Saturday, April 16, 2005

SSU Turmoil


In the 1990s, when Shawnee State University was warned by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools that it had to improve its governance problems or risk its accreditation, the administration gave the appearance of allowing the faculty a voice in governance. But once the accreditation was granted, the administration resorted to its familiar underhanded methods, methods that have alienated many faculty in the past and continue to create turmoil today.

Shawnee State is one of the 217 small liberal arts colleges that US News ranked for 2005. The 217 colleges are divided, by quality, into four tiers, the best in the top tier, the worst at the bottom. Shawnee State is one of 53 colleges in Tier 4, the bottom group. Not only that, it is near the bottom of the bottom group, and it has been ranked near the bottom of the bottom for at least a decade. By reputation (on a scale of 1 to 5) SSU is currently ranked at 1.6. There are only 4 colleges among the 217 that have a worse reputation. Here is US News' bottom tier: Note the arrow next to SSU, near the bottom:

SSU near the bottom of US News bottom tier

From the time it was founded in 1986, SSU has been the beneficiary of many extra millions of dollars in state aid. While Speaker of the House Vern Riffe was alive, SSU occupied a privileged position among Ohio’s state universities. As a result of its most-favored-university status, SSU increased in campus size and in academic quality, though not so much in quality as in size. But in spite of these improvements, SSU has one of the worst reputations not only among the small colleges in Ohio but among all the small colleges in the nation. Why?

Why does SSU continue to have such a terrible reputation? Why does it continue to be ranked by US News near the bottom of the bottom? One of the reasons is that the business and professional clique that controls Portsmouth also controls SSU. They control Portsmouth through the mayor and the city council, and, though none of them are educators, they control SSU through the university lawyer and the board of trustees. While they are willing to pay lip service to the idea, most trustees have never really accepted, indeed some are not even aware of, the principle of shared governance that is supposed to be in place at every accredited institution of higher education.

The special role of the university in modern American society is different from the business model. To accomplish its unique mission, to succeed as an institution of higher learning, a university requires unusually close cooperation between administration and faculty. But the trustees and the administration at SSU, acting on behalf of those who control Portsmouth, have traditionally treated the faculty like spoiled children, or at best as ungrateful employees who do not do what they are told. In the past, a North Central Association accrediting team acknowledged the faculty’s feeling that a politicized board of trustees exerted undue influence over the university.

SSU is currently experiencing turmoil over the trustees’ decision to switch from a quarter to a semester calendar. Even some of those who prefer semesters are protesting the way in which the trustees and the administration went about making and implementing the decision. SSU cannot possibly make the difficult transition to a new calendar without the faculty’s cooperation, because it requires an enormous effort by the faculty, apart from their heavy teaching responsibilities, to change to semesters. The trustees have the statutory authority to declare a change from quarters to semesters, but there is nothing in the faculty’s contract that says they must serve on the many committees that are necessary to do the thousands of things required to make the change. Faculty are a volunteer army, but before they fight a war declared by the trustees they need to be convinced the war is worth fighting. The administration has never convinced enough faculty that the semester war is worth fighting. The administration’s line now is that no matter what some faculty might feel about semesters, the decision to switch has been made and, to quote the administration's line, “the train has left the station.” The train may have left the station, but are there any passengers on it?

Just as Portsmouth has been controlled by a privileged clique of business and professional people who have more dollars than sense, SSU has been controlled by the same privileged group through the board of trustees and through the privileged clique's point man, university lawyer Stephen P. Donohue.

No matter how corrupt or incompetent a mayor may be, the privileged clique will try to keep him in office just as long as he serves the interests of that clique. That was the case with Mayor Bauer, who was recalled last year, in spite of the clique's campaign to keep him in office, and that was the case with Clive Veri, who resigned in 1998 under pressure and rumors of scandal after serving as the controversial president for nine years. Unequal to the challenges of the present, let alone the future, the desperate Veri came up with a nostalgic 1950s solution for SSU in the 1990s – football, fraternities, and semesters. Even though he had been unable to convince the faculty in nine years of lobbying and even though the major state universities in the area – Ohio State, Ohio University, and the University of Cincinnati – remain on the quarter system, Veri in his final months as president convinced the trustees to mandate conversion to semesters.

See "Veri's Revenge" in the archives

James P. Chapman, Veri’s successor, was denied reappointment in large part because he had concluded switching to semesters did not make sense. Chapman was replaced by Provost Michael Field, who was appointed Interim President by the trustees, in spite of the documented views of the faculty that Field was a failure as provost. However, with support from some trustees, Field threw his hat in the ring for the presidency, but the presidential search committee kicked his hat out. Even though influential trustees wanted the obliging Field as president and would have appointed him over faculty objections, the presidential search committee wisely withheld that opportunity from them by declining to include Field among the finalists the trustees would select from. Rejected by the search committee, Field resumed his job as provost, in spite of the highly critical evaluations he had earlier received from the faculty. What does someone who had failed as provost and then failed in his bid for the presidency do? Elsewhere he might have to find a job at another university. At SSU he resumed being provost and was appointed to oversee the most momentous and controversial change in the history of the university – the conversion to semesters.

2002 article in student alternative newspaper

Field is the engineer of the train that left the station without the passengers. Is this any way to run a railroad? Is this any way to end the turmoil? Are semesters a way to help improve SSU’s terrible reputation? I don’t think so and neither did any of the accrediting teams who have visited it in the last twenty years. SSU has some very serious problems, but being a quarter institution is not one of them.