Evers was conceived by politicians, community leaders, grassroots activists, educators, and parents as one of the great CUNY experiments. An institution that was designed and founded “for the people and by the people,” it opened its doors to students in 1971. As Florence Tager and Zala Highsmith-Taylor note in their history of the institution, its faculty members are fond of saying that “it was the only CUNY college born out of community struggle and out of the racial conflicts that tore New York apart in the ’60s.” The establishment of the college marked an unparalleled paradigm shift: the black community could now claim equal participatory power with the white academic establishment in “defining the College’s mission, goals, and status.”

Since those glory days, the climate at Medgar Evers has shifted dramatically. In its forty-year history, Medgar Evers has had six presidents and one interim chief administrator. Three of these received votes of no confidence: Richard Trent (1970–82), Jay Carrington Chunn (1984–87), and William L. Pollard (2009–13) Why has this institution of higher learning, founded with and for the community, had such a contentious history?

Given its history of leadership instability, self-determination for Medgar Evers College has been difficult at best. CUNY system leaders have taken advantage of the controversial administrative transitions to attempt to mold the college as they have seen fit. Internal and external constraints have curbed shared governance at Medgar Evers and contributed to its subordinate position within the CUNY system, leading some even to invoke colonial analogies.

The recent cries of colonialism are not new. After the appointment of the college’s first president, Richard Trent, without the community’s approval, former New York State assemblyman Al Vann insisted that under CUNY chancellor Albert H. Bowker the “Board was perpetuating colonialism by choosing a group in the community with which the Board was willing to work.” Vann said that the board chose those it “wishes to deal with, . . . who will do their bidding.’”

The Pollard Administration

In today’s corporate academic climate, the risks of president-centric leadership styles outweigh whatever benefits they might once have had. In governance proceedings, the clarion call at Medgar Evers today is for an empowered and engaged faculty. Governance should be in the hands of the faculty senate or a related governance body, not solely under the control of the president. This change in campus climate would have implications for tenure, for the promotion and retention of faculty, and for the fostering of an engaged campus.

Ivory Phillips has argued that the autocratic, president-centric model of leadership has been utterly compromised by a “plantation mentality” fostered by boards “to help dampen aspirations and activism among faculty and students.” This image certainly evokes the recent struggle at Medgar Evers. William Pollard, the president from 2009 to 2013, and, more specifically, his provost, Howard Johnson, were often referred to as “overseers.”

The appointment of Pollard was consistent with the pattern of the “recycled” black presidents at HBCUs. According to Phillips, this recycling—even of those who have been dismissed from past academic posts for poor performance or accusations of wrongdoing—occurs because boards seek presidents who can “contain” faculty and student activism. The board’s interest, in other words, is in appointing an administrator who can keep the lid on trouble. Indeed, Pollard came to Medgar Evers after a controversial tenure at the University of the District of Columbia, where he was asked to resign.

Shortly after Pollard and Johnson assumed leadership at Medgar Evers, a climate of dissatisfaction developed. The two wasted little time in beginning to change the historic mission of Medgar Evers College without seeking substantial input from the college community. Faculty, staff, students, politicians, and some community members began voicing concern publicly. A first 2010 vote of no confidence was called for, but not by the faculty senate. Pollard did not fare well. Without the faculty senate’s leadership, however, CUNY refused to accept the vote as a valid expression of faculty sentiment.

A year later, I assumed leadership of the faculty senate, which had gone through its own embattled reorganization. At Medgar Evers, the faculty senate is not a statutory body, only a moral and political organization. A governance plan ratified in 1992 turned over statutory power to the college council, a joint governing body that includes faculty, administrators, staff, students, and other constituents. Because faculty members could not get the college council to act, they tapped the moral authority of the faculty senate, which is acknowledged in the governance plan, and rallied the community to address the ills of the college. In April 2012, another vote of no confidence was taken.

