By Jan Worth-Nelson
In a letter to University of Michigan president Santa J. Ono, 21 University of Michigan – Flint emeritus faculty have registered concerns about both the process and substance of changes proposed in a “Strategic Transformation” initiative underway at the Flint campus.
The one–page letter specifically targets UM – Flint Chancellor Debasish Dutta, whom the retired faculty declare has presided over “the emergence of a campus culture…where pressure replaces reasoned decisions of shared governance and concomitant secrecy and confusion results in staff demoralization.”
Ono’s office acknowledged receipt of the letter, without response, in an email received Nov. 4. East Village Magazine has requested responses to the letter from Ono and UM – Regents Chair Paul W. Brown and Michael J. Behm.
The “Strategic Transformation” effort, an attempt to address overall declining enrollment in the past eight years and other issues, was laid out to the UM – Flint campus community at an in-house town hall Sept. 23.
The immediate trigger for the letter was a searing public statement in the context of those changes to the UM Regents at their Oct. 20 meeting in Flint by former dean Susan Gano Phillips.
Gano Phillips, a longtime professor of psychology, for the last seven years had been dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS). She resigned in June under pressure from top administration.
[In a follow-up email, Gano Phillips said she was given three hours by UM Provost Sonja Feist-Price following a Zoom call while Gano Phillips was on sabbatical in June to decide whether she would resign or be fired. She chose the former.]
In her two-minute statement to the Regents, Gano Phillips said UM – Flint is suffering from “a pervasive culture of fear and intimidation. promulgated by campus leadership, where dissenting voices are not tolerated, and the wellbeing of faculty, staff and students is threatened.”
The emeritus letter called Gano Phillips’ revelations “disturbing,” adding they “do not bode well for the future of liberal arts on the UM – Flint campus.”
All 21 who signed the letter are from the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) at UM – Flint, one of six — and historically the largest — under the university umbrella. Since its formation in the early years of UM – Flint, CAS has been the purveyor of “general education” courses required of all graduates, usually in their first two years as they prepared to move into their major fields of concentration.
The signers included faculty retired from 11 separate departments: Africana Studies, Art, Biology, English (both writing and literature), German, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, Theater.
Gano Phillips declared “many complaints and grievances have been made regarding our Chancellor and Provost [Sonja Feist-Price] in the past year, including allegations of discrimination, retaliation, dishonesty, coercion, bullying, and failure to engage in shared governance, but as of today nothing has been done.”
The emeritus group, many of whom have known or actually worked for Gano Phillips since she arrived on the Flint campus in 1993, received her comments with dismay.
“Emeritus faculty have lived through several changes in the constituent units of our Flint campus; discussions were often contentious,” they stated. “But none so threatening as this situation.”
Since the “Strategic Transformation” effort was unveiled, as reported in EVM’s Oct. 22 story, Gano Phillips, other faculty, several students and UM-Flint alums, several identifying as working class, first generation in college from the Flint area, “praised their UMF experiences but called out what they see at as a de–prioritization of the liberal arts, and the prospect that as resources for the liberal arts are squeezed in exchange for the technical fields, UMF’s overall prospects for survival as a vibrant four-year source of higher education — and as an affordable option for students in the Flint community — are threatened.”
The emeritus group echoed those concerns.
“If this Strategic Transformation is to succeed, the role of the College of Arts and Science in the history and mission of the Flint campus as a university cannot be disregarded,” the signers state.
“An institution of integrity does not let complaints, grievance, and allegations go unanswered. Respect for the principle of shared governance is not only an academic value; it is an essential component for public acceptance of campus change.”
In an interview after the letter was sent, associate professor emerita of history Theodosia Robertson, who produced the initial draft, said she was “frankly shocked, frankly astounded” by Gano Phillips’ reported experiences with upper level UM – Flint administration.
The draft letter was circulated to all 56 of the CAS emeritus faculty, and responses came in quickly. No one disagreed or said no, and many added messages of support, Robertson said.
The letter was not shared with Gano Phillips until after it was sent to Ono and the Regents, Robertson said.
