One College, Two Campuses, Two-but-One Presidents.

I’ve been told it’s not nice to air your dirty laundry in public, but given the amount of weirdness and a number of distressing things that college boards are doing these days, perhaps there’s something to letting sunshine be the best disinfectant. That said, this is completely inside baseball.

I went to a small liberal arts college, St. John’s College. St. John’s has two campuses, one in Annapolis, Maryland, and one in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A nearly identical, all-required curriculum, what we call the Program, is offered at both. Students can transfer between campuses on an annual basis; the faculty, known as tutors rather than professors, can also transfer between campuses. Because the curriculum is required, there are no electives and students must start as freshman; no transfer students are accepted. Until recently there was no study abroad. The Program is also sometimes called “the Great Books,” meaning the Western canon, meaning more or less chronological studies in philosophy from Plato to Marx, mathematics from Euclid to Einstein, science from Theophrastus to Watson and Crick, literature from Homer to Faulkner.

I attended the Annapolis campus all four years because my father was ill and I couldn’t think of leaving my family, who lived nearby. Now that I make my home in what is roughly the southwest, I’m sure I would have loved spending time in Santa Fe. I have nothing but good feelings about and for the Santa Fe campus. This is said to forestall the usual accusations of Annapolis v. Santa Fe enmity. Some of which, as the emails below will demonstrate, contributes to what is going on.

St. John’s calls itself one college on two campuses. Each campus has its own president. Santa Fe recently hired Mark Roosevelt to be the president there, and recently, the president at Annapolis, Chris Nelson, announced he would retire.

I’m told that in 2013 the Board of Visitors and Governors (BVG) of St. John’s attempted to consolidate both the faculty and administration under one president and one dean, both of whom were to be in Santa Fe. I’m told this did not happen because it somehow threatened the reaccreditation of the college. St. John’s was reaccredited in 2014.

Recently, on the heels of Roosevelt’s hiring and Nelson’s retiring, it was announced that the Board would be restructuring the College such that the president in Santa Fe (Roosevelt) would be president of both the Santa Fe campus, and the college-wide president. The Annapolis campus would have a new president after Nelson’s retirement who reported to Roosevelt.

St. John’s has shared the changes to the College’s charter that were agreed to at the last Board meeting. After an community-wide phone call with Mr. Roosevelt, during which some of this was aired, it was announced that they will now accept community comments for a month. There is a comment box at the link above for feedback. The changes will be voted on, to be enshrined or not, at the next Board meeting, in roughly a month’s time. In the meantime, a week ago today the faculty in Annapolis unanimously resolved the following:

We, the tutors of the Annapolis campus of St. John’s College, reaffirm our support for the findings of the 2013–2014 college-wide Faculty Polity Review, which recognized the importance of campus communities with regard to college governance. Still more do we affirm our approval of the collaborative process through which that agreement was reached.

We acknowledge that the Board of Visitors and Governors of St. John’s is committed to consolidating many college offices for the purposes of significantly reducing expenses, thereby putting the college on a solid financial footing. With a view to this the Board has decided to abolish the management committee and to unify college leadership in a new way, with the purpose of “improv[ing] the college-wide decision making process, and accordingly better equip[ping] us to deal with our financial challenges.” Under the imminent proposal for Polity revision, one campus president will indefinitely serve as college-wide executive with authority over college-wide as well as campus-specific matters, while the other campus president, reporting to the college-wide president, will have only campus-specific authority and ceremonial duties.

A two-president structure in which one president has greater authority will make the second a president in name only, and it will confuse lines of authority and reduce accountability. In the case of St. John’s College the line between college-wide and campus-specific issues is very hard to draw consistently and with any clarity; this confusion will lead to disagreements concerning the authority of each president.

Furthermore, the inequality between the offices will almost certainly lead to inequities in the management of the college. This will be true regardless of the campus on which the college-wide president is located, now or in the future.

If there must be a single college-wide president, we think it imperative that both faculties have a direct and unmediated relationship with the president, and he or she with them. The proposed structure will be a recurring and profound source of divisiveness and distrust, contrary to the board’s intention and to the desire of both campuses. Indeed, the proposal is already causing widespread anger and divisiveness.