The faculty came out en masse. One hundred and thirty-seven voted “no confidence,” while only thirteen dissented. Now armed with the moral imperative of the vote, the faculty senate acted strategically to educate those outside of the academic community about what the vote meant.

Faculty involvement in this campaign spanned the ranks, but there was, unfortunately, little public representation of junior faculty. A few did work behind the scenes, but many were taking cover, hoping not to be noticed until the fury was spent. This was new: in years past, junior faculty had been openly involved. Junior faculty and adjuncts were at the greatest risk of being fired, and this may have cowed them, although they more than anyone else had legitimate reasons to join the campaign.

When the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, the regional accrediting body, placed the college on warning in November 2012, CUNY could no longer turn a blind eye to the volatile governance situation. Something had to be done to stabilize the institution. Vestiges of a colonial paternalism were apparent to all. The Pollard administration had the unwavering confidence of the CUNY chancellery. Yet, the faculty senate, student protesters, politicians, and community organizers kept the pressure on; we were convinced that this institution could not be lost to the central Brooklyn community even though CUNY seemed indifferent to Medgar Evers’s historic academic mission.

When Pollard tendered his resignation on January 30, 2013, CUNY had already decided that shared governance was out of the question; the college body politic would not be self-determining. Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, without consulting with faculty, students, or staff, chose interim leaders. As one unsigned article in Our Time Press, “By Any Means Necessary,” put it, “CUNY staged a coup of its own. It appointed its own cadre of surrogates to finish colonizing the campus at the Chancellery’s bidding. . . . By any means necessary, this CUNY Chancellery is set to restructure the civil rights mission and break the activist spirit of this 42-year old Black institution.”

Colonial Government

When the metaphor of colonialism is invoked, it is meant to point to power relationships and practices of subordination and domination. Throughout the struggle with the Pollard administration, the metaphor was used in print and public forums to challenge CUNY’s attacks on shared governance. The Our Time Press article cited above goes on, “‘By any means necessary’ is the modus operandi of the CUNY chancellery to colonize Medgar Evers College,” and it points to the double standard that had become the norm in the CUNY system’s dealings with the college: “Why appoint an interim president at the College of Staten Island—which had its own contentious battle with its president [and a vote of no confidence]—and not at Medgar . . . ? Colonization is still on the prowl, and racism is alive and well at CUNY.”

At Medgar Evers, the reasons for votes of no confidence echo claims one hears from campuses around the nation: mismanagement of scarce resources, unilateral decision making, inability to implement the academic mission of the college, ruling by threat and intimidation, and blatant disregard for elected department chairs. However, there was one major difference during the Pollard administration: the systematic attacks on women in leadership positions at the college, at both the faculty chair and administrative levels, were intensive and demoralizing. This was not surprising: sexism and colonialism often go hand in hand.

The college refused to address the climate of gender harassment, so the matter was brought to the attention of the CUNY system. Some women leaders, defining their treatment as sexual harassment, went so far as to file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. An op-ed, “‘Ain’t I A Woman?’: Gender Discrimination at Medgar Evers College,” was published in a leading local newspaper. The university, however, refused to act.

Moral outrage ensued when attention was brought to the way women were being treated at another CUNY unit, up the street from Medgar. What was the difference between the women? Both black and white women were being harassed at Medgar Evers. As Phillips writes, black college faculties, in contrast with faculties at predominantly white institutions, “must repeatedly write the board or hold press conferences before their voices are even acknowledged. Even then, the desired action is often not taken.”

As has been the case at Medgar Evers, what is most devastating is how the paternalistic treatment of black institutions in white university systems feeds stereotypes of incompetency. These stereotypes are used to justify opinions by board members that black faculty do not meet standards. Therefore, the argument goes, the “plantation” model has merit. The intersection of race, class, and elitism factors into this equation to produce a disempowered faculty.

