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Brian Leiter
University of Chicago Law School

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Friday, September 3, 2010

What's going on at Buffalo?

I am not aware of any case in whicha major research university has had a non-academic appointed as Interim President.  The Chair of the Faculty Senate has sent out the following letter in protest (forwarded to me by a colleague at Buffalo):

President Simpson’s announcement of his retirement this past Monday did not come as a shock to many; the timing of the announcement --- on the first day of class --- was unfortunate but excusable.

Truly disturbing, however, was the proposed appointment of Mr. Scott Nostaja as interim president effective January 16, 2011.  After intensive conversations with several parties over the last three days, I concur with concerned faculty that the proposed appointment is both illegitimate, due to a complete lack of due process, and  inappropriate, due to a lack of minimal academic qualifications of the candidate.  

I address each of these issues in turn.   I do so out of duty and conviction, without pleasure and certainly without any malice.   I have made every effort to voice accurately the concerns I have heard.  The issue, in my judgment, was urgent enough to address quickly, although I would have liked to have convened an emergency meeting of the Voting Faculty.  

The president of a college or university within the State University of New York (SUNY) is appointed by the SUNY Board of Trustees, at whose pleasure s/he serves.  The Board receives recommendations for presidential appointment from both the campus council and from the Chancellor of SUNY; these recommendations must arise from thorough consultation with the faculty of the campus involved, “reflecting the significance of the role that faculty are expected to play in academic governance” (The State University of New York Policies of the Board of Trustees, Article IX, Title A, § 1).  

Not one of these three steps was taken.  It is particularly inexcusable that no faculty whatsoever were consulted in this matter, not even the faculty members of our senior administration who have worked with the President over the past several years and devoted so much of their energy and lives to making UB a great public research university.   This makes it extremely difficult for any of our senior administrative faculty to be willing to work with the proposed interim president, after being disrespectfully excluded from any discussion leading to the appointment.

Article II, 3 (c) of our  Bylaws of the Voting Faculty gives the faculty the power, the duty, to review, prior to adoption, all proposals regarding formal plans relating to the future of the University.  That no faculty were consulted in the proposed appointment of Mr. Nostaja is not only a blatant disregard of governance and collegiality, it is a denial of one of our fundamental rights.

Mr. Nostaja is a businessman, a consultant, an organizer, a strategist, an advisor.  But he is not an academic.  The faculty at UB expect that a candidate for interim president possess qualifications comparable to those of President.  Thus --- at a minimum --- the candidate should have


•    a Ph.D. or terminal professional degree;
•    an academic record that qualifies the candidate for the rank of Full Professor, with tenure;
•    an excellent record of scholarship and university teaching;
•    previous academic administrative experience that demonstrates a thorough understanding of, and respect for, academic freedom;
•    previous academic administrative experience that demonstrates a thorough understanding of, and respect for, the nature and importance of faculty governance;
•    prior experience with, and the authority to make judgments in, the promotion and tenure process.


These are the credentials that would enable a candidate to function credibly as the leader of an eminent body of professors, scientists, professionals and doctors, many of whom have Distinguished rank, many of whom have earned awards of the highest distinction, including the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes.  These are the credentials that would enable a candidate to earn their respect as the leader of a major, internationally admired academic institution.

Mr. Nostaja possesses none of these qualifications.  Having not undergone the rigors of graduate school, research and publication as a scholar, nor teaching at the university level, he lacks the authority to judge the achievements of junior faculty and make tenure decisions.  He lacks the authority to judge any resolutions on academic matters emanating from the Faculty Senate --- grading policies, graduation requirements, the establishment or dissolution of an academic unit, to name only a few.   These are responsibilities a president  may not delegate, but must execute with conviction and credibility ; Mr. Nostaja lacks the credentials to be able to do so.

It is my understanding that the motivation behind his proposed appointment stems from the intention to keep UB on its path toward excellence, to maintain the momentum behind the strategic vision and plan of UB 2020.  This in itself is admirable.  But I sincerely believe that this appointment would achieve just the opposite.  It would undermine respect and cooperation.  It would undermine our efforts and achievements of the past several years.  It would undermine our reputation as well --- locally, nationally, and internationally.  We the faculty have fully endorsed President Simpson’s stated principle that every action and decision we make should be guided by academic excellence; but this is precisely the sizeable gap in Mr. Nostaja’s dossier.

The fact that the appointment would be interim, temporary, is irrelevant; it does not mean that the minimal and fundamental qualifications for the position of president can be diminished or ignored.  It does not matter whether a person holds the position of university president for twenty years or for twenty minutes; s/he must be qualified to execute all the powers and duties of that important office.  Furthermore, given the fiscal challenges facing public education, and given the possible bureaucratic delays that often accompany the process of search and appointment, an interim period could prove to be rather long.  

I have discussed these concerns with Chancellor Zimpher.  She has guaranteed that due process will be followed, and expressed her keen desire to maintain the intiatives at UB that have brought us so far.  

In conclusion, I ask that all parties involved put aside any feelings of ill will and to work together, in this critical time of budgetary distress and change in leadership, to make UB a truly premier institution.  

Sincerely,

Robert Hoeing,
Chair of the Faculty Senate

UPDATE:  More here.

ANOTHER:  A reader points out that Michigan State University (like, Buffalo, a member of the Association of American Universities) had a non-academic as President from 1993 to 2004 (though he did have a post-graduate degree, in law).

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