A Royalist Coup

Bob King Topples Faculty Government

By Tom King
July 1991; pages 3, 8; Volume 2, No. 7

My politics haven't changed since I was 21 years old. I was a Marxist then and I'm an Authoritarian now.

-Robert King, in conversation at a 1990 fundraising party for the College of Liberal Arts

On February 22 of this year, the Department of English voted to retain its present structure of governance with a few minor revisions. After careful discussion and deliberation, it passed in perfunctory fashion: there was a single dissenting vote. The governance document was then forwarded to the Liberal Arts Dean for his consideration. Until the 26th of June, there was no indication whatsoever from the acting Dean or his predecessor, Standish Meacham, that anything at all was wrong with the Department's system of governance. On that day, acting Liberal Arts Dean Robert D. King, in a memo to Department of English Chairman Joseph Kruppa, declared his intention to revise English Department governance dramatically and unilaterally.

The dean proposes to replace the Department's Executive Committee, which is elected from all the department' s faculty, with a Budget Council, made up of all full professors, but not other tenured faculty or assistant professors. The English Department abolished the Budget Council mode of governance in 1968, in an attempt to democratize its governance. Today, issues of democratic input are still relevant. Chairman Kruppa cites it as an important selling point among first-rate young academics. In addition, women and minorities would be underrepresented under a Budget Council system. Despite the department's exemplary record of affirmative action hiring, they are still not well represented among full professors. The department has only two full professors who are women; otherwise, the entire Budget Council would be made up of (mostly older, mostly white) men, who King thinks are more "experienced." King charges that "a larger body of the most senior ... faculty" should lead the department.

Whether or not that it is the case, Dean King's actions amount to a de facto attack on affirmative action. In the last two years the department has hired eight women, two African-Americans, and three Hispanic candidates out of eleven total positions.

Also, it is simply untrue that senior faculty is underrepresented on the existing Executive Committee. During the last twenty-three years, full professors have always had a clear majority. Neither can it be argued that the Executive Committee form of governance is cliquish. During the last fourteen years, three quarters of the full professors presently in the department have served on the committee, and half of the entire English faculty has served at one time or another.

Representation on the Executive Committee cuts across every philosophical and methodological difference among the faculty as a whole. Currently the committee is made up of six full professors, two associate professors and two assistant profs. Although Dr. Joe Kruppa acts as a tie-breaker, in the last two years no Executive committee vote has been closer than 8-2 and most have been unanimous. King's insinuation that the body is not capable of sober and mature deliberation is born out neither by the composition of the executive committee nor by its decisions. Says Kruppa, "there is not a shred of empirical evidence either that anything is wrong with the Executive Committee mode, nor that a Budget Council would be in any way preferable."

An Attack on Minority Hiring

King claims to have no confidence in the hiring recommendations of the Executive committee, reminding Kruppa in his letter: "You will recall that twice during my earlier deanship I suspended hiring in the Department through lack of confidence in the recommendations being made." In a 1989 letter to then-Chairman William Sutherland, King explains himself more fully. King rejected two recommended new hires, one of them a woman, based not on their qualifications as scholars but on their "beliefs regarding the relation of literature to ideology and society." In other words, King objected to the department's new hires not based on their academic merits, but on their "beliefs."

In the same letter, King noted that as far as he could tell, both candidates were "well qualified for a position at a major university." In defense of his position King distinguishes between "traditional" and "nontraditional" approaches to literature ideologically, and insists upon "balance" between these "polarized" positions.

Two things are disturbing about this concern about "balance": (1) King, in failing to state the criteria by which "traditional" and "nontraditional" approaches to literature are to be distinguished, assumes the distinction to be clear and meaningful. English Chairman Kruppa, when interviewed by Polemicist, called such a distinction "fuzz and unworkable." Associate Professor Barbara Harlow argues that while the department made its hiring decision on the basis of excellence alone, Dean King "politicized the issue by means of the traditional/nontraditional distinction", which brings us to (2) that King assumes that political ideology follows reliably from one's methods of scholarship.

King's 'academic' style

While it is undoubtedly necessary for the Dean to make sure that all significant methodologies are sufficiently represented in a department, it by no means follows from this that a preponderance either of "new" or of "old" methods (which King never even attempted to demonstrate) necessarily lends to the ideological polarization of a department.

King's approach to hiring has little to do with a professor's area of expertise (i.e. eighteenth century, British modern etc) or specialization, even though departments generally fill needed positions by period, geographic area and literary form. King, by making himself the guardian of ideological balance in the College of Liberal Arts, assumes without proof that the Department of English is incompetent to assess its own needs and satisfy them.