As the faculty senate was leading the charge to save Medgar Evers and force the CUNY central administration to respond to the vote of no confidence, CUNY developed plans of its own. It demanded that the college overhaul its governance structure to bring it into compliance with CUNY’s notion of an administration-driven institution. The April 2013 first draft of an interim governance proposal from Frederick Schaffer, general counsel and senior vice chancellor, was not at all oriented toward faculty and student participation. The college council was, first, to have representation of “The President, Vice Presidents and Deans of the Schools.” With a college council so heavily represented by administrators, the faculty and students would lack a meaningful role in governance. The March 2014 draft governance plan proposed limits on the number of administrators and removed vice presidents altogether from the college council. Before the constitution of the present governing body was drafted, Schaffer, under the Pollard administration, attended campus meetings to attempt to “shepherd” the revision of our 1992 governance document. The reaction that he received from faculty and students was less than complimentary.

In subtle and coercive tones, the governance committee was told that if an amended version of the governance plan did not meet the general counsel’s approval, CUNY would impose its own interim governance. We stood our ground, insisting on managing the process on our terms. We continued to refuse to recognize CUNY’s general counsel as the voice of authority regarding any evolving interim plan. The faculty resisted CUNY’s overtures and engaged its own legal counsel.

Since the college governance committee did not amend the 1992 governance plan by May 2013, in June the board of trustees stripped Medgar Evers of its ratified governance plan and imposed an interim governance system upon the institution at its executive board meeting. There appears to be no precedent for this kind of ruling within the CUNY system.

Conclusion

One of the most salient points made by Guy-Sheftall in her 2006 Academe article is that shared governance is worth struggling for, no matter how strong the resistance. She calls for empowering junior faculty to take risks, as she did in her early years at Spelman College. There is nothing wrong with that laudable sentiment. Junior faculty who take risks to secure the well-being of the institution, however, can be perceived, if not punished, as “upstarts” or interlopers. Their careers are on the line. Without trust, it is difficult for junior faculty to get involved at even the most peripheral level.

Shared governance, at its core, is about who charts the future course of an institution. The president-centric model does not empower the collective body. This leaves the institution vulnerable to leadership that is compromised by board politics and external agendas, which usually do not advance the mission of the institution. As has been the case at Medgar Evers, even when the top-level administrator is benevolent, an institution can still be left in a precarious situation if its management has been autocratic. Faculty who have a vested interest in the survival of an institution where they have tenure need to be able to participate at the highest level. The oft-quoted phrase is true: “Administrators leave but faculty stay.”

Phillips reminds faculty on black and white campuses that we have a common enemy. With the push to install a more “corporate” model of institutional governance, we all lose: “Today it’s me; tomorrow, it’ll be you.” His words of caution to those who “toil on white college campuses” is that “the forces that ignore and trample upon black college faculty can and will turn upon them after dealing with the black institutions. . . . Together, we will stand; divided, we will be defeated.” His dire warning is not unlike what Medgar Evers’s concerned faculty wrote in an op-ed piece, “The Spirit of Medgar Evers under Attack”:

If CUNY permits the Pollard administration to continue violating University Bylaws or the College’s own ratified governance processes with impunity . . . Medgar Evers won’t be the only loser. Academic freedom is on the table, too, one of the last liberal holdouts. . . . If disemboweled at Medgar Evers College due to the University’s lack of enforcing shared governance under its reform scalpel of corporatized, higher education, then all CUNY colleges are at risk. Medgar is the test case for the oligarchic tendencies of this new “integrated” university.

For better or worse, the treatment of black institutions in predominantly white systems raises issues that reach back to slavery: the lack of historic valuing of black humanity; the relationship of blacks to white ruling (funding) entities; and, in an elitist academic environment, the questioning of what black people have to contribute to the production of knowledge. Invariably, the question about the survival of black institutions only recasts perennial concerns about the black community’s own self-determination. This case also provides a warning to faculty at white institutions: it can happen to you, too.

Sallie M. Cuffee is an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York. She has served as chair of the faculty senate since March 2012. Her e-mail address is scuffee@mec.cuny.edu.

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