[Full disclosure, Robertson is an occasional columnist for East Village Magazine]
Concerns about the Strategic Transformation effort are linked to troubles arising from formation of the UM – Flint’s latest college, the College of Innovation and Technology (CIT).
As detailed in an Oct. 22 EVM article, “Initial reshaping of the campus has centered partially on the new College of Innovation and Technology (CIT) which opened in 2021 to beef up the campus’s technology and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) options.
“Formation of the CIT was funded in part by $10 million from the C.S. Mott Foundation, in addition to millions in state and federal CARES Act funding, and it is headquartered in the remodeled and expanded Murchie Science Building (MSB).”
An action by the upper administration to “secretively transfer” three units from CAS to the new CIT was particularly galling and agitating to Gano Phillips and others. She said those moves “were designed to obfuscate the obvious failures of the Chancellor’s signature strategic initiative, the creation of the CIT. CIT enrollment is just 26 percent of its year two goal, despite investments of hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing and scholarships for many students. Important offices on campus, such as marketing and admissions, are a revolving door.”
And to Robertson and others from the emeritus group, the notion of imperiling the UM – Flint’s long mission of providing a full four-year degree with liberal arts components is profoundly worrisome.
While Robertson rues the reported aversive behaviors affecting Gano-Phillips and others, which she labeled “unprofessional and damaging,” she said she is equally concerned about the potential loss of arts and sciences choices, like degrees in music, art, theater, world languages, philosophy, natural sciences, and literature.
“If the formation of a new unit [CIT] — whatever its merits, and I’m not ruling that out — if that weakens the arts and sciences,” UM – Flint’s traditional student constituency will lose out: students of color, students from challenging economic backgrounds, she said.
Reducing arts and sciences options for Flint students, she asserted, noting that numerous A&S programs already have been axed, is “discriminatory,” invoking the conceptual argument about the nature of a university — something beyond the strictly job-related associates’ degrees many UM – Flint students transfer in from Mott Community College.
“Every student is worthy of pursuing the arts and sciences,” Robertson said.
Contacted by EVM after the letter had been sent and she had received a copy, Gano Phillips provided this response:
“The emeritus faculty at Flint, many of whom stewarded this campus for their entire careers, have chosen to re-engage with the campus in an unprecedented way, to provide support for the importance of shared governance, transparency in decision-making, and appropriate investigation of complaints about campus leadership. They also understand the essential nature of the core disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences, which have been the foundation of this campus since its inception, and they recognize that a positive campus culture is essential for the successful strategic transformation of this campus. I appreciate that the emeritus faculty have chosen to shine a light on these important issues at this moment in time – because they are concerns not just for the campus, but for the community at large.”
Emeritus faculty are retirees nominated, usually by their department chairs, as honored teachers and scholars and in acknowledgement in many cases of decades of service to the institution. Their status, which must be approved by the Regents, accords them ongoing access to the university, such as email, the library, and inclusion in campus events, and other ongoing ceremonial and non-voting professional opportunities.
Gano Phillips’ letter announcing her resignation June 17:
Dear CAS Faculty and Staff,
Following conversation and direction this morning from Provost Feist-Price, I am writing to inform you that effective June 30, 2022, I am planning to step down from my deanship in the College of Arts and Sciences. I will be returning to the faculty part time in Fall 2022 and full-time thereafter. Provost Feist-Price has indicated the need to move in a new direction with leadership, noting that members of the faculty and the Executive Committee have lost confidence in my leadership and ability to craft a vision for the future of the College of Arts and Sciences.
It has been my honor and privilege to work with all of you in various capacities over the past 7 years and we have much about which to be proud. We made great strides for our students, staff, faculty and the community – our curriculum, building projects, advising program, long-term planning, and scholarly and creative endeavors have all been advanced. I wish the College great success in the future.
EVM consulting editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Worth-Nelson worked for UM – Flint from 1987-2013, most of those years as writing faculty in the English Department, and retiring as director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching.
You must be logged in to post a comment.