Snark's Last Stand

When I knew that my retirement was coming, I thought I'd finish off my career at Edison with a letter to the board, a tough assignment. But in all my years at Edison, I had some good colleagues, Deans, and Vice Presidents, but never a good President. The good work this faculty has done has largely gone unnoticed and unappreciated, especially by the Board. Then this controversy broke out publicly in the Illuminator Blog, and I thought I'd use this space for my letter. At least someone will read it here.

Dear Board:

In my tenure at Edison—virtually all my working life—the relationship between the board and the two long time Presidents has been wrong. Rather than promoting the good of the school, it promoted the good of the man in the office. Though announced as a retirement, President Seitz left under turmoil that is similar what is happening now. In support of him, the then Board made many of the same mistakes you are making now: a questioning of the depth of the dissatisfaction—it was only a few rabble-rousers who were stirring things up; a dismissal of the understanding that the faculty had of the big issues at stake; and a barely expressed contempt for faculty in the first place.

It was these last years of Seitz's Presidency that convinced a majority of us to unionize. The Board's resistance to reality did not help. For about 2 years there was hard times for the Board and Edison. Why is it that a board acts as if those who do the work of the school—we who work face to face with students—are untrustworthy? What does that say about what you think of our students? When a group of those who deal directly with them meets and overwhelmingly says something is very wrong, that should be a warning flag, unless you think that teachers are morally and intellectually less than the President.

From the reaction you all made when you heard of the Senate's vote of no confidence, you thought it was a selfish reaction to Yowell's plan to send out lay-off notices, and that it came out of nowhere. Yowell's action was profoundly stupid and mean spirited, but the Senate's confidence in his leadership was very low before this action. You'd maybe have known this if your evaluation of his work was important enough to warrant some analysis beyond what he and his sycophants offer you. He does not lead for the good of the school, but to maintain his own position. And you soon got a taste of what his disrespectful leadership is like. At a recent board meeting, Jane Salisbury went through the motions of a report, giving you old information as if it was newly collected—essentially lying—and he commented that he put her up to it. He treats faculty and staff like this all the time, and apparently has no more respect for you.

Countless numbers staff hours that could have been put to much better use have been consumed by just such meetings over the years, the staff listening to his interminable nonsense. Faculty, who have some freedom of action, may leave these meetings openly disdainful, and other staff, who have no freedom, just have to hunker down. You have power the staff does not. He works for you, though it always looks the other way round.

Here are two examples of this waste. Years ago, when the North Hall was planned, Yowell and an architect decided that no longer would the Looney Road facade be the front of Edison. The new North Hall entrance would be. That necessitated the installation of a parking lot and the moving of the entrance road to the building—many hundreds of thousands of dollars. In his typical fashion—called visionary by some—this idea was presented as part of an overall plan that would help to transform Edison's image. It would bring on a new era at the way Edison faces its world.

Did anyone but Yowell and the architect really think that it was possible to change the public perception of what the front of the college really was? It is hard to think why. The building was built, the driveway was moved, and Looney Road stayed the front of the building, both to those of us who worked at the school, and to students and visitors. More to the point, some years later when Emerson Center—that monument to empty space—was built that parking lot was removed, and more money was spent on the driveway. No one with authority called Yowell on this.

Maybe the driveway example is obscure. The Strategic Enrollment Management initiative, SEM, however is more illustrative. Yowell announced this initiative in his typical fashion at one Fall convocation. It was going to be another transforming thing—for years he announced stuff at these meetings that would change Edison as we knew it. But when we got started, SEM, minus Yowell's hyperbole, looked to be a good thing. The second floor, where I spent my time, was excited. It was the beginning of internet researching, and we were all learning how to navigate around the net, and about college enrollment. We heard from one another about what the other committees were doing, and leaning, and planning. It was interesting, and we were looking forward to hearing more. But it all ended in November—three months to change Edison as we know it. There was a kind of academic fair in the Atrium, and that ended all the effort, and all the hope. Committee work stopped, and we barely heard of it again. Just a colossal waste of time and opportunity, and a poignant demotivator to boot. But that is Yowell's general modus oparendi as a leader in a nut shell. Big hype, but no follow through.

Others on the Illuminator Blog have commented about how dysfunctional this school is. But that only depends on what you think its function is. If it is to promote Yowell's glitzy lifestyle interests, it has been astoundingly successful. It absolutely provides him with great wheels, the ability to buy thousand dollar suits, security, the ability to travel, and not many onerous duties. As far as I can tell, travel is Edison's R and D. For all the travel the school has paid for, have you as a Board ever demanded a report and then followed through to see if there was implementation?

I have frankly been puzzled by your relationship to him for years. He advocates core values, has them published in the catalog and on the website, but publicly, and spectacularly violates them and you don't notice. What about those management letters. Did none of them give you, now and then, that uh oh feeling? Yowell is not Edison. He is not acting in Edison's interests. It is then up to you to—he works for you.

David Johnson

Edison Charter Professor of English and Snark Emeritus


Still Taking Notes said...

Amen to that, Professor Snark.

And these people have been paid very very well to behave in this manner!

Class of '04 said...

David, you sure have nailed this one with your thoughtful analysis of how most Edison people feel regarding the board and their hired leader of the college. It is confounding that the board doesn't seem to "get" who the boss is supposed to be. And, as well, to whom they should most look for guidance.

We have often heard that the real creed of ACCT is "at all costs protect your president." Perhaps this is where the mindset of board ownership by the president gets driven home. If that is the case, then funding for membership in ACCT must cease.