Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
September 28, 2020
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Administrators will address the petition at a town hall on June 10.

More than 600 faculty members signed a petition delivered to University President Ronald J. Daniels on June 5 calling for greater representation in University decision-making. The petition also demanded more financial transparency and the reversal of various austerity measures taken by the University, including hiring freezes and suspension of retirement plan contributions.

The petition stemmed in part from History Professor François Furstenberg’s article “University Leaders Are Failing,” which was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education three weeks ago.

Furstenberg argued that Hopkins administrators lead the University as a multinational corporation instead of an academic institution. By doing so, he wrote, administrators were unable to financially prepare for the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak and failed to fulfill the core academic mission of the University.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Furstenberg described the current administrative organization at Hopkins as unsustainable.

“We have a real lack of robust faculty governance bodies in this institution in ways that many other institutions have. That means that the administration is able to make decisions in a very small circle and simply carry those out,” he said. “Our University President... is quite detached from the day-to-day operations of the institution, and his circle of close advisors are also quite detached. It’s the kind of decision-making that leads to expensive capital campaign projects that aren’t always necessary... That leads to rising tuition.”

Furstenberg also cited the fossil fuel divestment movement and the Garland Hall occupation as signs of faults in the current system.

“How do you ensure the institution is properly addressing the main mission [of educating students] if you don’t have student voices in some of these bodies?” he said. “Students here don’t often feel empowered to make demands on the University. If you feel marginalized, then it ultimately leads to things like the occupation of Garland Hall.”

Furstenberg also objected to the decision to suspend matching contributions to the faculty and staff retirement plans. While the University said that the choice was between suspending retirement benefits or layoffs, he explained that such framing of the issue was too narrow.

“Here’s where the governance issue becomes so central. Who gets to make those decisions? What are the alternatives that are really explored? I don't think we get a robust discussion if we keep the circle of decision-making so narrow,” he said. “From my perspective, this looks like an instinctual response by a private equity figure. If you need to slash expenses, of course, you slash retirement benefits. That’s what these guys do.”

According to Furstenberg, University decision-making has become more centralized under the administration over the years.

“Hopkins was a de facto faculty-governed place. That changed over time and has really accelerated under President Daniels,” he said. “There is a body called the Homewood Academic Council (HAC) that’s made up of faculty members who are elected. President Daniels has been unhappy with that body for a long time and he has been chipping away at its authority.”

This year, the Board of Trustees voted to create a Tenure Advisory Committee with President-appointed faculty members to oversee all tenure processes within the University. The HAC used to conduct final evaluations for Homewood professors.

Furstenberg, though, expressed his discontent with a body comprised of faculty members appointed by University administrators and not elected by the faculty.

“At the most bottom level, there needs to be robust bodies of elected faculty members with real decision-making authority that force the administration to collaborate with the faculty rather than listening to some griping and move on and do what they want,“ Furstenberg said.

French Professor Derek Schilling, a member of the Executive Committee of the Hopkins chapter of the American Association of University Professors, stressed the need for shared governance in the University.

“Shared governance is the idea that faculty participate in a meaningful way in all decisions that engage the future of the university, beginning with the primary responsibility for academic mission and education,” Schilling said. “Hopkins needs to come together, meaning that all the constituencies across the University need to be in dialogue with a free exchange of information — including information that historically hasn’t always been disseminated.”

Hopkins alum and Academy Professor of Political Science Matthew Crenson stated that the faculty, through the Homewood Faculty Assembly, has had a major role in shaping University decisions. He noted that a previous University president, Lincoln Gordon, was forced to resign due to the decision of the Faculty Assembly.

He echoed Furstenberg in noting that the role of faculty in shaping University decisions has decreased in recent years.

“When I served on committees, for example, to examine things like the administration’s handling of the occupation of Garland Hall, we were reminded by the administration, not once but repeatedly, that they didn’t have to pay attention to us,” Crenson said. “Essentially, we had no role in making decisions about the University. And it’s true. Nothing in the books says that.”

In an email to The News-Letter, Karen Lancaster, the assistant vice president of external relations for the Office of Communications, stated the University has shifted a substantial percentage of the endowment from active management to passive index fund strategies that have lower fees. She also stated that the University has worked to build its cash reserves in the past few years.

“While our cash reserves will help soften the mitigation efforts the university will be required to undertake during this crisis, the uncertainty of the pandemic, as well as the need to maintain continuity in university operations, demand that we make substantial and lasting reductions in our costs,” she wrote.

She added that the Board of Trustees is not looking to restructure its current organizational structure, rejecting proposals to have a student, faculty or staff observer on the Board of Trustees.

“Trustees frequently interact with students on a variety of projects and topics, ranging from serving with students on search committees to being part of career mentoring sessions,” she wrote. “We are confident that the current operational model for the Board provides significant and meaningful opportunities and platforms for student and faculty engagement.”

The Board of Trustees is in compliance with the law in releasing certain records and financial disclosures for public access, according to Lancaster. She stressed that there are internal and external audit procedures in place.

“The Board Office is always happy to share a summary of topics discussed at meetings,” Lancaster wrote. “As such, the Board Office several years ago added Trustee topics to its website, and, as part of an upgrade, is updating it with topic summaries for recent academic years.”

The website has not been updated since the 2016-17 school year.

Lancaster added that, on June 10, administrators will address the petition at a virtual town hall discussion about the University’s budgetary decisions.

In an email to The News-Letter, Interim Dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences (KSAS) John Toscano wrote that the KSAS has worked to include faculty perspectives in various initiatives.

“I can point to numerous recent examples where input has been actively sought — in the formation of the SNF Agora Institute, in the current search for a dean for the Krieger School of Arts & Sciences, in the Second Commission for Undergraduate Education, and on the Homewood Council on Inclusive Excellence, all major and important initiatives,” he wrote.

Toscano added that he does not see the need for organizational changes, including installing a faculty observer, to the Board of Trustees.

“The Board of Trustees engages in myriad duties, including appointing and evaluating the president, setting tuition, and voting on things such as tenure for faculty,“ he wrote. “I don’t see the need for an ‘observer’ in these matters.”

Nevertheless, in a separate email to The News-Letter, Furstenberg highlighted the unprecedented nature of such a widely supported petition at Hopkins.

“It’s extremely notable to me that many of those signatures come from faculty who, unlike me, do not benefit from tenure protections, making those expressions of discontent all the more courageous and remarkable,” he wrote. “I don’t think there has ever been anything like this broad-based expression of discontent among faculty before.”

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