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"The whole thing about a collegial culture, where people debate, discuss, that way of operating that is done at major universities all the time, it's scoffed at here," says Christine Harrington, the political science professor. "At the same time, we're seeing these enormous salaries for administrators coming in at a school where we all have students with huge debt. It seemed like there was something out of whack."
As Sexton moved forward with the 2031 plan last school year, Harrington, psychology professor Jim Uleman, and other members of the Faculty Senate Council decided they didn't need the administration's permission to poll the faculty or voice their own position. They began to hold open meetings for tenured faculty. "At first they were sparsely attended," says Karl, the Asia scholar. "But that changed quickly."
In advance of a meeting scheduled last November, a rumor circulated that one of the topics of discussion would be whether to hold a no-confidence vote; more than 70 faculty members showed up, not all of them critical of the administration. The philosophy department, for example, supported Sexton, as did biology professors, eager for new labs promised by the 2031 plan. "It was a rumble," Karl says. "Let's say there was a 'vigorous and frank exchange of ideas.' " At the end of the meeting, the first of what would become three votes took place, with a majority choosing to authorize a faculty-wide referendum on whether to hold a no-confidence vote. "Governance at this university has been so weak for so long, we were making the procedure up as we went along," Karl says.
For the second vote, held in December, the rebel faculty members took pains to institute unimpeachable procedures. They tapped computer-science professors to help devise anonymous e-voting for tenured faculty. They brought in the president of the Roberts Rules of Order Society of New York to preside as an independent parliamentarian to rule on any questions of protocol. And they tried, at least, to get an actual list of tenured faculty members. "The administration wouldn't give us that list," Harrington says. "That's what this has come to."
After cobbling together a list department by department, the organizers went ahead with the meeting. More than 270 faculty members attended, debated, and voted—and, once again, the decision was clear: The faculty wanted to hold a vote of no confidence in Sexton and his administration. It will be held next month, just before spring break.
There's nothing formally binding about the no-confidence vote, of course. Even if he loses, Sexton could still charge ahead with his agenda. But votes like this tend to have serious implications. Larry Summers stepped down as president of Harvard after losing one in 2005, and just last summer, when the faculty of the University of Virginia voted no confidence in their school's Board of Visitors after it ousted President Teresa Sullivan, the board reversed itself and reinstated her.
The coming vote is framed as a referendum on John Sexton specifically, but its supporters say it's actually about the definition of the university. "Are the faculty just worker drones here who follow the direction of the administration, with their big visions and big salaries?" Miller asks. "That's not what the university is supposed to be. Who's really the university? It's the students, and it's the teachers."
Miller and his allies say they're confident that most faculty members agree with them. They'll find out on March 15.