The department did not fail to recommend candidates of proven excellence for his approval. According to Joe Kruppa, the department hires are based on qualifications alone. When a qualified candidate does not appear, the department leaves the position open until the next round of hiring. Twenty years ago, says Kruppa, "this was a decent regional department. Now it is a department of national reputation and stature, ranking certainly among the top fifteen in the nation." This year English received about 400 letters of inquiry for five to seven positions. It only filled three of the openings, and two of the hires were African-American, representing one-eighth of minority faculty hires for the entire University. Is it the hiring of minorities that King is complaining about?

Whether or not that it is the case, Dean King's actions amount to a de facto attack on affirmative action. In the last two years, the Department has hired eight women, two African-Americans, and three Hispanic candidates out of eleven total positions. The most recent hires did not draw from the President's Fund for minority recruitment, but were completely confined within the normal department's hiring procedures. The English department currently has the best minority recruitment record at the University.

While it has recently become fashionable to argue that a commitment to affirmative action is ideological, it is important to stress that such a commitment is strongly in accordance with the stated policy of the UT Administration. According to President Cunningham's 1987 Minority Faculty Recruitment and Retention Action Plan, the University stresses "the need for aggressive action to recruit minority faculty."

If King's objections do stem from his personal opposition to affirmative action, then they are out of line with stated university policy. Although a Dean may, as stipulated in the University Handbook of Operating Procedures, "determine that operation of a department has deteriorated because of actions taken or not taken by the Budget Council or because of irreconcilable differences within the membership of the Budget Council, and ... [under such circumstances] ... may request the approval of the President to establish a temporary budget committee for the department," in this instance King has not offered, let alone established, evidence that the operation of the department has deteriorated or that irreconcilable differences exist.

King so far has said only that it is his "feeling" that the Department of English has not been well served by the Executive Committee mode of governance, and that he further "feels" that the Department, the College of Liberal Arts, and the University would be better served by a Budget Council.

Completely aside from the fact that King's "feelings" remain unsupported by any documentable evidence, his present lack of confidence in the Department's mode of governance is damning in at least three respects: (1) in 1985 he himself was responsible for consolidating power in the Executive Committee which he now complains is too small and too powerful; (2) the system to which he wishes to return is a proven failure in the English Department; (3) it impugns, in an unwarrantably broad way, the competence of the Department of English to manage its own affairs. The present system of governance has enjoyed full and continuous administrative approval, as well as the overwhelming support of the faculty of the Department of English.

Embracing Authoritarianism

This third consideration is the most grave, since Acting Dean King, in his former capacity as Liberal Arts Dean, has a long history of interference with departmental autonomy (a history he cites, curiously, as justification for fresh attack on democracy in the English Department.)

As evidenced by the swift response of the Department to King's June 26 memo (Chairman Kruppa tells Polemicist that full meetings of the Department during the summer are extraordinary), there is sharp concern about King's inclinations among the English faculty. Quite reasonably, the Department has asked only that King state what is wrong with their mode of governance in detail and in an appropriate forum. King has offered to meet with individual faculty members but bas so far declined the Department's offer to meet officially to resolve their differences. Nor has he given his objections detailed and objective elaboration.

It is important to stress that King is not bound by any regulation or guideline to take part in such a meeting. Were King to refuse to meet with the Department or its officers, that would not be technically improper. The fact of the matter is that the abolition of an effective, democratic, and popular form of governance lies at the pleasure of the Dean.

It would, however, be a gross and flagrant violation not only of common decency but also of the somewhat more serious matter of professional courtesy, some standards for which can be found in the 1966 Joint Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.

The 1966 Joint Statement is a document jointly formulated by the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (among whose membership the UT Board of Regents can be counted) and which represents the common sense of higher education institutions regarding the respective roles of governing boards, faculties, and administrations.

It states that "faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility; this area includes appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint, promotions, the granting of tenure, and dismissal. The primary responsibility of the faculty for such matters is based upon the fact that its judgment is central to general educational policy. Furthermore, scholars in a particular field or activity have chief competence for judging the work of their colleagues ... Determinations in these matters should first be by faculty action through established procedures, reviewed by the chief academic officers with the concurrence of the board. The governing board and president should, on questions of faculty status, as in other matters where the faculty has primary responsibility, concur with the faculty judgment except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail."

Whether King complies with these broader principles, designed to protect academic freedom and faculty autonomy, will indicate the direction which the College of Liberal Arts will take in the very near future. But it's important to remember that King was hired only recently by President Cunningham, after the spate of bad publicity received by the English department over the English 306 debacle; that's the same "Dollar" Bill Cunningham who caved into public pressure and forced former Dean Meacham to crush the E306 course last summer (See Polemicist, September 1990).

If Cunningham allows King to gut the governance structure in the English Department, one could infer that it's because that's exactly what he hired King to do. King could not be reached for comment, or we would ask him. But Cunningham is certainly aware of King's regressive history, and whether he stops the good Dean from exacting retribution on the English Department should tell us whether King's action was simply his own mean-spirited nature in action, or if he's carrying water for the central administration.