When the temperature hovers in the upper 90’s for weeks on end, not much stirs in Collegetown, USA. Most of the underpaid, underappreciated faculty have shipped their kids off to lacrosse or computer camp, or are busy packing for the Vineyard or Prince Edward Island. It’s a tough life.
So I was mildly surprised when I ran into a former faculty colleague coming out of the doctor’s office the other day. After we exchanged languid, semi-sincere pleasantries, she volunteered that she and other faculty were having a terrible summer, and that even the shortest of attempted conversations quickly degenerated into foaming-mouth, expletive-hurling duets of rage-fueled albeit impotent calls for revolution. As a faculty, my friend said, she and her colleagues were scared, angry and disaffected. “We came so close,” she said yearningly, “so close to voting no confidence last fall.”
Voting no confidence in their college’s president, to be precise. Alas, misdirected institutional loyalty kept that much-needed vote from taking place. It’s only now, some six months after the aborted insurrection, that the faculty have come to realize that loyalty to ones college is a very different thing than loyalty to ones college president, and that their failure to act when the situation cried out for action has allowed an already fetid and festering wound to continue to eat its way through flesh and bone to the heart of the college they profess to hold dear.
Make no mistake: whistle-blowing is not easy, and its consequences can be terrible. This is a lesson learned the hard way recently by a couple of administrators at Washburn University who were given the heave-ho after answering board member’s questions about university President Jerry Farley’s squirrelly ideas about finances.
According to the Topeka Capitol-Journal Online,
Two former Washburn University administrators allege in a lawsuit filed Thursday [July 8] against the institution, its Board of Regents and president Jerry Farley that they were terminated in retaliation for engaging in protected whistle-blower activities.
Wanda Hill, former treasurer and vice president for administration, was terminated April 1. Robin Bowen, former vice president for academic affairs, was terminated March 30.
A complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Topeka lists three counts for the action: deprivation of the plaintiffs’ Fifth and 14th Amendment rights to due process against all three par ties, breach of contract against Washburn University and the board, and common law retaliatory discharge (whistle-blower) against all three defendants.
Vice Presidents Hill and Bowen were sacked when the president discovered they’d told inquisitive regents that he was cooking enrollment data with no-show students and handing out scholarships to them. So, with phantom students spiriting away $500,000 in grant monies, the trustees were understandably a tad suspicious. And this is where the story gets murky. Were Hill and Bowen duped by board members’ reassurances that their jobs would be safe if they told what they knew, or were they malicious underlings, out to stab their boss in the back?
Hard to tell, since Jerry Farley remains ensconced as Washburn’s CEO, and has the “110 percent confidence” of at least regent Dan Lykins, who says President Farley’s “reputation for being honest and upfront is beyond reproach.” On the other hand, the court documents suggest pretty conclusively that there was some sleight of hand in the budgetary cookie jar during Farley’s watch.
What’s of greater interest here, though, is the dangerous game VPs Hill and Bowen entered into with the board of regents. Sure, the regents are their boss’s bosses, but the promise of continued employment was not one that the women should have believed. President Farley had the power to can them, and he did. Unless and until the regents dismiss him, they will not interfere with his presidential prerogatives.
These women were either truly courageous or truly stupid, because they spoke up even though they lacked the protection that tenure would have afforded them. As administrators, they were as expendable, fair game for a vindictive president or a manipulative board. Had they been members of the elect—the faculty, that is—with the guarantee of jobs for life that tenure provides, they could have squealed on their boss with impunity.
Which brings us back to Collegetown, USA, where the faculty’s winter of discontent has given way to a summer of boiling tempers and exploding anxiety. A question gnaws at the faculty’s small, rarely used collective conscience: should we do the right thing? Having given one answer a try and finding it sorely wanting, perhaps now is the time for faculty to stand up for themselves, their students and their college.
Before it is too late.