Moreover, the nominal president will lack the full stature necessary to fulfill essential functions such as lobbying legislators and cultivating the most significant donors, thus hampering the upcoming campaign. Finally, to adopt a nominal presidency will result in a significant expense and duplication of offices, contrary to the purpose of college-wide consolidation. For these reasons we, the tutors of the Annapolis campus, vigorously urge the Board to reconsider their proposal and establish a single president for St. John’s College, who will preside over both campuses equally and be responsible to and accountable for St. John’s College as a whole.

— passed unanimously on May 13, 2016

Widespread anger and divisiveness. Indeed.

I am in receipt of emails from two Board members to the rest of the board. The first is from alumnus and BVG member Wilfred McClay. [All sic.]

May 19, 2016

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

I was not able to be present for the recent Board meeting in New York, and I have therefore been hesitant to comment upon the governance proposal coming out of that meeting that has been sent forth to the College community. But the appearance of an impressive unanimous resolution offered on May 13 by the Annapolis faculty, a resolution that is both powerfully and respectfully argued, has stimulated some thoughts that I believe may be helpful in moving forward.

To be candid, my own reaction to the announcement of the proposal coming out of the New York meeting was that the action seemed precipitous. I had not been prepared for it by the agenda for the meeting that had been shared with us in advance. Robert Bienenfeld’s helpful preparatory memo of April 24, describing the work of the Polity Review Committee, described a set of intricately balanced concerns, including the view that “a president on each campus is critical” and that care should be taken that changes are not “damaging [to] the carefully cultivated culture that is so integral to the product we deliver.” His cautious conclusion that “it may be time to review some of these issues” seemed fully warranted. But the Board’s action went much further than that.

More to the point, I entirely share with the Annapolis faculty a sense that the particular solution being proposed could easily create as many problems as it solves, and represents a substantial leap beyond the findings and recommendations of the Polity Review. (Indeed, the proposal being put forward appears to me very similar to the rejected Governance Option D in the “Status Report” of 2/18/14, found on PowerPoint #22; and the Annapolis faculty’s criticisms of such an arrangement are essentially the same as those made by the Polity Review itself.)

I and the Annapolis faculty may well be mistaken in both of those assertions, and I for one am open to being shown why. But the heart of the problem is not what is being done, but the way it is being done, which seems to a great many members of this community, including alumni, to be a top-down imposition that violates the rational, collaborative, and deliberative spirit of this community. In a community like St. John’s, procedure and substance are intertwined. It is extraordinarily important that we not only do the right thing, but do it in the right way, with a mutuality aiming at consensus that can only be achieved by a thorough, fair-minded, and open process of public ventilation and deliberation.

To this end, I want to suggest that the Board consider delaying its action, and undertaking a process of thoroughly studying and publicly ventilating this proposal (in a much more detailed form than what we have so far been shown) in the more general College community on both campuses. If we do this in the right way, it will only strengthen the results that the Board seeks to achieve, strengthen our community, and provide proof positive of the efficacy and resiliency of the kind of community we strive to embody. It will also strengthen the community’s confidence in the Board’s authority and judgment.

If we do it in the wrong way, it may undermine those results, no matter how well-conceived the plan may appear to be in the abstract. For the governance of an actual flesh-and-blood community is never an abstract problem; it is always a concrete one. And in an academic community, which is held together by a delicate web of shared values, the maintenance of morale is central, not peripheral. In particular, the sacrificial dedication of our faculty is extraordinary, but it is not boundless. I do not believe we can afford to ignore their unanimous entreaty of May 13.

We need only look to our own past to see how an alternative process could be structured. Some of us can remember how and why the shift to the current two-president model was arrived at in 1985 (after many years of discussion and consideration). A Task Force on Governance was created in May of 1984, with a broad representation from throughout the College community. Initially the Task Force was to report to the October 1984 BVG meeting, but that was delayed to give the faculty more time to consider and respond to the issues raised. Finally, at the January 1985 meeting, and after receiving several months’ worth of input and a range of memoranda from faculty and students both pro and con, the Board voted to approve the move to a two-president model. A model that, whatever its many deficiencies, has lasted for 31 years.

It may well be the case that it is time to revert to our earlier model, or to some other variant. There are compelling arguments to do so. But in any event, it is not my present purpose to rehearse those arguments, or to take any particular position on this issue. Instead, I am arguing that the St. John’s community as a whole has to be included, and feel itself to have been included, in the process of our making such a dramatic change. This inclusive and deliberative spirit was present in 1984–85, and it can be equally so today. And with all due respect, I do not think that setting up a one-way 30-day internet comment box can serve that function for a community that is built upon conversation.

