The Rhode Island College shared governance body, the College Council, composed of faculty representatives from each department, adjuncts, professional staff, and the President, held a vote of confidence in the leadership of President Nancy Carriuolo on December 11.
While this body is not representative of the entirety of the college community, it does serve as a forum for representatives of the community to participate in operations of the college and voice issues raised by each constituency. With a vote of 18 yea, 2 nay, and 3 abstentions, they voiced their support for the president and her vision for the college. Though the President does sit on the body and was present at the opening of the meeting, she exited following some brief preliminary remarks and did not ask for the vote to be held, it was totally voluntary and began as a motion suggested by the membership.
Prior to the vote and after the president had exited, there was an open and frank discussion before the body regarding the entire matter. Professional staff representatives did voice a level of dissatisfaction and unhappiness within their constituency and the faculty members of the body voiced their support for these concerns and expressed hope that a mechanism could be devised that would allow for grievances to be heard without repercussion. Another issue raised was the fact that the negative publicity has added a time-sensitive aspect to the proceedings that was impacting both the college’s reputation and faculty contract negotiations potentially. It also was brought forward that it appeared on campus that elements of discontent were now being sown within the faculty towards the administration that would further negatively impact the president even though these issues could be caused by any number of administration members subordinate to the president’s office.
The president, in her brief remarks, spoke to a variety of issues, including her efforts to be transparent, her standing as a fundraiser, and also a breach of her personal email that was involved in this affair. She emphasized that she was open to any scrutiny or oversight but also had chosen to consistently offer no comment publicly. This has indeed been the case for this reporter, the president, leadership of the Professional Staff Association, and individual members of the on-campus community have offered no comment when queried for insights. Off the record, one community member did explain there had been a lot of firings on campus and that there was anger because newly hired staff were unable to gain full benefits of state employment, an arrangement previously set out by a past administration, but that seems unlikely to be the direct fault of the President and instead seems to be symptomatic of systemic governance issues in Rhode Island.
On December 8, 2015, the Providence Journal ran an opinion piece by Rob Bower regarding the controversy that included mention of a survey of staff at the College originally cited in the letter sent to the Council on Postsecondary Education that began this whole affair. This poll has created a good deal of consternation and also curiosity amongst the College community.
One of these community members is Professor Emeritus Richard Lobban of the Anthropology department, whose previous work in social networking analysis and research methods included administration and analysis of surveys, polls, and other data collection methods. He sat down for an interview and discussed his findings, which he shared with the College Council on December 11. It is worthwhile to note that, since Bower’s piece included mention of Affirmative Action department issues, Dr. Lobban was involved during his career at the College in the Africana department as well and previously served as Vice President for Education at the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. After attending the meeting, he expressed a level of enthusiasm for the Council’s vote, modifying earlier points expressed in the audio interview below.
Some key points to keep in mind when discussing this survey:
- Taken June-July 2015 (the response deadline was extended beyond June 24)
- Type of survey: paper; each survey document was embossed with the PSA seal to ensure that each returned survey was genuine. No reproductions were allowed.
- Total distributed: 160, by mail to home addresses of members
- Total responses: 87, by return mail to home address of PSA President
- Response rate: 54.4%
- Total number of statements: 44
Instead of helping settle questions, this survey only creates more that have yet to be answered.
In the first place, if this staff survey, issued under the imprimatur of the American Federation of Teachers, were a true measure of labor malfeasance, why would the union have chosen to introduce this story via personages such as Jane Fusco, Mark Motte, Michael Smith, and Peg Brown? Without getting into a personal attack akin to the verbiage of the news story that began this whole episode, these individuals carry with them a certain reputation in the College community that makes these complaints seem dubious. At a time when college campuses are actively alight with discussions among students about labor rights, thanks in small part to the reintroduction of the word ‘socialism’ in the mainstream political discourse, and adjunct professors and instructors across the country are holding union drives, why not take care to introduce these issues in a fashion that would take advantage of Rhode Island’s historic unionized labor force and culture? Why do it in a fashion that only impugns the reputation of the College, thereby possibly risking the jobs of the surveyed laborers?
Furthermore, since when has the Providence Journal been sympathetic to state workers and their complaints? It is becoming abundantly clear as the days go by and members of the community come forward to defend the President and dispute the validity of these claims that the entire news media, starting with the Journal, has perhaps been taken for a ride. Sources familiar with this issue have indicated that, if there are indeed issues to be discussed regarding the President and her administration of the College and/or treatment of staffers, let them be heard but in an open, honest, and transparent fashion that gives voice to the actual staffers in totality rather than in a fashion that invites skepticism and suspicion of ulterior motives. Sources further indicate that there perhaps were questions to be raised about financial issues at the College. If that be the case, again, why have the revelations come from those who invite only rebuttal, scrutiny, and claims of ulterior motives?
But there are still more questions. For example, where in all of this is the voice of President Emeritus John Nazarian? This story has generated a high level of negative press for the College not just in the state but in fact the world after it was picked up on the international wire services. For someone who spent five decades building the College and promoting its name, his silence is noticed and deafening for some, especially when one recalls that President Carriuolo was originally selected from within the state government body that deals with higher education, meaning that Dr. Nazarian would have known her rather well. Considering that the original public signatories of the letter, Motte, Fusco, Smith, and Brown, were all close to Nazarian, it would be quite interesting to hear him come to the defense of his successor. Sources have indicated that he was last seen on campus at the dedication of the Alex and Ani arts building in fall 2014, which raised some eyebrows at the time considering his absence otherwise since retirement.
The final question of course is about the political agenda. It could be anything from a grand neoliberal effort to privatize public education to a long-standing scheme on Smith Hill to reduce the number of public four year institutes on the state budget to grandstanding in an effort to regain former prestige and positions on the campus, particularly since some of the signatories were angling for the Presidency before Carriuolo was appointed, with Peg Brown in fact submitting her name for formal consideration. Nevertheless, this entire affair has unnecessarily damaged the reputations of the President, the College, and indeed the AFT-affiliated union of staffers that were originally surveyed. And it is far from over.