This is a community that above all else respects and actively fosters rational discourse. If the changes being envisioned are clearly the right changes, one can be confident that the arguments in their favor will be compelling to the overwhelming majority of the community’s members. But those arguments need to be made in an orderly way, and the objections to them countered. A delay such as I am proposing, which would incorporate something like the process that was used 31 years ago at this College, would allow that essential process of consultation to occur. We all would benefit, and the end result would almost certainly be better.

Sincerely,

Wilfred M. McClay

Precipitous. Indeed.

And a response from BVG member and St. John’s College Graduate Institute alumnus Richard Groenendyke, addressed to Mr. McClay, but sent to the entire board. [All sic.]

Bill,

You are dead solid wrong. The BVG finally took action in NYC to deal responsively with a financial crisis of our beloved College that is out of control by changing the governance structure, mandating a progressive reduction of the current $11,500,000+ annual operating deficit and consolidating college-wide decision making under the executive authority of one College-wide President. You and the small but vocal group of Annapolis tutors who are opposed to the BVG policy of “One College On Two Campuses” are seeking a power struggle with the BVG. I say, come on down.

The Annapolis faculty resolution you so fervently tout was not unanimous-the untenured younger tutors who hope for tenure are fearful of pissing off the older click of tutors who have historically blamed the Santa Fe campus for the unsustainable operating model of St. John’s College-the BVG decisions made in NYC are intended to also address this and other longstanding culturally embedded conflict issues between the two campuses. Your arm chair opining does nothing but add to a conflict that demands resolution by stand-up leadership.

You are seriously disadvantaged by your failure to participate in the special NYC BVG meeting attended by a record number of BVG members. Your email indicates that you seem interested in being popular with tutors. The 27 to 1 vote of your fellow BVG members in NYC indicates a courage and resolve to make changes in the Polity required by each BVG member’s fiduciary duty.

Bill, in all due respect, you need a little more John Wayne and a little less Julio Iglesias.

Next time you want to hold forth as a BVG member on something this sensitive, you might want to do it differently-but if not, be advised the BVG to which you belong is no longer in denial-and its mantra seems to be…

Onward,

Richard Groenendyke

Onward. Indeed.

Some stray thoughts:

When I heard that Mr. Roosevelt had been hired as Santa Fe’s president, I was glad. He is well known for having reopened Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I assumed the BVG had made a very astute decision in hiring a fixer — someone who could improve enrollment and fundraising efforts for Santa Fe.

But this is tantamount to a coup. Amongst many other things, it still remains opaque to me why the new governance structure is what will save St. John’s from financial ruin, since the salary burden of two presidents remains the same. The answer proffered has been that there must be an individual with whom the buck stops, that consensus is sometimes difficult to achieve.

The financial challenges of running a small liberal arts college are very real. Declining enrollment coupled with an increase in financial aid offered to students (known as the “discount rate”), as well as higher technology costs have all been cited. Those are understandable reasons for an annual deficit. They are not understandable reasons for removing the (new) Annapolis president from having any real executive decision-making power.

Chris Nelson’s retirement is concerning. His retirement coming just before the College proposes to launch a new capital campaign seems ill-considered at best and self-damning at worst; he has been our chief fundraiser for a quarter of a century. The relationships he has built, the donors he has cultivated, do not necessarily just pass on to the next executive on the Annapolis campus.

I’m told that Mark Roosevelt specifically did not want to become president of two campuses, and is not interested for a number of reasons in being the single president of St. John’s. (N.b. St. John’s at one time did have a single president for both campuses, Richard Weigle.) It is not convenient to travel between the airports nearest both campuses, Baltimore and Albuquerque, and Roosevelt — when taking the job — assumed that it would entail the mere pressures of running a single campus. And yet, here he is, about to run two.

I’ve encountered a certain attitude by members of the community that alumni and faculty have no right to criticize the decisions of the BVG, that we can’t possibly know (and of course, there’s much we can’t know, since it’s kept secret) what is and is not good for the College. Given the emails above, I guess not even Board members can criticize these decisions, or in particular how these decisions are being undertaken. I’m not privy to most of what goes on at the College, and I’m not privy to the Board’s thoughts or communications for the most part. I recognize that they have difficult work to do — but ignoring any voices of dissent, including the entire faculty of the Annapolis campus seems very strange.

I urge the Board to reconsider the process by which this decision is being made. I urge the faculty of both campuses to consider pushing forward further resolutions, and to vote their confidence.